December 6, 2021

What is terrorism? And who is a terrorist? Two recent attacks in America — one carried out by a 39-year-old black man and another by a 15-year-old white teen — sharply illustrate just how polarised and confused the country is over these two seemingly straightforward questions.

Last Tuesday a 15-year-school boy, recently named as Ethan Crumbley, allegedly shot and killed four fellow students, injuring seven others. This happened at a high school in suburban Detroit, Michigan. The week before, Darrell Brooks allegedly drove his SUV into a Christmas parade in Waukesha, Wisconsin, killing six and injuring many more. According to witnesses, he appeared to be intentionally trying to hit people; one of the victims was an eight-year-old boy. At the time of the attack, Brooks was on bail, after being charged with running over the mother of his child in a domestic dispute earlier last month.

Prosecutors in Michigan have levelled one charge of terrorism against Crumbley, in addition to four first-degree murder counts and numerous other charges. No charges of terrorism have been brought against Brooks; he instead faces six counts of first-degree homicide. 

This raises all sorts of questions about the politics of categorising mass-causality violence. While school-rampages often result in multiple deaths and terrorise those who are victimised in them, they are not conventionally classified as terrorism, since the motives of those who carry them out are typically personal. They are not intended to further a political cause or ideology. So it is curious that the authorities in Michigan have levelled a charge of terrorism.

Crumbley’s alleged motives are as yet unclear, although he reportedly left some writings that may shed some light on his thinking. Explaining the terrorism charge to CNN, Karen McDonald, the Oakland county [Michigan] prosecutor, said that Crumbley had set out to kill and injure as many people as possible. “If that’s not terrorism, I don’t know what is,” she said, in the process enlarging the concept of terrorism far beyond its standard meaning of politically-motivated violence against civilians and into the far broader domain of criminal murderousness. McDonald also noted, by way of further explanation, “how terrifying it is to be in close proximity of another student shooting and killing fellow students. I mean, it’s terror”.

Brooks’s alleged motives are similarly unclear, although we know that he had advocated for attacks against white people on social media and shared an anti-Semitic meme praising Hitler. We also know that vehicular rammings, unlike high school shootings, are a common modus operandi of terrorists. Scores of ISIS-inspired and directed operatives, for example, have used cars and trucks as weapons of mass-slaughter. So it is seems worth noting that Brooks, who clearly harboured extremist sentiments, and whose alleged victims were all white, has not been given a terrorism charge. Needless to say, Brooks’s alleged actions would have been terrorising to those who were on the receiving end of them.

What is even more curious is the incuriosity of the elite media and extremism experts about the Brooks case. Had he been a white male who had expressed misogynistic views about women it is certain that they would have staged a giant moral panic about the global menace of incels and the far-Right.

But Brooks, who is a registered sex offender and trader in online hate, has attracted little sustained discussion or concern. To be clear: I’m not saying that the Brooks case should occasion a moral panic, or that he be given a terrorism charge. There’s still much that we don’t know about him, his state of mind, motives and indeed mental health. But I do think we should ask questions about the selection bias of the credentialed commentators and experts who command so much of our attention.

As the New York Post’s Sohrab Ahmari has recently documented, the coverage of the Brooks case by mainstream media outlets has been quite appalling. The Washington Post, in a tweet, described the ramming attack as a “tragedy caused by a SUV”. A CBS national correspondent made reference to “the Wisconsin parade crash”, as if what happened was an unfortunate accident. If this sounded coldly dispassionate and euphemistic in the extreme, it is because it was. What it emphatically wasn’t was an inferno of alarmist online commentary and outrage about the perpetrator’s vile beliefs.

The Michigan attack, by contrast, has provoked a very different kind of commentary and critical probing. Thomas Renard, director of the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism at The Hague, tweeted: “This case raises so many questions: What is terrorism? Does terrorism offence bring any added value in such case? Could it be counter productive? Should we use CT [counter-terrorism] toolbox more often, to deal with more forms of extremism, or not? Pros and Cons?”

Renard is right: the Michigan school shooting does raise many questions, one of which is why extremism scholars like Renard had nothing to say about Brooks’s alleged vehicular ramming attack and how that case might raise questions about terrorism and ideologically motivated violence more broadly.

To be fair to Renard and my fellow extremism researchers, perhaps they just hadn’t clocked the news about the Waukesha attack, especially given that it had attracted relatively little media attention. Or perhaps they had heard about it, but were apt to ignore it because Brooks wasn’t charged with terrorism.

But neither explanation holds up to scrutiny. Many terrorism experts and extremism researchers are very online. Some of these people, evidently, are never not online. It’s hard to think that the Waukesha attack would have escaped their notice.

There’s also a whole cottage industry of counter-extremist entrepreneurs which thrives on churning out report after report on the wider online “eco-systems” of misogynistic hate and racialised invective. So it’s odd that Brooks’s violent rhetoric, and past violence against women, didn’t raise any eyebrows among a group of researchers who are nothing if not hyper-vigilant when it comes to spotting signs of hate.

I suspect other and deeper imperatives and incentives are at work. One is to do with what the American sociologist Erving Goffman called “impression management”, while the other relates to the politics of grift. The triumph of identity politics, and the fear of running afoul of the puritanical scolds who police it, has meant that whenever an act of mass-casualty violence has been perpetrated by a white male — that reviled figure of opprobrium in the cosmology of the what Wesley Yang terms the “successor ideology” — it is tempting to vigorously call it out and to account. The act of doing so has become a familiar ritual in public life, the purpose of which is to communicate one’s virtue.

It is to pronounce, in effect, “I really care about the evil of systemic racism”. In a Durkheimian sense, it also allows people to bond with other morally upstanding people, and in a way that is emotionally seductive.

The temptation to call out or draw attention to the mass-casualty violence of the far-Right is even stronger for extremism researchers, since many have made decent careers out of researching and writing about jihadist groups and violence. This makes them vulnerable to the charge of islamophobia and racism, or both, and perhaps even gives them a bad conscience. From the perspective of their Left-leaning critics, these researchers are guilty of focusing disproportionately on the jihadist threat or perpetuating dangerous “essentialist” tropes about Islam and Muslims.

Nobody wants to be accused of Islamophobia or racism, and one way of forestalling or neutralising that accusation is to constantly amplify the threat of the far-Right. Of course, extremism researchers would deny that they’re in the business of impression management, of trying to foster a righteous impression before others. And if they’re sounding alarmist about the far-Right threat, this is because the threat is so goddamn alarming that it keeps them awake at night.

Another reason why extremism researchers are now so transfixed on the far-Right threat is because it’s unquestionably good for business. It’s where all the grant money is. You certainly won’t receive state or private funding by saying that the QAnon threat is exaggerated or that incels are more dangerous to themselves than to others. And no publisher is going to offer a lucrative book deal for How Terrorism is Overblown.

This isn’t just an American pathology. Here in Britain two recent acts of lethal violence engendered two very different responses. One was a killing spree by a 22-year-old man called Jake Davison. In just 12 minutes he killed his mother in the house they shared and then went on to shoot to death four others, before turning his weapon on himself. Devon and Cornwall Police initially ruled out terrorism as a motive, although it was known that Davison had visited incel online forums and was a disgruntled virgin. This prompted a slew of commentary on how Davison was a terrorist, and how incels were far-Right extremists. The Guardian ran a story titled, “Should the Plymouth shootings be declared an act of terror?” Quite why the headline-writer thought it necessary to phrase the headline as a question was unclear, since the whole substance of the piece sought to argue that there was little doubt that it should be declared an act of terror.

Then, in October, Ali Harbi Ali, a 25-year-old British-Somali man, allegedly stabbed to death the Conservative MP David Amess. The police soon declared this a terrorist incident, and had referred to “a potential motivation linked to Islamist extremism”. Yet the main focus of the media response was not on the political motives of the perpetrator, but rather the scourge of online hate aimed at British politicians more generally, as if somehow the dark corners of the internet had murdered Amess.

It gets boring to keep pointing out the double-standard here, which is that progressives are liable to deny or sanitise the political violence of those with whom they are in sympathy (pre-eminently minorities), while amplifying the political violence of their enemies (pre-eminently the running dogs of white, heteronormative patriarchy). Of course, the Right is also prone to a similar double-standard, pointing out the mental health problems of far-Right attackers while prioritising the role of militant religiosity in jihadi attacks. But it’s imperative for terrorism experts and extremism researchers to resist this sort of tribal temptation.

What is terrorism and who is a terrorist? A lot of ink has been wasted in trying to answer this, but it’s really not that complicated. Terrorism, as the Australian philosopher Tony Coady has usefully defined it, is “the organised use of violence to attack non-combatants (i.e. civilians) or their property for political purposes”. Correspondingly, a terrorist is someone who commits this kind of violence.

The trouble with terrorism, as a concept, relates not to its core meaning, but to its practical application. Was the Michigan school-shooter a terrorist? Was Darrell Brooks? The honest answer to both questions is that it’s still too early to tell — and that both cases are complex. Yet it’s striking that only one of those questions is being publicly asked right now, and it’s not the second one.

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