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 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

Photo: Getty
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Ann Summers can’t claim to empower women when it is teaming up with Pornhub

This is not about mutual sexual fulfilment, it is about eroticising women’s pain. 

I can’t understand why erotic retailers like Ann Summers have persisted into the twenty-first century. The store claims to be “sexy, daring, provocative and naughty”, and somewhat predictably positions itself as empowering for women. As a feminist of the unfashionable type, I can’t help but be suspicious of any form of sexual liberation that can be bought or sold.

And yet, I’d never really thought of Ann Summers as being particularly threatening to the rights of women, more just a faintly depressing reflection of heteronormativity. This changed when I saw they’d teamed-up with Pornhub. The website is reputedly the largest purveyor of online pornography in the world. Pornhub guidelines state that content flagged as  “illegal, unlawful, harassing, harmful, offensive” will be removed. Nonetheless, the site still contains simulated incest and rape with some of the more easily published film titles including “Exploited Teen Asia” (236 million views) and “How to sexually harass your secretary properly” (10.5 million views.)  With campaigns such as #metoo and #timesup are sweeping social media, it seems bizarre that a high street brand would not consider Pornhub merchandise as toxic.

Society is still bound by taboos: our hyper-sexual society glossy magazines like Teen Vogue offer girls tips on receiving anal sex, while advice on pleasuring women is notably rare. As an unabashed wanker, I find it baffling that in the year that largely female audiences queued to watch Fifty Shades Darker, a survey revealed that 20 per cent of U.S. women have never masturbated. It is an odd truth that in our apparently open society, any criticism of pornography or sexual practices is shut down as illiberal. 

Guardian-reading men who wring their hands about Fair Trade coffee will passionately defend the right to view women being abused on film. Conservative men who make claims about morals and marriage are aroused by images that in any other setting would be considered abuse. Pornography is not only misogynistic, but the tropes and language are often also racist. In what other context would racist slurs and scenarios be acceptable?

I have no doubt that some reading this will be burning to point out that feminist pornography exists. In name of course it does, but then again, Theresa May calls herself a feminist when it suits. Whether you believe feminist pornography is either possible or desirable, it is worth remembering that what is marketed as such comprises a tiny portion of the market. This won’t make me popular, but it is worth remembering feminism is not about celebrating every choice a woman makes – it is about analysing the social context in which choices are made. Furthermore, that some women also watch porn is evidence of how patriarchy shapes our desire, not that pornography is woman-friendly.  

Ann Summers parts the net curtains of nation’s suburban bedrooms and offers a glimpse into our peccadillos and preferences. That a mainstream high street retailer blithely offers guidance on hair-pulling, whipping and clamps, as well as a full range of Pornhub branded products is disturbing. This is not about women’s empowerment or mutual sexual fulfilment, it is about eroticising women’s pain. 

We are living in a world saturated with images of women and girls suffering; to pretend that there is no connection between pornography and the four-in-ten teenage girls who say they have been coerced into sex acts is naive in the extreme. For too long the state claimed that violence in the home was a domestic matter. Women and girls are now facing an epidemic of sexual violence behind bedroom doors and it is not a private matter. We need to ask ourselves which matters more: the sexual rights of men or the human rights of women?