When to Call a Terrorist a Terrorist: Fear and Foreign Policy

October 27th will live on in the memories of many Pittsburgh residents as a day filled with fear, rhetoric, and despair. As Robert Bowers planned his anti-Semitic attack, members of the Tree of Life Synagogue had no idea that their lives were about to be changed forever. Leaving 11 dead, and claiming hatred as a motivation, some have called this attack one motivated by pure evil and terror, yet many are still reluctant to label the perpetrator as a terrorist. Bowers, by all definitions of the term, has engaged in an act of terrorism.

The political motivations, the incessant nature of invoking fear within the public, and the religious underpinnings of the action, leads one to believe that Bowers is a terrorist. Why then has the Trump administration been so hesitant to label this act as one of terrorism?

The term “terrorism” seems to have been solely attributed to acts committed by foreign entities on domestic soil. The recent targeting of democrat leaders and media representatives in the US by sending pipe bombs throughout the country, as well as the van attack in Toronto earlier this year, are evidence of this. Both of these attacks involved invoking fear amongst the public with a goal of causing massive amounts of harm to those targeted. However, both of these attacks have been dismissed by officials as acts of hatred, dissent, and evil.

These events all have one thing in common: none were committed by a known terrorist group. All of these actions were perpetrated by individuals who exhibited extreme right-wing ideologies, misguided feelings of misogyny, and a slew of rhetoric targeting specific groups of people.

However, there has been a reluctance by officials to name any of these homegrown groups as perpetrators of terror. Since 9/11, it seems that officials only denounce certain actions as terrorism; usually actions involving foreign and domestic constituencies engaging in Islamic extremism. Now, I caution anyone to only label terrorist actions as those taken by Islamic groups, but it seems to reflect the government’s track record to only deem groups who have officially been labelled political enemies as enactors of terrorism.

Should it be said then that Canada and the US do not place enough focus on certain groups, and instead focuses solely on existential threats? In the wake of the Toronto van attack, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale made the statement that the actions of the “INCEL” movement did not pose a risk to national security. More recently, Donald Trump deflected most of the blame for the bomb threats and synagogue attacks towards, the media, stating that it is the culture of fear which they perpetrate that should be blamed for these atrocities. Both leaders neglected to label these individuals as terrorists.

The terrorist label is seemingly reserved for those deemed to threaten our national security. Most claims are made against Islamic State groups and other foreign entities. This creates an “us vs them” mentality, that fosters a sense of nationalism within the our states. In doing so, the focus of the public is diverted away from domestic entities who may be a threat, and instead direct our attention to specific groups that foster a unity within our country. It seems important to our political leaders to avoid divisive politics when our public safety is at risk.

Incidents like the Toronto van attack or the Synagogue shooting, actions committed by citizens against other citizens, are portrayed as a single person or small group of misguided individuals. They are not classified as terrorism, and although they invoke unity and national condemnation, these citizens are do not create a national call to arms to act against domestic, hate-filled groups.

In North America, government officials restrict most claims of terrorism to situations where it is seen as beneficial to invoke fear within the public. Targeting individuals with links to ISIL and other known terrorist organizations creates a sense of fear and panic, and allows for the public to see these groups as the enemy. No citizen wishes to condemn another as an enemy or existential threat, yet see no problem in placing these titles onto foreign entities deemed by the government to pose a risk to public safety.

Some argue that restricting the terrorist label to enemies of the state aides the government in enacting foreign policy. This is evident in George Bush’s war on terror, where he invoked fear amongst the public and the need to protect American lives from being harmed by the “other”. These sentiments were echoed in Canada with our decision to join forces in Afghanistan to eliminate terrorist cells. Politicians garnered large amounts of support for their foreign policies by appealing to the us vs them mentality and engaging in a war to protect our nation.

Another frequently cited argument is that politicians use fear and terrorism to solidify their positions of power and public support. Donald Trump used these tactics in his campaign, making great claims against terrorist groups and gaining an abundance of support through emphasizing protecting “us” and eliminating the “other”. Trudeau used these tactics as well, citing terrorism in Syria as a major focus of his administration, and the protection of the Canadian public against enemies of the state to hold the utmost importance.

Politicians seem to be shortsighted when making claims against terrorists. They condemn foreign actors and garner support to protect the national identity, yet ignore domestic groups and the dangers they pose to the public. The terrorist label is placed on non-nationals, and violence by citizens is pushed aside as simply the acts of the few. The actions are not weighed the same. The public emphasizes the protection of our borders and national security, and forgets about those back home who are frustrated, angry, and radicalized.

 

Matthew McSheffrey is an MA Candidate at the Norman Patterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. He has a Bachelor of Arts in Criminology and Criminal Justice, as well as a Minor in Law and Legal Studies from Carleton University. His focuses include Canadian foreign and domestic policy, international use of force, and international policing efforts.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia

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