Racism in the context of terrorism

Dylann Roof posing with a Confederate flag and gun

The fact that black lives are deemed to be of less value than those of people with fairer skin and the deep entrenchment of negative, stereotypical perceptions of black people has been thrust into the foreground recently by the Black Lives Matter movement, particularly with regards to the deaths of black people at the hands of police in the United States. There have also been mini-movements like #OscarsSoWhite where racism and the invisibility of black people at the Oscars and in Hollywood were targeted, and which forced discussions on these topics to take place. Black Lives Matter came into existence, as the unambiguous name indicates, because what should go without saying – that black lives matter and therefore must be respected and valued – is not what was being witnessed in America. The movement has thrived and gone from strength to strength because it has united the voiceless to make their cries heard.

That black lives do not matter (compared to white lives) seems to become very apparent when considering terrorism – how terrorism is defined, the popular understanding of who terrorists are and what they look like and how the West reacts when the majority of the victims of a terror attack are brown-skinned compared to when the victims are white.

This week some have criticised the obviously more substantial coverage of the terror attacks in Brussels than those in Ankara, Lahore and attributed this to the fact that white Western lives are valued more than those of other ethnic and racial groups.

The terror attack in Lahore which has claimed approximately 70 lives, where Christians were targeted, was given narrow columns where Brussels was given several spreads. The London Eye, Eiffel Tower and other landmarks were not lit up in Pakistan’s green and white as a sign of solidarity as they were with the colours of Belgium.

The National Portrait Gallery, London, is lit up with Belgian colours as a sign of solidarity

On social media people were not covering their profile pictures with the Turkish flag as a sign of solidarity when Ankara was reported, maybe because they were ignorant of the events in their more distant European neighbour due to such minimal coverage. And as for Cote d’Ivoire, you probably did not even hear about the terror attack three weeks ago which claimed 22 lives.

Last year’s events, when Paris and several non-European countries suffered terror attacks, and the response to those events seem to further support the argument that black and brown lives do not matter as much as white lives (if public expressions of grief and sympathy and media attention are the measures used to establish responses to terror attacks).

In November 2015 the Paris attacks, as they have become known, dominated the news; the events were scrutinized and is seemed the whole world watched: the intense race against time to catch the suspects, the violent shoot-out between police and terrorists, witness accounts, new revelations regarding the identity and potential motivation of the killers, the aftermath, national and international responses and the movement towards military action in the Middle East as a response to the attacks.

With newspaper headlines, televised broadcasts, political talk shows and the like all focusing almost exclusively on what happened in Paris, the events took on a further surreal quality because of their omnipresence. As with Brussels now, Paris was at the centre of conversations, on social media the colours of the French flag overlaid profile pictures along with prayers and condolences offered to the victims, the West’s notable landmarks were lit up in blue, red and white. Shock, fear and sympathy set the tone.

The West was enthralled by the terror attacks in Paris; how they unfolded, why they occurred and what it meant for the future. The media, combined with high-powered, influential figures such as David Cameron speaking out and condemning the attacks, ensured that the attacks, their consequences and their victims remained at the forefront of the public’s thoughts for days. Newspapers, television and the internet all brought Paris into our homes, up close and personal, forcing us to react – with shock, tears, anger, prayers. As when those unforgettable images of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers were first broadcast and the world seemed to stop for a moment, the full scale media response made Paris immediate and tangible.

It is the essence of captivation that everything else other than that which is the focus of attention fades away into the background and is momentarily irrelevant, virtually non-existent. Thus, whilst eyes and ears were intently fixed on Paris, the West’s media and people were largely blind to parallel events of brutal terror carried out by self-proclaimed Islamist extremists Boko Haram in Nigeria, Mali and Cameroon which claimed thousands of lives.

Naturally Paris would take precedent over events in Nigeria or Mali in terms of Western media coverage given its location in Europe some will argue; France is a neighbour to other countries in Europe and in those killed other Europeans saw themselves: people who look like them, people who share many of their values, people killed on streets that are not so dissimilar from their own, where in fact they likely have walked themselves at one point in their lives or had planned to visit; it could have been them, or someone they knew, or it could have been their city. To some extent this argument is strong and rings true – indeed, African newspapers will have focused more on Boko Haram’s attacks than on those claimed by Isis in Paris.

Fear of course also plays a crucial part in determining where our attention is focused – France and Brussels are only a few hours away from the shores of Great Britain and not entirely dissimilar to London. Undoubtedly many people have been following the media closely in relation to Brussels (as they did with Paris) because they feel endangered: Have all the perpetrators been caught? If not, have they crossed into another country and could they launch further attacks? Are there further planned attacks for other European countries? What measures are in place to avert such attacks from taking place again? Whilst images of Boko Haram’s deadly attacks on innocent Nigerians may evoke some degree of fear among Western viewers, the level of fear is mitigated by the knowledge that it is a different continent, hundreds of miles away. Similarly, the killings in Nigeria would have created greater, more immediate fear among other African nations than killings in the more distant Paris.

That said, what has been disheartening is the extent to which the West seems to be completely disengaged from the horrific atrocities – and serious long term problem – unfolding in parts of Africa, particularly given how closely they parallel what is happening in Europe. Listening to discussions and commentary relating to the Paris terror attacks by some of the most prominent and influential members of Western society, many of whom have referred to Isis as the biggest threat of contemporary times and the Paris attacks as like nothing we have seen before – unprecedented in recent times – it becomes staggeringly clear that what may generously be referred to as the ignorance – or, more sceptically, the apathy – of the West to the devastating acts of terror that occur in Africa are part of a more general blindness to, or disinterest in, the acute problem of terrorism in Africa, which has not sprung up overnight. Before Paris was Baga, Nigeria, where an estimated 2,000 people were killed by Boko Haram in January 2015. Another major terror attack had not occurred in the West at the same time but still this mass killing barely got coverage and so we are forced to publicly declare: Black (African) Lives Matter.

A man holds a sign which reads: ‘I am Charlie, let’s not forget the victims of Boko Haram’

Given the tremendous power of the media (as discussed above), especially social media as a platform for amateur journalism, to instantly relay global events it is impossible to believe that the minimal coverage of terror attacks in Africa and other non-European countries is attributable solely to ignorance or blindness among the West to those events. Indeed, the odd short article hidden in the middle pages of newspapers testifies to the fact that the Western media and various political and government agencies are aware of the terrorist activities in Africa and elsewhere – and the enormity and savage nature of the attacks – but do not seem to judge it fully worthy of their attention.

The notion that terrorism in Africa is less attention worthy than terrorism in the West is problematic and dismaying for several reasons, not least because it speaks volumes about the continued perception of blacks, particularly African blacks, and the value of their lives by the rest of the world. When 2,000 people can be slaughtered by terrorists and the rest of the world barely bats an eyelid there is a serious moral and humanitarian issue at hand. Then there are the political and security dangers of choosing to adopt an attitude of nonchalance and apathy towards terrorism in Africa. If terrorism is left to breed and the terrorist organisations to grow and train in places like Nigeria then it would be foolish to think that it will have no repercussions for cities like Paris; ISIS was founded and predominantly operates in Iraq and Syria yet has managed to infiltrate cities in Europe and elsewhere, undeterred it is logical to assume that Boko Haram could do the same. If anything these terror attacks show just how irrelevant the distance between countries like Syria and Paris is when you have powerful terrorist organisations whose ideology and outreach transcends national borders.

Through the exhaustive media coverage of the attacks in Paris what happened there and the effects of the terror attacks became the world’s story; the world’s problem; the world sympathised with the victims of the attacks and ISIS became the world’s enemy. The same needs to be done in Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, Lahore, Ankara and all countries suffering from terrorists if these organisations are to be defeated.

Arguably racism does not only affect the victims of terrorism and their treatment by the media, it also has a bearing on the perpetrators of terrorist acts and how they are received by the public.

To understand how racism has pervaded popular ideas surrounding terrorism and terrorists we must define these terms to see how their meanings have been corrupted and racialised.

Terrorism: “the unofficial or unauthorized use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.”

Terrorist: “a person who uses terrorism in the pursuit of political aims.”

“Terrorist attack” and “terrorists” were the phrases used repeatedly during the coverage of the 9/11 attacks in the United States and since then they have become somewhat common terms, regularly featuring in the news and coming to mind whenever an explosion or mass killing is reported before it is confirmed whether it is indeed linked to a terrorist organisation.

President George Bush’s 2001 ‘War on Terror’ speech reveals much to do with how terrorism and terrorists are popularly perceived and how the white Western perspective dominates consensus on terrorism, what it comprises and how misconceptions have formed:

“On September the 11th, enemies of freedom committed an act of war against our country. Americans have known wars - but for the past 136 years, they have been wars on foreign soil, except for one Sunday in 1941. Americans have known the casualties of war - but not at the centre of a great city on a peaceful morning. Americans have known surprise attacks - but never before on thousands of civilians. All of this was brought upon us in a single day - and night fell on a different world, a world where freedom itself is under attack.”

Listening to George Bush in 2001 people would be forgiven for believing that the United States and Americans had not been previously affected by terrorism in the twentieth century, with the exception of Pearl Harbour and the lead up to WWII. Of course, that is not the case and certainly for African-Americans the lines “Americans have known wars - but for the past 136 years, they have been wars on foreign soil” and “Americans have known surprise attacks but never before on thousands of civilians” – indeed the very notion that their freedom had never been threatened in such horrific ways in their home country in recent history simply would not have rung true. Referring back to the definitions of ‘terrorism’ and ‘terrorist,’ the Ku Klux Klan stands out as one of the most infamous terrorist organisations of the twentieth century – spreading fear among and killing black Americans in the name of their warped version of Christianity and racist ideological views, the KKK operated a reign of terror for a long time, attacking the freedom of thousands of (black) Americans. Black Americans had been victims of terrorism on American soil before 9/11.

Interestingly, even today the KKK is not generally referred to as a terrorist organisation despite meeting all the defining criteria. In his War on Terror speech President Bush described Al Qaeda as “terrorists [who] practice a fringe form of Islamic extremism that has been rejected by Muslim scholars and the vast majority of Muslim clerics - a fringe movement that perverts the peaceful teachings of Islam.” Replace “Islamic” and “Muslim” with “Christian” and “Islam” with “Christianity” and there is a pretty accurate definition of the KKK.

Somewhere along the line it seems that terrorism has become almost synonymous with extremists carrying out acts of terror in the name of a perverted and misinterpreted version of Islam and that terrorists are the brown-skinned, bearded men who subscribe to these beliefs and administer the violence. But what of the other acts of terror carried out, for example, in the name of xenophobia and preserving white privilege, carried out by white terrorists against non-white victims? Certainly terrorists can belong to any race, ethnicity, religion or belief system and acts of terror are committed with the view of furthering causes that are not necessarily religious-based at all, let alone in any way related to Islam so why is the association between terrorism and so-called ‘Islamists’ so strong?

The media is without a doubt key to shaping public perceptions and in part responsible for turning “terrorist” and “terrorism” into terms almost exclusively applied to non-white extremists adhering to perverted religious beliefs tenuously connected to Islam and the violent acts they carry out, respectively.

In July 2011 Anders Breivik, A 32-year-old white male carried out a premeditated attack in Norway which was to leave 77 people dead. Breivik detonated a bomb which killed eight people before descending upon Utoeya island, the location where the Labour Party holds its summer camp each year, and he shot dead 69 people.

The reason behind the mass killing soon became clear. Breivik, who made a Nazi salute in court is known to have admired the views of Norway’s anti-immigration Progress party and believed that Norway needed to be saved from Muslims and, more generally, multiculturalism. In a YouTube video uploaded by Breivik he talks about a Muslim invasion. Breivik was not clearly tied to any particular group but had a vision of his own organisation that he would like to create called the Knights Templar of Europe whose goal would be to “seize political and military control of Western European multiculturalist regimes” and hold them accountable for “crimes committed against the indigenous peoples of Europe.”

And yet Breivik’s acts were called a “massacre”, an “atrocity,” but not a terror attack; Breivik was called an “extremist” but not a terrorist.

More recently, the Charleston church shooting of June 2015 reignited debate about how race, ethnicity and religion seem to have become deciding factors in determining who is worthy of the term “terrorist”. It can be used as a case study into how the language used in the media reinforces the racialisation of terrorism and has the power to shape ideas of who is ‘good’ or the victim in a situation and who is ‘bad’ and how the race of those involved may determine how they are portrayed.

21-year-old Dylann Roof, ‘a clean-shaven young white male, about 5 feet 9 inches tall, of slender build and with sandy blond hair’ walked into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and opened fire on the black congregation during an evening prayer service. It later emerged that Roof was a white supremacist who had posed with firearms and the Confederate flag and the believed author of a racist website where he seems to explain his motivation for killing the innocent black churchgoers:

“I have no choice […] I am not in the position to, alone, go into the ghetto and fight. I chose Charleston because it is most historic city in my state, and at one time had the highest ratio of blacks to Whites in the country. We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.”

Roof, who it soon emerged aligned himself white supremacist and neo-Nazi beliefs – although not explicitly linked to one particular group – and whose racist motivation (the apparent belief that he was furthering a larger cause of protecting white supremacy) for the planned attack was revealed, was not referred to as a terrorist in any of the major news channels or newspapers.

Whilst the media recognised the extremity and significance of Roof’s violent attack, and its targeted nature, for example The Telegraph described “the United States' bloodiest hate crime in decades,” it was not referred to as a “terrorist attack”; it was a “hate crime” and a “massacre” but not terrorism and Roof was a suspected murderer but not a terrorist. For some the avoidance of the term ‘terrorism’ in coverage of the events was contradictory and attributable to the race of the perpetrator, as explored in an article run by the New York Times headlined “Many Ask, Why Not Call Church Shooting Terrorism?”

Not only was Dylann Roof not treated brandished a terrorist but real anger was generated among some as some newspapers almost seemed to defend the murderer and cast him as the victim. The Daily Mail put out the headline ‘Dylann Roof was a devout Christian who was baptised in the Lutheran faith, went to church camp and worshipped regularly’ whilst Fox News ran the provocative and controversial opinion piece titled Charleston: 'Why didn't anyone help Dylann Roof?' where the author made a case for Roof having suffered from mental illness.

Similarly, NBC News seemed to cast Roof as the real victim, running the headline 'Charleston Church Shooter Dylann Roof Was Loner Caught in 'Internet Evil': Family' and reported that ‘his relatives recall he was a "sweet kid" who grew into a "painfully shy" loner’ who, according to his family, ‘became ensnared by something sinister online,’ in an article showing Roof as a smiling child.

Salon countered the stance which sympathised with Roof with an article criticising the more favourable treatment applied to white criminals by the media than to non-white suspects titled, 'It’s not about mental illness: The big lie that always follows mass shootings by white males'.

There are, then, concerning links between racism and terrorism whereby it seems that the fairer a person’s skin the less likely they are to be labelled a terrorist. On the flip side, where the victims of an act of terror are predominately white, there will be more outrage and public outpourings of grief and support than if the victims are mainly brown-skinned.

Further reading:

'Why white people aren’t called “terrorist”: The media accepts that “people who resort to violence are left-wing or Arab or both”'

'Anders Breivik, a mass murderer who did a Nazi salute in court, isn't being called a terrorist. Why? He's white'

'Dylann Roof Wasn’t Charged With Terrorism Because He’s White'

'Narcissism and terrorism: how the personality disorder leads to deadly violence'

'Don't call Anders Breivik a terrorist – he is a sad fantasist leading an army of one'