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

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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.