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San Bernardino And The Urge To Label Mass Violence As Terrorism

Editor’s Note

Update: 10:45 AM ET The following was written before the authorities identified the San Bernardino shooters. It is now known that Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik showed up to a Christmas party at a California health department after some kind of dispute. The man and woman had rifles, handguns, and were wearing “assault-style” clothing. Both were killed by police forces, which responded to the mass shooting.

Authorities are not calling this “terrorism,” even as right-wing politicians like Ted Cruz utter nonsense like this proves we are “at a time of war” and hysteria against people with Middle Eastern-sounding names is whipped up by reactionary pundits. And much of what was written still applies because it specifically deals with how people in America react in the immediate hours after a mass shooting.

Another shooting. This time the violence is in San Bernardino, California. We do not know the final death toll, but at the moment, 14 people are reported dead and 14 reported wounded. It is the second shooting to occur today, after a gunman in Georgia killed a woman and injured three men. It comes on the heels of the attack on Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs last week. It is the 355th shooting this year in the United States.

Let’s call it what it should be called: a massacre. Reports are that three men with “long guns” entered the Inland Regional Center social services building. Police say they were on a “mission.” The FBI is uncertain if it was “terrorism,” however, the San Bernardino police chief said at minimum this is a “domestic terrorism-type situation,” which basically translates into ‘we don’t at the moment think Muslims did this.’

Immediately, while viewing the reaction to the massacre on social media, I recalled strong commentary by Roqayah Chamseddine, which was published on November 29, in response to the reaction to the Planned Parenthood attack.

“Some of the best commentary social media had to offer was in the form of increasingly smug and hollow sarcasm—a cyclic outbreak of facetious questions in regards to the shooter’s religious history, his racial background, and who will condemn his actions,” Chamseddine wrote.

The response is slightly different because the attack does not appear to have a religious fundamentalism dimension, but everyone is pointing out that if a Muslim commits violence, it is terrorism. If a white person commits violence, it is because of mental illness.

As Chamseddine eloquently articulated, “Using Muslims as a way in which to highlight the establishment media’s perpetual whitewashing of various crimes and criminals by then legitimizing the abuses they face has to be one of the most incompetent and profoundly disadvantageous methods in which to do so.”

“And this is putting it mildly. Other than feeding into what amounts to pompous social justice methodology this type of sarcasm does absolutely nothing to address systematic concerns, which go well beyond media fabrications.”

Chamseddine continued, “The media is comprised of those who are nothing more than ornamented stenographers to power. Yet rarely are distinct policies examined by those said to be champions of social justice— not at local, national, and especially not at an international level as most of these social justice performance artists are thoroughly US-centric in their world view.”

“Instead, we are all forced to endure performative crowing by the same actors who are after spikes in their follower counts by repeating the same vacuous gibberish, because they know it works. This type of passive, amateurish routine is what has built their brand,” Chamseddine concluded.

Take the discussion a step further. Many of the people using smug and hollow sarcasm are well-meaning individuals, who recognize the disparity in the response to violence by Muslims or brown-skinned people versus the response to violence by white people, who sometimes are militia-types or right-wing Christians.

The problem is not the humor. There is nothing inherently wrong with responding to violence with irony or satire, if that is how one chooses to immediately react. But the problem is this desire to point out that white people are not being treated as terrorists like Muslims or brown-skinned people when terrorism is a political term with amorphous meaning.

Journalist Glenn Greenwald has spent numerous posts highlighting how “terrorism” is a “completely malleable, manipulated, vapid term of propaganda that has no consistent application whatsoever.”

Greenwald has described how it has now “fixed meaning” and is now “central to our political culture and legal framework, a staple of how we are taught to think about the world.” Applied to the massacre in San Bernardino, we immediately want officials to refer to it as “terrorism,” as if massacre or even mass shooting is not a strong enough term for the violence perpetrated.

For those who claim to be against Islamophobia, it is as if labeling a massacre by gunmen who were not Muslim as “terrorism” proves a point. It supposedly demonstrates authorities have established a domestic security culture and apparatus specifically aimed at Muslims and brown people. It shows white people can commit terrorism too, and the apparatus should be directed at white people as well and not just people of color.

However, insinuating this perspective through 140-character tweets avoids a key issue, which is the rampant and flagrant abuse committed in the name of a War on Terrorism, particularly since the 9/11 attacks.

The state-sponsored acts of hyper-surveillance, ubiquitous “homeland security,” greater detention powers, torture, erosion of due process rights, entrapment, crackdowns on dissent, clampdowns on whistleblowers, attacks on transparency, drone attacks, expanded warfare, and more have all unfolded in the name of fighting terrorism.

This has disproportionately impacted Muslims or brown-skinned people and numerous Americans believe a certain sect of people are programmed or more prone than others to commit violence, but is the answer to have government—and the media—expand the posture toward all Muslims or brown-skinned people to every instance of mass violence, regardless of the people involved? Or does this feed into increased militarization and/or securitization of society?

Do we need “terrorism” when we already have words like massacre, assault, slaughter, and violence to describe ghastly acts committed by human beings, all of which are good enough to capture the horror?

Chamseddine’s pointed commentary directs us to the answer: We should work toward making the term “terrorism” obsolete altogether because it is politically charged, has no fixed meaning, and enables the state to wield so much power over us.

And, for those who must respond to violence with sarcasm or some kind of other more sophisticated form of humor, the message probably should not be why aren’t white people treated more like this group of people society so often stigmatizes. It should be aimed at demolishing the whole concept of “terrorism,” which sadly defines so much about how we interpret our world.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."