I’ll paint the scene as I imagine it. It’s a public place—maybe a mall or a restaurant. People are enjoying each other and living their lives. Not one of them left home expecting it would be the last time they saw it. As they are carrying out their business, a masked man walks in with an AR-15 type weapon (Colt holds the official trademark of that name). He has several clips at his disposal, each with a capacity of about thirty rounds. He can unleash these as quickly as his finger can pull the trigger. He also has a handgun he carries at his side. He opens fire and fills the air with bullets as if it were some aroma that diffuses about the room. There is no escape. People try to hide or run, but who can outrun a bullet? In the end, dozens lose their lives or are severely injured. By the time the police arrive and eventually kill the perpetrator, the news has broken via social media and the local news crews. Panic spreads in the community as people fear that their loved ones may have been there and may be dead. As it graces the headlines at CNN, the country learns of yet another massacre in a US public place, and they mourn. Maybe they fume with anger. And everyone awaits for the identity of this horrible person. He has yet to be unmasked. No one knows his face. No one knows his origin. How do you categorize him?
That’s an important question. Without knowing anything about this person, we all agree that he has committed a senseless act of violence. He took dozens of innocent lives—took mothers away from children and sons away from fathers. But an interesting thing will happen once this man is unmasked. The police will approach, finally assured that he is dead and poses no further threat. They will pull the mask from his face and once his identity is revealed, a new label will be attached. If he is a white man, likely Christian, he will be touted as a mass murderer. Maybe a disturbed or disgruntled citizen with mental health problems. He is a US citizen with no previous indication of violent tendencies, though neighbors thought he was quiet and perhaps a little “off”. If it turns out the shooter is Hispanic, rumors begin to spread that he was a cartel member in the country illegally. But what if the shooter is an Arab? He has tan skin and a name like Ahmed or Fareed. Maybe he is a radicalized Muslim, maybe not. Either way, he now receives the label, “terrorist”. My question is this: why did only the Muslim get that label?
Think about it. With a mask, we knew nothing about this person. We just all agreed that what he did was horrible. We would want answers. We would want justice. We would want our leaders to try to find a way to prevent things like this from happening ever again. But once we know his level of skin pigmentation and his name, we start to think differently about him. If he’s a white Christian, he actually falls in with most mass murderers America has ever had. And it seems that we’re so used to it that it almost comes off as business as usual. We mourn as a country for about five minutes, a handful of people whine about their guns, we tune in to Dancing With the Stars, and wait for the next massacre. But when we unmask a Muslim American who was no more on the radar as a homicidal asshole as the white guy, he’s a terrorist and we have to take action NOW! Facebook fills with hate memes and Fox News-inspired rants about Americans getting their heads out of the sand. People rail against liberal “apologists” and call for the country to do something about the “Muslim threat”. All of a sudden, it’s a priority. Trump even starts talking about deporting all of the Muslims as other lawmakers suggest rounding them up into camps like Japanese Americans circa 1942. Somehow a Muslim extremist killing a dozen people is far worse than and Anglo-American doing the same. And while I can appreciate the fact that the radicalization of Muslims in America is a problem, and stands to threatens lives, this has happened, comparatively, only a handful of times. Most of our mass murders are carried about by white people, yet we don’t call it what it is.
And that is what I’m proposing. Do we have to reserve the “terrorist” label for Ahmed? Or can we call senseless murder and violence for the purpose of striking fear into the hearts of the public the same thing, regardless of who does it? Terrorism is terrorism. Violence is violence. Let’s put a stop to all of it.