As you probably know, armed, self-described “militiamen” have occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Burns, Oregon in protest of the imprisonment of Harney County ranchers Dwight and Steve Hammond and in opposition to federal land management policies in the West.
Many on Twitter, and some in the news media, have insisted that we call these men—who told reporters Saturday that they’re willing to “kill or be killed” if necessary—domestic “terrorists.” To do otherwise, these commenters suggest, is to accept the dominant, racist paradigm in which only people of color and Muslims can ever be guilty of “terrorism.”
As a matter of rhetoric—a means of underscoring the racial hypocrisy of our anti-terror discourse—insisting that we call Ammon Bundy and other right-wing radicals “terrorists” has some value. As a matter of policy, however, it’s a dead end.
We seem to have forgotten that there are two distinct (albeit linked) problems with our “terror” discourse: One is that the term “terrorist” is prejudicially applied, almost exclusively used to target racial and religious minorities. The other is that our government preemptively detains, surveils, and extra-judicially murders those people we call “terrorists.” Calling attention to the first problem by no means remedies the second.
Those of us who oppose the crimes against humanity and constitutional principle undertaken under the aegis of “anti-terrorism” must be able to criticize the racist underpinnings of the term without abetting its proliferation.
The past year and a half has seen a significant advance in the racial understanding of American liberals: thanks largely to the persistent efforts of the Black Lives Matter movement and associated activism, more Americans than ever acknowledge that race plays an irreducible role in determining how people are treated by law enforcement, the criminal legal system, and the media. The horrific events of the past 16 months—from Ferguson to Staten Island to Cleveland to Charleston—have demonstrated with brutal clarity that while blackness continues to be associated in the American imagination with danger, criminality, and deviance; white skin often serves as a shield against brutality, conviction, even suspicion.
The mere fact that white supremacist mass murderer Dylann Roof was taken into police custody alive, while blameless 12-yr-old Tamir Rice was shot dead in a park, ought to shake any thoughtful, feeling American from their ignorance or complacency. But there is a crucial difference between pointing out, condemning, and interrogating this discrepancy and advocating, for example, that Dylann Roof ought to have been shot by police too.
Similarly, we must interrogate how the skin color of the Oregon occupiers protects them against the overblown police response that would likely greet similar actions by Muslims or black activists. But we must be able to do so without endorsing indiscriminate state violence—or suspicionless surveillance—as a legitimate response.
The world we want to live in—the one we should be fighting for—is one in which law enforcement treats every American’s rights and dignity with the care and concern now reserved for (armed) white men.
In calling for the forces of anti-terror to rain down upon Bundy and the larger militia movement, liberals forget that achieving an equitable tyranny is not the same as eliminating tyranny altogether. Achieving a world in which white criminal suspects are murdered with the same frequency as black ones—in which American Christians are subject to the same unconstitutional surveillance that now targets American Muslims—is not the same as achieving a world where police don’t commit extra-judicial murder or where everyone’s Fourth Amendment rights are respected.
The word “terrorism” today is deployed to justify surveillance, military intervention, and violations of due process. That is its purpose. Plain and simple. As a civil libertarian, I’m not interested in expanding the number of criminal acts for which constitutional rights can be suspended. I’m frankly surprised that so many self-understood liberals seem eager to do so.
In its ugliest guises—calling for National Guard intervention in Oregon, surveillance of Christian churches, even drone strikes against the Bundy group—this mentality bespeaks an infatuation with violent state power, a wholly illiberal admission that excessive state violence is acceptable insofar as it targets our political opponents.
And it’s precisely that infatuation, that comfort with vesting the state with the power and authority to kill, that has made necessary a mass movement against police brutality in America.
Photo Credit: Flickr, Gage Skidmore, Ammon Bundy, http://bit.ly/1S6VFaO.