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.

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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 regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

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