words matter

Orlando, race, and the meaning of terror

Charleston County Sheriff's Office, CBS

One thing is clear about American politics in light of the massacre in Orlando: Muslims who commit mass acts of violence are easily and immediately deemed terrorists. White people who do the same thing are not.

The mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub revealed the subtle biases in the language that public officials use to define terror and who is eligible to perpetrate it.

It was a matter of hours on Sunday before local authorities and national politicians began labeling Omar Mateen, the gunman, an Islamic terrorist. In some cases the label was applied even before law enforcement officials began telling reporters that Mateen had pledged allegiance to ISIS during the attack.

His Muslim name and Afghan ethnicity were enough to make that call.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., condemned “this heartbreaking act of terrorism.” Mentioning Mateen’s “Afghan heritage,” former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee warned “self-hating liberals” of worse to come if they do not realize the dangers of “radical Islam.” Even more pronounced in his language was Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas: From 9/11 to the Boston Marathon, from Fort Hood to Chattanooga, from San Bernardino to last night’s horrific attack in Orlando, radical Islamic terrorism has declared jihad on America.”

Last year, however, few politicians used the word “terrorist” to describe Dylann Roof, who murdered nine people in a black church in Charleston, South Carolina. Rubio’s first response was to say that he was “saddened by the news from Charleston.” Cruz’s statement the next day did not mention terror. He was making gun jokes within a week.

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina described Roof as “one of these whacked-out kids,” and Gov. Nikki Haley expressed bafflement as to his motivation. Roof had expressed hatred for black people, and was photographed burning an American flag and proudly holding a Confederate one.

Why the difference in treatment between Mateen and Roof?

“The word ‘terrorist’ is being used here to turn our attention away from the deep-seated hatreds that animate American public life,” Eddie Glaude, a professor of religion and African-American studies at Princeton University, told me.

“Dylann Roof gives us an example of how racism might evidence itself in extreme violence, and the way in which (politicians) contained it was by talking about him. ‘He’s crazy. That’s the problem.’ So there was a way to contain it so it doesn’t become an occasion for us to reflect on how profoundly racist this society still is.”

Essentially, describing Roof’s actions as terrorism would have been an indictment of America itself.

“Recognizing acts of terrorism requires action by the state, and I think that is something many white politicians don’t conceive of as possible when violence is inflicted against black people,” Chad Williams, an associate professor and chairman of the Department of African and Afro-American Studies at Brandeis University, told me. “It’s much easier, given the makeup of our political racial climate, to demonize Muslims and to transform that into political talking points.”

In the 24 hours after the Orlando attack, media reports were full of questions about how Mateen might have been radicalized. But little was discussed a year ago about how homegrown racism had radicalized Roof. The Confederate flag came down in a lot of places, but only a after careful weighing of hatred against “heritage.”

“I had to read about Anne Frank as a little black girl in New Orleans. I was made to empathize with her, but never being taught slave narratives,” Yaba Blay, a professor of political science at historically black North Carolina Central University, told me. “And I show (my students) images of a Confederate flag. And we have conversations about Southern pride. We’re very clear about what the swastika represents and how there is no gray area. If someone walks in with a swastika, we’re not talking about free speech. But when we see the Confederate flag, all of a sudden it is up for discussion.”

No one is challenging the sheer brutality of what happened in Orlando. It is possible to be fueled by hate and seek to sow terror at the same time. But the language of whom to deem a terrorist and why is very much a political decision. What is deemed terror against America and Americans, and what is deemed to have radicalized someone to perpetrate it?

L’lerrét Ailith, a trans black woman, put the Pulse shootings in perspective for me during a phone call on Sunday night. While she views Mateen’s actions as terror, she blames American politicians’ anti-LGBT legislation and rhetoric, which she believes acted as a form of American radicalization of the young man.

“These black and brown trans people had probably been forced out of their homes because of anti-LGBT sentiments, forced out of opportunities to get jobs and society in general,” said Ailith, who manages communications for BYP100, a black millennial social justice organization. “And when they have one pocket where they can celebrate themselves and their resilience, they’re murdered. And these officials aren’t holding themselves accountable for perpetuating these sentiments for folks like the person who murdered these individuals.”

She has a point. While Cruz tweeted condolences to the victims, he has also opposed every legislative measure that would grant LGBT people equal rights and protections. He said that for the U.S. Supreme Court to rule in favor of gay marriage was “an act of naked and lawless judicial activism.”

Across the country, the same Republican politicians who offered “thoughts and prayers” for the Orlando victims are pushing anti-transgender “bathroom bills” and so-called religious freedom laws. These actions not only fuel anti-LGBT sentiment; they could very well help inspire someone like Mateen to go into a gay club and kill people.

It is not a stretch. Gordon Klingenschmitt, a homophobic pastor and member of the Colorado House, said in 2014 on his local TV show that gay people “want you to disobey God so that you go to hell with them.” When Scott Roeder killed a doctor who performed abortions, in 2009, he claimed he was “born again” after watching the conservative Christian show “The 700 Club.” The Southern Poverty Law Center once identified at least 18 anti-gay Christian groups that it claims function as hate groups.

Why aren’t we engaged in a conversation about “Christian extremism”?

Because engaging in one would mean that America would no longer be able to focus on Islam or people in the Middle East as the only threats to the fabric of American security. It would have to focus on itself. Taking a critical look at American hate-mongering through anti-gay legislation, lax gun laws that allow people like Mateen to legally own weapons, and symbols like the Confederate flag would force this country to ask whether it is dispensing its own style of propaganda against its own people.

The reality is that America is not ready to face the ugliness of racism, homophobia, and indifference to life in favor of loose gun laws. Right now, focusing on Islam as inherently violent is more comforting.