The colour of violence often dictates what and who qualifies as a threat to national security. In the United States, the list of dangers to national security and the American way of life is topped by an Islamic menace, but excludes the proliferation of white supremacist groups. This movement not only openly espouses racist and xenophobic goals, but has also effectively executed the most savage attacks on innocent Americans during this past year.
In the American imagination there is a one-dimensional portrait of terrorism – one that adorns turbans, beards, and brown skin. However, white terrorism, driven by racial supremacy and xenophobia, should rank as the greatest threat to national security in America today.
The recent attack in Oak Creek, and the mosque burnings across the country are evidence that white supremacy is far more than merely a veiled threat, but a realised one.
There is little that is more American than viewing a blockbuster release on its opening night. Scores of teenagers waited anxiously for their seats in Aurora, Colorado’s Century 16 Movie-Plex on Friday, July 20, and filed into the full theatre. Among the crowd of moviegoers was James Holmes, a 24-year old graduate student armed with a semi-automatic rifle, a shotgun, and a pistol. Holmes, who the FBI stated had “no ties to any terrorist groups”, was prepared and poised to kill innocents. And he did so, only miles away from the Columbine tragedy of 1999, executing twelve and injuring 58.
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The national news sweep that followed the Aurora massacre was saturated with headlines calling it an “American tragedy”, yet silent on branding it precisely what it was – an act of terrorism. Americans of colour, particularly Muslim, Middle Eastern, South Asian and African-Americans, collectively questioned what the tenor of the news coverage would sound like if Holmes was Muslim or Black, and also, if the media storm would have reached national proportions if the majority of the victims were not white.
The questions of these viewers were answered, in large part, nearly two weeks later after a white supremacist killed eight Americans inside a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin.
Weeks later, Wade Michael Page entered the Gurdwara Temple in Oak Creek on August 5 with a premeditated agenda to kill Americans. The congregation of worshippers, like the moviegoers in Aurora, could never imagine or anticipate that their lives would be in jeopardy as they were steeped in prayer. Page, a forty-year old tattoo-clad Army veteran who played with white supremacist heavy metal bands with the names “Definite Hate” and “End Empathy”, trespassed into the Temple with a gun and a heart full of hate.
Wade saw turban and beard-clad Americans. They fit neatly, but fallaciously, into the constructed caricature of the Muslim threat. His victims were Sikh. For Page and the white supremacist and xenophobic ideals he represented, the religion or ethnicity of the victims was negligible compared to the markers of difference they believe justifies violence. They were not white, and according to his worldview, not American, regardless of the taxes they paid, the votes they cast, and the contributions to the country they made. The ultimate aim was of course to terrorise, to spread fear, in furtherance of a political vision of a white America.
The media reporting that followed the Gurdwara attack eerily echoed the nativist sentiment of Page. Unlike the massacre in Aurora, the massacre of the six Sikh Americans did not qualify as an “American tragedy”, and the scope of the coverage did not reach national proportions.
What they had in common was that for the mainstream American media, the label of terrorism was again unapplied.
When terrorism isn’t terrorism
A premeditated onslaught on innocent Americans in spaces deemed untouchable havens from violence, particularly a place of worship like the Gurdwara Temple, are events that would typically generate widespread social alarm, political attention, and surely, news attention. However, the media coverage was largely local and scant, and Page’s racist and xenophobic crimes were not labelled as terrorist acts.
The colour of the victims in Wisconsin rendered the Gurdwara attack an aberration, while the whiteness of the murdered and injured in Aurora propelled it into a national tragedy. While the race of the culprits and victims are highly predictive of how terrorist acts are labelled, politicised, and most critically, covered in the news, what is more telling is how the media illustrates white supremacist violence versus the aggression of identifiable Muslim groups.
White supremacist groups and actors, like Page, are styled as marginal – or mavericks – who carry out murderous acts outside and apart from a broader political agenda. While this is clearly not the case, given the universal nativist aims of white supremacist groups and their kindred animus toward Muslims, Jews, Blacks and any and every American who does not hail from a WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) background – little has been done to vilify their activity as a unique existential threat in the way that foreign political violence is treated as. While such hate groups have not taken on a single act of violence as prominent at the 9/11 attacks, historically, their acts of violence have been far more destructive and politically impactful. Thousands of lynching and hate crime victims, assassinated leaders and intimidated minorities are proof of their terrorism.
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On the other hand, mosques and Muslim-Americans groups of every stripe are branded as prospective terrorist cells or networks. Therefore, systematic, well-resourced, and focused law enforcement attention – evidenced best by the NYPD’s fruitless hovering over metropolitan New York Muslim community – is dedicated to policing a segment of America that has not carried out anything that resembles the attack in Aurora or Oak Creek.
While Muslim-Americans are policed to the teeth, white supremacist groups have operated with relative freedom and impunity. The lack of policing, and indeed, media attention, created a fertile landscape for their proliferation, and as evidenced in Oak Creek on August 5 and the burning of a mosque in Joplin, Missouri a day later, a realisation of their racist and xenophobic agenda.
Definitions of threat are marked along racial and religious lines. After the 9/11 attacks, Muslim-American communities were victimised by domestic and international policies that chased down an Islamic threat that jeopardised national security inside and outside American boundaries. Governmental policing of Muslim-Americans, and those perceived to be Muslim, emboldened racist and xenophobic elements of the US – particularly white supremacist groups – to wreak their own brand of terror on a doubly-victimised segment of the American population.
During the war on terror, white supremacists were given less scrutiny by both local and federal police, while their victims – Muslims and non-Muslims – endured state-sponsored profiling and vilification. Sadly, the cost of myopic, flawed focus is an uptick white supremacist terror.
The political conventions of the past week both warned of “future attacks” and “threats to national security”, referring to Islam, immigrants, and the same band of familiar culprits to stir up their bases. However, no mention was made of the white and white supremacist terror that claimed the lives of innocent Americans in Oak Creek, and burned down and vandalised mosque after mosque.
Neglecting to police, let alone monitor, this new threat to national security will indeed bear more massacres, swell up unrestrained racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, and regardless of the media headlines, bring about more “American tragedies”.
Khaled A Beydoun is Adjunct Faculty and the Critical Race Studies Teaching Fellow at the UCLA School of Law. He is a native of Detroit.
Follow him on Twitter: @Legyptian