November 14, 2018

Does History blur the Lines when it comes to Far-Right Attacks and Terrorism?

In the wake of the attacks in Pittsburgh and Tallahassee, as well as the mail bombs being sent to various Trump opponents in late October, some high-profile individuals in the United States again pertinently raised the question of what defines terrorism:

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ tweet diplomatically raises the issue of the “identity bias” that is often represented in pop culture by this long-standing Family Guy joke (and Twitter meme) from the episode “Turban Cowboy”:

Family Guy

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ question is a relevant one: With far-right terrorist attacks multiplying in western countries, why aren’t we “panicking” over this problem? Worse, why are we so dismissive about it? Is there such a thing as an identity bias when it comes to terrorism?

That the label “terrorism” is a highly subjective interpretation of violence has been well discussed and is now considered a given, notably with the expression “one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter”. But what happens when the moral perception is not as clear cut and the attacker is only “bad”? Do we make a difference for “one of us” compared to “one of them”? If so, does it affect whether or not a far-right political attack is labelled as terrorism?

Without dismissing the psychological and cultural factors, I believe part of the answer lies in the history of how many of these attacks are presented, including in pop-culture, and how this “historical perception” affects how we perceive and label terrorism. I will therefore try to answer Representative Ocasio-Cortez’ question from a historical perspective rather than a wholly psychological one.

Left-wing terrorists are cool, right-wing terrorists are crazy and foreign terrorists are dangerous.”

This is perhaps the easiest way to superficially describe the history of how terrorism has been portrayed since the early 20th century.

Looking at how left-wing terrorists are portrayed as a whole, it is very often with a moral high ground and personalities larger than life. Boris Savinkov was the toast of Paris’ intellectual circles in the 1920s and 30s; Hemingway, who promoted the international fighters brigades of the Spanish civil war – all of whom, by the way, would today be labelled “Foreign Terrorist Fighters – and “fought” alongside them, could be seen as the precursor of the “radical chic”; Carlos, Ulrike Meinhof, Terry Robbins, Paul Rose or Che Guevara, just to name a few, mesmerised with their tone and particular flamboyance. They killed people and supported terrorism but they found a way for either themselves or their organisations to become “mythical” in their lifetime. This was greatly helped by the fact that the far-left plays the “Robin Hood” card, i.e. present themselves as protectors of the oppressed masses, which operationally translated by mostly limiting their attacks against state structures and representatives as well as other figures of “oppression” such as bankers. This, combined with a prominent media and artistic platform, contributed to “disarming” the far-left threat perception in numerous western societies.

Interestingly, it could be argued that the far-left terrorism label is also impervious to the identity bias, as throughout the decades the fights for liberation – Palestine, Vietnam, Cuba, Quebec, Algeria and many other African countries – were also labelled under far-left due to their mostly Marxist orientations. The perpetrators’ country of origin appears to have played an extremely limited role in the threat perception because theoretically the oppressed share the same grievances.

Islamic terrorism does not benefit from the same perception privilege in the West. Way before 9/11, pop-culture was already defining Islamic terrorists as viable villains, alongside Russians, Germans and Irish terrorists as well as South American drug lords (just think of your favourite 80s or 90s action film – who is the villain?). I will admit that for years as a child I associated terrorism and the use of Volkswagen buses to Muslim and Libyan terrorists after watching Back to the Future (fortunately that changed growing up), and I know many who had that perception, which pop-culture – all the way down to wrestling – regularly reinforced.

Unfortunately, the above mentioned depiction developed some historical roots over the last five decades: The Iran hostage crisis in 1979; the terrorist attack on the Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland; and of course 9/11, just to name a few, all massively contributed to create a popular perception that Muslims and Arabs are a threat to the West. Additionally, by clearly describing western civilisation as the enemy and then acting on this by specifically targeting western countries through seemingly indiscriminate attacks, Islamic terrorists cannot benefit from a “moral high ground” in the West. Therefore, it could be argued that the “panic” surrounding Islamic terrorism is the product of permanent reinforcement sustained by news cycles, pop-culture, politics and terrorism itself, a situation that has yet to affect other channels of extremism.

The history of far-right terrorism on the other hand has always been very closely linked to mass shootings and people described as having psychological issues, proven or alleged. Furthermore, it is usually linked to individuals rather than organisations – with some notable exceptions – a factor that contributed to a perception that the far-right threat is somehow isolated and exceptional rather than a broader threat to society. This is depicted more often through Travis Bickle type of characters – which inspired the would be assassin of former US president Ronald Reagan – than a plotting organisation like far-left and Islamic extremists usually are.

As with Islamic terrorism, this depiction has some factual roots. If we take some of the most prominent far-right terrorism cases since 1995, they combined the two factors mentioned above:

  • Attack on Oklahoma City Federal building, USA, 1995
  • Attacks in Oslo and Utoya, Norway, 2011
  • Attack on Henriette Reker, Mayor of Cologne, Germany, 2015
  • Attack on Jo Cox, British MP, United Kingdom, 2016
  • Attack on Munich shopping centre, Germany, 2016
  • Attack on Quebec city mosque, Canada, 2017
  • Attack on Finsbury Park mosque, United Kingdom, 2017
  • Mail bombs plot, USA, 2018
  • Attack on Pittsburgh synagogue, USA, 2018

In all of these cases, far-right ideology played a key role in motivating the attacks but only two of these – Oklahoma City and the ones in Norway, were prosecuted as terrorism. While this often comes down to a legal technicality – the need to be part of an association, which means at least 3 people – there was also little interest in prosecuting these attacks as terrorism. Furthermore, the defence focused on the mental health of the accused as a mitigating factor – a major feature of the Bissonnette trial in Canada – rather than the motivation behind the attacks.

This “minimisation” of the far-right violence is further compounded by a different type of press coverage that includes many reports on mental health and violence when such attacks occur, which is seldom the case with Islamic terrorism, where media coverage focuses more on the motive of the attack. Finally, there is a general political reluctance to label far-right attacks as being terrorism even as the threat grows – as sadly witnessed in the United States, France or Germany, and alluded to in Ocasio-Cortez’ tweet – that contributes to the isolation of the far-right threat because it is seldom integrated in the broader security discourse. In fact, as I have argued regularly over the last decade, this situation is an enabling factor for far-right terrorism rather than a mitigating one and likely contributes to its increase, a hypothesis validated further by recent events related to Donald Trump.

Many factors have a role in defining an attack as terrorism: Politics, perception, MO, context – for example, would Marc Lépine have been considered an “Incel” in 1989? – values, legalities or claims. And as there is yet to be an objective definition or institution, defining terrorism will remain subjective and therefore highly contentious. Still, I fully agree with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ tweet that we need to start taking other terrorist threats just as seriously as we do Islamic terrorism. That is just as valid for the USA as it is for Germany, Canada, the UK, France or any other western state.

Whether the general reluctance to label far-right attacks as terrorism is based on an identity bias or on a historical pattern that has yet to be broken, it must change if we are to properly counter this threat. The current wave of far-right violence in the West is destabilising old perceptions and as the UK’s recent decision to give MI5 authority on investigating and tackling far-right crimes shows, some slowly understand the need for change. One wonders however, how many more attacks will occur, how many more signals will go unheeded and how many more people will die before others do the same. We waited too long before taking the threat of Islamic terrorism seriously and hundreds died. Let’s not repeat the same mistake with the far-right.

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