We do not know much really about this weekend’s attack at LAX, so it is really too soon to speculate. However, it is not too soon to think about a key dynamic that may play out here. The first indications seem to be that the perpetrator affiliated himself with far right-wing extremist conspiracy theorists. The Southern Poverty Law Center puts the references to NWO and fiat currency* into context within the explosion of extremist groups that occurred at the same time as both an economic meltdown and the election of black president. So, we might be considering this guy a terrorist, but given the reports that his family considered him to be potentially suicidal, it is more likely he will be seen as a crazy person than a terrorist. That, and, well, we have tended over the past ten or so years to think of terrorists only being those who are Muslim.
*Perhaps part of the reason we treat the far-right folks with less seriousness is that their obsessions are so strange. We have had “fiat currency” — paper money — for a hundred years. Time to get over it, eh?
We know better than that — there has been much terrorism over the years in the US by people who are not Muslim but are Puerto Ricans, African-Americans, Jews, Croatians, anarchists, Armenians, anti-abortionists, environmentalists, and, of course, white folks such as Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. The strange thing is that we tend to consider most of the non-Muslims folks not as terrorists, but as crazy and as criminals. The question: Is this a problem or a feature of American democracy? Is this just a feature of post 9/11 America?
One take on this is: It religious discrimination when Muslims have become viewed as the only “real” perpetrators of terrorism. This, of course, would be a problem. It does seem pretty clear from the discourse after each event that those involving Muslims are seen as terrorism rather than as acts of crazy, random people. Those who kill in the name of Christianity or in the name of white supremacy are not seen as terrorists. Timothy McVeigh might be considered differently today.
Another take on this is, when thinking about white supremacists and other far right folks, that these acts are criminal acts and not political ones. If we treat the crimes of these people, the white nationalists, anti-government folks, as political, then one might have to code the US as facing an insurgency; that there is a political movement in the US using unconventional tactics to attack the political system; that we are in the midst of a civil war. That would seem to be worse than treating the situation as a bunch of crazy people with crazy theories about the political system and treating the problem as a criminal one. Following the latter strategy probably makes Americans feel better than acknowledging the reality that there is a bit more unity and coherence among a certain brand of “crazy people” who focus on the United Nations, black helicopters, and other common memes and themes of the far right.
To be sure, there is significant politics affecting this stuff as the more ordinary right-wing politicians do not want the further right-wing folks to be considered terrorists. Government analyses of such folks are “politically motivated” even if, well, the far right has killed more Americans via terrorism in the United States since 9/11 than terrorists tied to Islam.
Anyway, the question that I started with is this: Is the coding of much terrorism as crime rather than as terrorism a feature of American democracy or a bug? When we think about places like Iraq and Afghanistan, the idea was not to turn them into Norway but to reduce opposition to the government from insurgencies threatening the entire political order into lower levels of violence that could be considered a criminal problem rather than a major political crisis. So, in this light, treating the radical right violence as a criminal problem is actually a feature, a positive thing, about the American political system — they are so marginal that they are not treated seriously as a political movement.
Of course, the flip-side of this is that we discriminate against Muslims and do diminish the threat of white nationalism and radical right movements. So, I am conflicted. I am not sure I want this latest violence to be seen as terrorism but I am not sure I don’t want it to be seen as terrorism.
To paraphrase from the constructivists, violence is what we make of it. So, what should we make of the LAX attack? And of other attacks by folks with “crazy” far right leanings?
A version of this piece was first published at the author’s blog.