Can’t white people be terrorists?

It’s a couple of days old now, but you should still have a read of Juan Cole’s take on the Los Angeles airport shooting last Friday. His key point is the double standard in reporting on this sort of attack depending on whether or not the perpetrator is white:

Ultimately, [suspect Paul] Ciancia is depicted as a quiet and troubled loner, probably mentally unbalanced, and his right wing political commitments and conspiracy theories are not even mentioned. That put-upon “whites” in an America becoming majority multi-ethnic and multi-cultural have developed an extremist ideology centering on their betrayal at the hands of a government subordinating itself to a world dominated by non-whites is not deemed worthy of being part of the analysis.

It is worth considering this language because we know how he would have been treated in the press had he been Arab or Muslim. His ideology and what he had faith in would have taken precedence over his being a conspiracy theorist or mentally unbalanced. Likely the word “terrorist” would have appeared in the article.

I’ve written about this before. In July 2011, for example, following the Oslo massacre, I said this:

If we applied the same standards as we do to the “Islamists”, [Daniel] Pipes and many others would be under investigation today for “encouragement” of terrorism, or whatever vague word can be found in the anti-terror laws, and his books would be on their way to the Australian Classification Board, or worse.

Since then it seems things have only become worse. Our collective refusal to apply the term “terrorism” or any of its related apparatus to people who look like us contrasts sharply with our paranoia about foreigners, especially Muslims.

The point is not that the “troubled loner” narrative about someone like Ciancia is wrong – on the contrary, I think it’s probably quite accurate. But it represents a sort of charity (or amnesia) that we seem completely unable to extend to those of a Muslim background who engage in violence. If you don’t believe me, go back and read some of the coverage of the Boston marathon bombing earlier this year.

Conversely, most pundits seem to be in denial about the fact that there is, as Cole says, an “extremist ideology” on the American far right (whose tentacles extend to Europe and Australia as well), promoting the sort of lurid conspiracy theories that could well trigger violent reactions in a troubled mind. It’s a mirror image of the fundamentalist Islamic discourse that has given comfort and encouragement (even if unintentional) to the terrorists of al-Qa’eda.

That’s not an excuse for censorship. I think the test for what can be prosecuted as “incitement” should be very strict, and that someone like Alan Jones, for all his viciousness, fails to meet it.

But it remains the case that dangerous extremism has been admitted to the mainstream of the right in a way that we would be all too sensitive to if it happened in any other group. That’s a double standard that deserves more scrutiny.


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