Cross-posted from the New York Times Room for Debate
A Muslim extremist? A disgruntled worker? A Christian fanatic? A racist? A misogynist? With each mass shooting, Americans struggle to fathom what motivated the killer. The F.B.I. is treating the slaughter of 14 people in San Bernardino as a terrorism case, raising fears of a domestic threat from the Islamic State. But does it matter whether someone is killed by a Muslim extremist or someone with a less dramatic reason to pull the trigger?
Respond to Real Threats, Not to Fears of One Religion
By Faiza Patel
Mass shootings take many more American lives than terrorism carried out in the name of Islam. Yet, we are far more afraid of the latter. In response to the 9/11 attacks, we changed laws and the structure and priorities of government agencies. We spent trillions of dollars, fought two wars and are entering another. Gun safety laws, not so much.
It is, of course, important to ascertain the motives of someone who mounts a large-scale attack. It allows us to respond appropriately. Was it a one-off or part of a broader plan that must be stopped? Was it directed from overseas, requiring international measures? Are the attackers focused on particular types of targets that need protection?
But when it comes to the few acts of violence carried out by American Muslims, the terrorism label attaches quickly and sometimes on the slimmest basis. For example, the New York police characterized a hatchet attack by a Muslim convert as terrorism even though his motive was unclear (he might have been inspired by ISIS propaganda, or by black separatist movements not classified as terrorist). White attackers, in contrast, are usually described as mentally ill or socially dysfunctional. The Colorado abortion clinic shooter, for example, was initially described by The Times as a “gentle loner.”
While not every mass shooting can be charged as terrorism, the way we describe violence as a matter of public discourse is crucial. Calling a shooting terrorism suggests that it is part of a broader problem, requiring a concerted response. By lumping together the hatchet guy or someone who translates an Al Qaeda text with those who plotted the 9/11 attacks, we conflate different threats and create the sense that the United States is facing one large, many-headed domestic threat fueled by Islam. This supports targeting American Muslim communities for surveillance and likely plays a role in their demonization by major political figures. It even creates barriers to our humanitarian commitment to refugees fleeing war in Syria. At the same time, dismissing white shooters as crazies avoids uncomfortable questions about the extent of organized racism and far-right violence in our society or about our lax gun laws.
The solution isn’t to call more things terrorism, but to get away from the politics of that label. We should evaluate – and respond to – threats based on actual attacks, capacity and seriousness of intent. Not on perceptions about a particular religion or racial or ethnic group.