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What’s Wrong With Laughing & Labeling Oregon Militants ‘Terrorists’

Militants have taken over the headquarters for a a national wildlife refuge in Oregon. The militants took control of the federal building in the afternoon on January 2 and, thus far, United States law enforcement agencies have not removed them.

Comedian Hari Kondabolu quips, “These men are armed with guns and white skin.” He also adds, “Apparently, what these armed maniacs are doing was not discovered in all that surveillance of mosques.”

There are others, who have made similar funny remarks. Cliff Schechter, a Daily Beast columnist, suggests, “Could be much worse. Could be group of 12 year-old African American kids wielding toy guns in Oregon. Then we’d use napalm.” And various others believe they are clever as they compose variations of, when will leaders in the White community renounce this violence?

I have a joke of my own. Good thing these militants aren’t in North Waziristan. Otherwise, President Kill List would have an armed drone flying over their heads faster than one could say white caliphate.

However, there is one issue with all of this humor: it is predicated on concepts of identity, which are reinforced through disproportionate actions of the State.

The language is a product of understandable frustration and cynicism toward a government, which fails to apply a system designed to fight “terrorism” equally against all people regardless of their skin color or religion. It is rooted in a powerlessness, a recognition that there is no movement to meaningfully unravel a system, which fuels the disparity in law enforcement. But the target appears to be the government for failing to criminalize all people to the same extent as the government would criminalize brown or black people, who engaged in similar acts.

Most of the population, especially those who are politically engaged, have come to expect that in the fight against terrorism security agencies will engage in hyper-surveillance, crackdowns on dissent through riot patrols, an expansion of the use of force by police against citizens, violations of due process rights,disruption of dissident groups through entrapment, etc. There will be an overall lack of accountability for government personnel and officials involved in such actions.

When these tools are not wielded in response to violence, it is astonishing to those who have spoken out against civil liberties violations perpetrated by the security state. Whether out of fear or out of an urge to appear as if one is taking a principled stand in support of marginalized groups typically impacted by disproportionate response, people reflexively agitate against the lack of response from the government.

One popular tweet from Sikh writer and human rights lawyer Arjun Sethi encapsulates this reaction:

Similarly, Wajahat Ali argues in a column for The Guardian, “If the Oregon militiamen were Muslim or black, they’d probably be dead by now.”

“If Bundy and his followers were like the 38% of Americans who aren’t white, people across America wouldn’t be watching this surreal, dangerous episode unfold and wondering what they could do to be labeled a ‘militia’ when occupying a federal area with guns instead of ‘terrorists,’ ‘thugs,’ ‘extremists,” or ‘gangs,'” Ali adds.

Ali makes a case for dealing with violent right-wing extremism, like what the world is witnessing in Oregon right now. He concludes, “Extremism comes in different colors, ethnicities, beards and head coverings – which is why racial profiling cannot protect us from all extremist violence. Maybe it’s time for politicians and law enforcement to acknowledge inconvenient truths and confront the extremists with ‘American’ names and grievances as they would any other.”

Especially because of their Muslim and Sikh backgrounds, Ali and Sethi can make such arguments with great integrity. Muslims, Sikhs—and more generally American Arabs—have seen upticks in the number of acts of violence directed at their communities since the September 11th attacks. It recently has become worse since the attacks in Paris and the San Bernardino shooting. One of the militants fueling the wildlife refuge occupation is Jon Ritzheimer, who is a prominent leader of armed protests against Muslims which target mosques in the U.S.

Ritzheimer and others like him, such as Pamela Geller, spread their fear of Muslims and brown-skinned people. The hysteria created reinforces the most abhorrent policies in the U.S. government’s War on Terrorism and vice versa. The government needs people like Ritzheimer to agitate against Muslims and Arabs so that it can continue to pursue imperial ambitions in Middle Eastern and North African countries and expand the national security state.

Nevertheless, does someone like Ali really want politicians or law enforcement “confronting” white militants in the same manner in which people from the Muslim, Sikh, or American Arab communities are treated? Do they want FBI agents to be crawling all over establishments in white working class and poor towns listening for chatter that can be manipulated into evidence of a predisposition to commit criminal activity? Do they want extraordinarily harsh sentences and abusive detention in U.S. prisons for right-wing extremists?

If the use of force against Black Lives Matter protests or Occupy encampments was outrageous and if the execution of black men by law enforcement in anti-drug SWAT raids or by patrolling officers is abominable, what sense does it make to joke about the government’s failure to deploy force? Do people engaged in this expression want the FBI to deploy armed agents to mount a charge against the wildlife refuge headquarters and kill the militants in order to regain control?

Finally, it is striking how “terrorism” is the lens, which so many people on the left wish to process what is unfolding. It is as if this is the only way people know how to make sense of insurrection or extremism. There are even amusing hashtags born from the idea that the militants in Oregon are a white version of the Islamic State. (*Note: This is similar to humor about GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump and his supporters being white ISIS.)

Vox contributor David Roberts posted a roundup:

The thrust behind these hashtags is the white militants should be labeled “terrorists,” and law enforcement should recognize who they are dealing with are not “patriots.” But this serves the interests of the security state. To the extent that political support for wielding tools against people who are like these militants grows, the apparatus that perpetuates the War on Terrorism can generate new tentacles.

This reflexive urge to view all developments, particularly those involving violence, through the lens of “terrorism” should be questioned vigorously. The desire to label acts “terrorism” in order to bring some kind of equality to the application of force by law enforcement should be shunned as well.

“Terrorism” has no fixed meaning. It is a political term with tremendous propaganda value to the government when it is wielded. When we debate why this is not considered “terrorism,” this is a discussion that helps sustain the status quo. It further enables the State to engage in authoritarian practices against the population. Instead of clamoring for the government to label white extremists as “terrorists,” the whole concept of “terrorism” should be made obsolete.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

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