The XX Factor

Terror, Right and Left

On May 30 several men and a woman broke into an Arizona trailer, killing 9-year-old Brisenia Flores and her father. This weekend three people were arrested for the murder, two of whom are leaders of the Minutemen American Defense, an anti-illegal immigrant group not connected with the Minuteman Project. Here’s one of the accused on his web site:

“I take a very hard line with drugs and illegal immigration. Make no bones about it, I have a zero tolerance for terrorists, and that is what they are.”

It would not have occurred to your average anti-immigration activist, before 9/11, to describe Mexican families seeking honest work as “terrorists.” Nor would it have occurred to liberals to call the Minutemen themselves “precursors of domestic terrorism.” Yet George Bush used this rhetorical device so successfully, and so pervasively, that it has now become standard to characterize any violent person with potentially politically motives as representing some larger terrorist threat. James von Brunn was declared a terrorist hours after he murdered a guard at the Holocaust Museum. Dayo points out , as has Ann Friedman, that Tiller’s killer might be deemed a terrorist.

These men are terrorists, but I don’t know that shouting “terrorist” from the rooftops gives us any insight into the causes of violence. The word “terrorism” is rhetorically useful precisely because it’s substantively vacuous. Bush used accusations of terrorism to render complex political situations black and white, to dehumanize entire nations, and to demonize a class of people rather than merely those responsible for an atrocity. He used it to drive any semblance of complexity from the conversation. Like “industry,” as in “abortion industry,” the word terrorism is meant to trigger thoughts of a coordinated conspiracy rather than individual action, Manichean morality tales rather than nuance, an amorphous glop of evil rather than gut-wrenching individual stories. As blogger IOZ puts it in a discussion of Tiller’s-killer-as-terrorist , this kind of rhetoric exists to remove any given crime “from the ordinary processes of criminal law and sanction, which are already quite draconian in these United States.” The men at Guantanamo, we were told, weren’t among those deserving of basic legal protections; they were alleged terrorists after all, and everyone knows you can’t use normal interrogation techniques with terrorists .

What does the left gain by calling a lone gunman an agent of right-wing terror? I think it obscures more than illuminates, but I don’t know that it’s an ineffective political strategy. The right has been extremely successful in adopting a leftist rhetoric of victimization. No surprise, then, when the left finds use for a rightest rhetoric of militarism.