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Whose terror, whose pain?

A society being consumed in a single narrative is detrimental in a variety of ways.

Last Modified: 26 Apr 2013 09:37
Zillah Eisenstein

Zillah Eisenstein has written feminist theory in North America for the past thirty years. She is an internationally renowned writer and activist and Distinguished Scholar of Anti-Racist Feminist Political Theory at Ithaca College, Ithaca, New York.
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"It is significant that the bombing in Boston is seen as a national tragedy while the explosion in West, Texas, was barely mentioned in the mainstream news," writes Eisenstein [AFP]

Who gets to say what terror"ism" is? Terror and its trauma exists in too many places with too much heartbreak - in wars, random accidents, rapes, bombings and plant explosions; in tsunamis and earthquakes, in mass shootings and gang wars. 

Terror when an "ism" is always politically loaded. When Obama went on national television to speak about the bombings at the Boston Marathon it became an act of terror"ism" even though he was careful to not use the term. It became an assault against the nation even though not much was known of the bombers or their reasons. The President both oversaw the grieving and also in part constructed the narrative. Think of all the other moments of "terror" that do not receive his public attention. And, the Flag at the White House was set at half-mast. 

The media coverage of the past week has pretty much been a single story; and Chimamanda Adichie has warned of the dangers of the single story. We become focused narrowly and assume too much without knowing that we are doing so. The Boston tragedy became singular - both in terms of its painfulness and also its exceptionalism. But sadly, random violence and the terror and heartbreak it creates exist repeatedly across this globe, as well as in the US, daily. Chicago schoolchildren face violence and death; as do the children of Afghanistan and Iraq. Innocence has nothing to do with whether you are lucky enough to stay safe or not. 

Texas explosion

Just shortly after the Boston terror-filled day of April 15, a massive explosion engulfed the fertiliser plant in West, Texas. The town was devastated - 80 homes damaged and its school blasted to smithereens. Fourteen were killed with over 200 seriously injured. The plant housed dangerous amounts of ammonium nitrate. It stored 1,350 times more of the nitrate than legal as defined by the Department of Homeland Security. 

Meanwhile, the plant had not been inspected by OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) since 1985. Texas is known for its singular bravado as anti-regulatory. And, OSHA has been downsized and crippled in its job for decades now by strong corporate forces on behalf of privatisation. Why are these corporations not called terrorists when they run factories, or oil rigs and mines, and slaughterhouses that maim and kill and cause toxic spills? What about the terror created in these instances? What of more than 4,500 deaths that occur each year in US factories, not to mention the thousands more injured and maimed on the job? 

 Boston bombing suspect charged

Also during this past week, the bipartisan "Report on Torture" was published by the Constitutional Project that confirms that the US government tortured detainees as part of the "war on terror". Is not the US government then terror"ist"? Why are the culprits here not held accountable? Instead Obama is on record saying that he will not look backward into these crimes. As I have said elsewhere the "war on terror" is really a "war of/on terror". 

One is reminded of the phrasing of Peter Ustinov: that a poor person's war is called terrorism; whereas a rich person's terror is called war. Nations can drop bombs and use drones to kill but somehow this story is not said to be part of the terror"ism" narrative. Prisoners are unjustly detained in Guantanamo and presently on a hunger strike and are forced fed and yet this too remains outside the single story line about terror"ism". 

In the past week, the airwaves and news outlets have been filled with grief about the three deaths and over 100 injured in the Marathon blasts. And, there is horrible sadness to be reckoned with here for the rest of a lifetime. But there is more than this single story as we go forward.

National tragedy

There has also been much talk of Boston's resilience and the determination of the American people to not let their freedoms be curtailed. The two suspects - the Tsarnaev brothers - are identified as from Chechnya and Muslim. Although this tells us little, once again a single story line emerges - the older brother especially was a practicing Muslim and with this a silent assumption is made about jihad and terror"ism". Yet, little is really known. 

It is significant that the bombing in Boston is seen as a national tragedy while the explosion in West, Texas, was barely mentioned in the mainstream news. What is the single story here? It is too simple to say that Boston is about the America everyone wishes to embrace - educated, healthy marathoners and the privileged - because Boston is also poor and working class and underserved. But West, Texas, does not even make it into the single story of the American Dream, even if more mythic, than real today. 

There are the events of this past week - both here in the US and abroad - and there are also the storylines that are now emerging. As the single storyline of terror"ism" continues we need to find and listen and tell the other complex stories. They will help us stand against the pressures of blind nationalism with its exclusiveness and exceptionalism. 

This means we need to carefully watch the directives of Human Rights Watch as they continue their attempt to protect the human rights of dissidents in Chechnya; and partake in the vigil for anti-fracking activists in New York State who are imprisoned for blocking access to building pipelines; and demand the end to terror at Guantanamo, while also making sure that the injured in Boston and West, Texas, have the assistance they need to pay their medical bills.  

The greatest terror threat today that interweaves with the varied and multiple stories being written and lived across the globe is the veracious appetite of greed that is causing endless suffering and hunger and poverty for millions of people everywhere. The bombs and explosions and rape might just lessen if we hold the real criminals and killers accountable. 

Zillah Eisenstein has written feminist theory in North America for the past 30 years. She writes in order to engage in political struggles for social justice across the globe. She is an internationally renowned writer and activist and Distinguished Scholar of Anti-Racist Feminist Political Theory at Ithaca College, Ithaca, New York. Her most recent books with Zed Press, London include: The Audacity of Races and Genders (2009); Sexual Decoys, Gender, Race and War (2007); and Against Empire (2004).

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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