Dylan Roof appears in court via video link in North Carolina. But why is he not called a "terrorist"? Photo: Grace Beahm-Pool/Getty Images
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When is a terrorist not a terrorist? When he’s a white man with a gun

Dylan Roof, Anders Breivik - these men aren't called "terrorists" because we're not allowed to fear white supremacy or male violence.

When is a terrorist not a terrorist? When he’s a white man, of course. Then he’s a lone wolf. Or a madman who couldn’t have been stopped. Or, most sympathetically, he’s the victim of a tragic mental illness.

In the days after Dylann Roof opened fire in a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, politicians and pundits wrestled with the question of whether he was a terrorist. The FBI’s James Comey said that Roof’s killings did not seem to be “a political act”. Yes, Roof – a man who posted a racist, neo-Nazi manifesto online, then walked into a church where a historic slave rebellion was once planned and informed the congregation that black people were “raping our women”.

There were similar debates about Anders Breivik, the Norwegian white supremacist who killed 77 people in 2011. Unlike Islamic extremists, he was given an open trial where his motives, manifesto and even his World of Warcraft obsession were explored in detail. The implication seemed to be that by probing hard enough, we could understand his actions. “To listen to it, you’d think Breivik had simply wanted to start a debate, that he’d perhaps written a provocative pamphlet for Demos, rather than committed an act of murderous cruelty,” noted Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian.

Contrast this with the treatment of Seifeddine Rezgui, the 23-year-old man who shot dead 38 people on a beach in Tunisia. Initially, there was wide-eyed wonder at how normal he seemed: he posted videos of himself breakdancing, and was fretting about Real Madrid even as he planned a massacre that he was unlikely to survive. But there will be no attempt to understand how this self-portrait squares with his actions, because Rezgui was an Islamic extremist. That’s what they do. Case closed.

Why are so many people in power quick to call Rezgui a terrorist, and yet agonise over whether the label applies to Dylann Roof and Anders Breivik? There are three reasons. First, the word creates a special category: terrorists are not just people who commit acts of terrorism but a breed apart. They are Others, who are “opposed to our way of life”, to use the constantly recurring phrase. That is why we are surprised to see a video of Rezgui breakdancing: Islamic extremists, we feel, should be . . . well, a little more Islamic.

Yet this flies in the face of the evidence. As Mehdi Hasan has noted in these pages, the 9/11 hijackers visited strip clubs in Las Vegas in the run-up to the attacks. Two men convicted of volunteering to fight in Syria last year bought Islam for Dummies on Amazon before setting out for jihad. In such cases, a politicised form of Islam acts as an “emotional vehicle” (in the words of the anthropologist Scott Atran) for existing feelings of alienation and anger; we cannot tackle one without trying to address the other.

Second, the label of “terrorist” is often a thought-stopping cliché that allows people to be declared Bad, not Mad or Sad. This is convenient, because it absolves the west of blame for terrorists operating in failed states it has helped to destabilise; for home-grown extremists, a generic invocation that “Muslims must speak out about the horrors done in their name” will suffice.

Finally, calling someone a terrorist carries the implication that Something Must Be Done – and, even more seductively, that Something Can Be Done. Could anyone have stopped Andreas Lubitz, the German­wings pilot who killed 150 passengers and crew by deliberately crashing a plane? We are dumbfounded that someone could carry out such an act without imbuing it with a message, a greater meaning. Such an act would be easier to process if Lubitz had an ideology that drove him to do something so despicable, yet all the evidence suggests he did not. This leaves us feeling powerless. And if we applied the Something Must Be Done philosophy to Roof, the uncomfortable conclusion would be that the United States needs to confront the structural racism that permeates it as a legacy of slavery. (“White people must speak out about the horrors done in their name.”)

This would involve rather more than taking down the Confederate flag – although that’s a good start. In a magisterial essay last year, the Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates made the case for reparations, showing how Jim Crow laws created a legacy of segregated housing, leaving black Americans more vulnerable to the predations of sub-prime lenders. “Plunder in the past made plunder in the present efficient,” he wrote. “The banks of America understood this.”

Violent masculinity ranks alongside white supremacy as a social force that is too painful to address. There was initial press excitement when Nicholas Salvador beheaded 82-year-old Palmira Silva in her back garden in Enfield last year. He was a “Muslim convert”, according to the front pages, and had probably been inspired by Isis propaganda videos. The story that emerged at his trial was of a more mundane type of horror: a paranoid schizophrenic who had recently lost his job, Salvador beheaded Silva thinking she was Hitler reincarnated. As I wrote at the time, Silva was the third woman beheaded in London in 2014: the other two attracted barely any attention at all because the prime suspects were their husbands.

If these men were Islamic extremists, it would have been perversely reassuring: we would have a neat explanation for their actions and the solution would have been nothing to do with “us”. But, like Dylann Roof, murderous husbands are not ­easily turned into Others – not least because a woman is most likely to be murdered by a current or former partner. Misogyny, like racism, is an ideology that benefits the powerful. That is why the term “terrorist” is guarded so jealously. It’s a restriction on who, and what, is allowed to terrify us. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Crisis Europe

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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