On his oft-cited blog Informed Comment, author, scholar and historian Juan Cole writes about the Middle East and American politics. In the wake of the attack at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, Cole compared our nation’s response to what he calls “white terrorism” with its response to “other” (read: Islamic) terrorism. We reached him by phone to learn more.
Juan Cole: The federal code contains a definition of terrorism — it’s the deployment of coercion or violence against civilians for the accomplishment of a political purpose. The movie theater incident wasn’t terrorism, as far as anybody can tell. That was mental illness. As for the Sikh temple shootings, I think there’s ample evidence that this individual was motivated by a political program of hatred for what he considered to be non-whites. The likelihood is that he thought he was targeting a Muslim congregation, because Sikhs wear turbans and beards and a lot of uneducated Americans mistake Sikhs for Muslims.
Feeney: CNN’s CNN’s Peter Bergen recently reported that militants linked to al-Qaida or inspired by the jihad-instilled ideology have carried out four terrorist attacks in the US since Sept. 11, while “right-wing extremists” like Wade Michael Page have committed at least eight. Why then do you think Americans still equate terror with Islam?
Cole: There is a certain amount of, frankly, latent racism in this issue. Sociologists have long remarked that there’s a kind of mainstream, who are unmarked, and minorities, who are marked. In other words, if a bank robber is white, the reporting on the bank robbery won’t mention that in its news. It’ll just say, “The bank was robbed.” If the bank robber is a member of a minority, then the ethnicity of the bank robber will typically be mentioned. I think the same thing, marked and unmarked identities, operates with regard to terrorism.
Feeney: What’s been in the difference in government response between mass shooting incidents carried out by white men, and the Fort Hood shootings for example, in which the perpetrator was Muslim?
Cole: With the Fort Hood shootings, there were very strong suspicions that the shooter acted as part of a plot, part of a network. Congressional hearings were held. The fact that he had ever read or viewed YouTube videos from Muslim radicals in Yemen was brought up. It was very difficult for investigators to see this person as a loner or as a mentally disturbed person. The instinct was to find the network, find the plot.
On the contrary, when a Department of Homeland Security employee, Daryl Johnson, in 2009, wrote a position paper on the need to track hate groups and white supremacists, there were congressmen who attacked him.
Some of the themes that are invoked by the white supremacists are themes that have become relatively mainstreamed in right-wing thinking in the United States. I’m not saying that the right wing is necessarily sympathetic to white supremacism, but I think that they don’t view it as being as alarming as it actually is.
Feeney: What about the killings that happen every day in our inner cities? How does the government reaction compare when the crime isn’t necessarily terrorism per se, but people are still losing there lives?
Cole: The use of a weapon or a device for the purposes of terrorism typically draws a very strong response from law enforcement. Ways are thought of to try to block the use that weapon. But the use of semiautomatic weapons by drug gangs, white supremacist terrorists, the mentally ill and so forth typically draws no law enforcement response. Occasionally police chiefs will say they wish the things were banned, but among the political establishment, because of the influence of the gun lobbies, there’s not a serious national dialogue on the banning of semiautomatic weapons.
Feeney: So why do we spend so much taxpayer money — and so much time waiting in line — for airport security when someone can walk right into a movie theater or house of worship with a semiautomatic weapon and start shooting?
Cole: We take some kinds of terrorism extremely seriously and spend a lot of money on them, and I don’t say that it’s wrong to do so. But then we have a nonchalant and insouciant attitude towards other kinds of terrorism which are also very deadly and cost lives.
Terrorists in Yemen started experimenting with a kind of explosive called PETN, which is not metallic and so can’t be detected in an ordinary metal detector. That’s why they’re now trying to increase security at airports by essentially looking at us all nude. Imagine the kinds of money and effort that are being spent to prevent PETN from being deployed, even though the couple times that there have been attempts to deploy it, it hasn’t worked very well. And yet, we have demonstrated thousands of deaths a year from semiautomatic weapons and there’s no law enforcement response to that.
Feeney: The Sikh temple shooter had been followed for years by the Anti-Defamation League and Southern Poverty Law Center, but he still managed to carry out this attack. What can we do to end this sort of violence?
Cole: The man was a known member of hate groups and was able to easily buy a semiautomatic weapon and get it the second day. To my mind, there’s simply no excuse for semiautomatic weapons, which are military weapons, being available to civilians in the United States. You don’t need such a weapon to hunt or for self-defense. These things can be done with an ordinary rifle or pistol.
If someone wants to quickly kill large numbers of innocent civilians, a semiautomatic weapon is ideal for the purpose. With the rash of these incidents, the lesson should be drawn that it’s a very dangerous kind of weapon to have freely available in our society. And as long as these weapons are freely available, it seems to me that we have enough terrorist-minded individuals in the United States that we’re going to go on facing these massacres from time to time.