Our whole lives, and particularly since 9/11, we’ve heard the words “terrorism” and “terrorist.” Images of these terrifying mass murders splash across our screens—our TVs, our phones, our computers. They’re always part of some underground organization whose motive is to kill. They are often willing to sacrifice their own lives to achieve their goal of mass destruction. And rarely are they white men.
Which is odd, as, according to the Department of Homeland Security, white supremacists are currently the deadliest terror threat to the United States.
“Since 2018, White supremacists have conducted more lethal attacks in the US than any other domestic extremist movement, demonstrating a ‘longstanding intent’ to target racial and religious minorities, members of the LGBTQ+ community, politicians and those they believe promote multi-culturalism and globalization,” The Homeland Threat Assessment, published this past October, reads.
Yet when white men blow themselves up or commit mass murders in the name of the ideologies that the Nazi regime or the KKK were founded on, the news reports rarely refer to them as “terrorists.” Hmmm. Wonder why.
Let’s first figure out what, exactly, a “domestic terrorist” is. WKNO, a news source that identifies as “NPR for the Mid-South” reports that “the FBI defines domestic terrorism as a violent, criminal act that’s committed to further someone’s beliefs about American issues.”
Similarly, CBS News says, “The FBI defines domestic terrorism as acts ‘perpetrated by individuals and/or groups inspired by or associated with primarily U.S.-based movements that espouse extremist ideologies of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature.”
Furthermore, “The USA Patriot Act from 2001 defines domestic terrorism as a dangerous act occurring within U.S. territory that violates criminal laws in ways that are ‘intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping,” the CBS News piece goes on to explain.
And finally, FBI field director Doug Korneski explains that a key component in identifying an event as an act of “domestic terrorism” “it has to be tied to an ideology.”
All of these somewhat repetitive definitions basically boil down to this: to be called a “domestic terrorist,” you have to do a lot of damage — or at least intend to — and your hatred and destruction has to be tied to some sort of belief about our country.
However, as acts of perceived domestic terrorism are committed, the narrative often changes, depending on the perpetrator. And that narrative can usually be linked back to one determining factor.
For example, in 2010, authorities thwarted a Somali teenager’s attempt to bomb a Christmas tree lighting in Portland, Oregon. Reports combed through the suspect’s life and history, including his immigration status and the fact that he shouted “Allahu akbar,” which means “God is Great” in Arabic as he was arrested. There wasn’t much hesitation in linking the term “terrorist” to a man named Mohamed Osman Mohamud who intended to do damage on American soil, especially on sites like Fox News.
Now let’s pivot to Dylann Roof, who did actually do irreparable harm to the city of Charleston, where he barged into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and killed nine people in 2015. Roof made it widely known via a manifesto published on his own personal website that he intended to kill. And his reasons had everything to do with race.
“I have no choice,” Roof wrote. “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.”
Yet when he was eventually captured by police, he was taken into custody without much issue and fed Burger King after expressing that he was hungry. Officers described him as “quiet” and “not problematic” during questioning and various news reports alluded to his “mental issues.” Former FBI special agent Jonathan Gilliam even appeared on CNN and said that Roof probably “didn’t know he had done anything wrong.”
You’ll have to look hard to find a headline that calls Dylann Roof a domestic terrorist. Even though according to the definitions above, he is one.
Spot the difference?
“That is the power of whiteness in America,” bluntly states a Washington Post article entitled “Shooters of color are called ‘terrorists’ and ‘thugs.’ Why are white shooters called ‘mentally ill’?”
And, the article goes on to address the often repeated story that “white suspects are lone wolves” and, in fact, Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley emphasized that this shooting was an act of just “one hateful person,” whereas violence by Black and Muslim people “is systemic, demanding response and action from all who share their race or religion.”
That’s why Mohamed Osman Mohamud, who killed no one, is a “terrorist” — and Dylann Roof, who killed nine Black Americans, is not.
A narrative that has now been repeated again, as the latest white man to cause wide-spread terror and destruction is humanized in the press. This time it’s the Christmas Nashville bomber Anthony Warner—not a terrorist, but rather a computer nerd who loved his pets. At least that’s what the news reports tell us.
There’s of course a rationale for not labeling Warner as a domestic terrorist (there always is). He didn’t actually kill anyone other than himself. (Mohamed Osman Mohamud didn’t kill anyone either.) And his motive was “more destruction than death,” made apparent by the fact that he warned people in the area that he was about to blow himself up. Because of that, he only damaged 41 buildings, injured several people, and “caused extensive damage to phone and internet coverage throughout the region, causing communication blackouts for 911 centers in surrounding counties, leaving customers throughout the state without service and exposing vulnerabilities in infrastructure,” the USA Today reports.
Also, International Business Times reports that an acquaintance of Warner’s shared with investigators that he’d talked to the suspect recently. During their brief conversation, Warner had proudly stated, “Oh, yeah, Nashville and the world is never going to forget me,” which is something we’ve heard many times throughout history… from terrorists.
Once again, Warner, like Dylann Roof, or like Robert Dear for example, who killed three people at a Colorado Planned Parenthood and ranted about Barack Obama and “no more baby parts” during his arrest, or like Robert Bowers, who gunned down 11 worshippers at a synagogue in Pittsburgh after posting ““Open your eyes! It’s the filthy EVIL jews Bringing the Filthy EVIL Muslims into the Country!!” online… once again, another white man doesn’t fit the bill as a “domestic terrorist” (even though he does.)
So why does it matter so much if some are labeled as “terrorists” and others are not?
First of all, it’s racial profiling and it’s dangerous to certain ethnic and racial communities. And it seems to only happen to specific skin tones that are already at risk in America.
Zulfat Suara, Nashville city council member who is a Muslim, has seen time and time again what happens to Black, Muslim, and immigrant communities after an act of terrorism where the suspect is dark-skinned. “If it was a Muslim or Black man or an immigrant, I don’t think people would be bending backward trying to find ways to not call it what I think it is,” she stated, according to WKNO.
Each time there is another violent incident like the one that took place on Christmas, Suara says she prays that it wasn’t a Muslim, because she knows what comes next.
“When something like that happens, you start getting emails,” she describes in the WKNO article. “You start getting posts on Facebook. You start getting attacked as a Muslim. People start getting being harassed on the street. You know, kids get called names. That happens.”
Only it doesn’t happen to white people after Dylann Roof shoots up a church. Or Adam Lanza opens fire in a school. Or Stephen Paddock kills 60 people at a concert in Las Vegas. And that can be attributed, in part, to the picture the media paints of these violent men who inflict terror.
Here we are again. Another bombing, another terrifying act of violence committed by a white man, and the descriptions are almost comical.
The USA Today describes 63-year-old Warner as “a longtime Nashvillian who held several IT jobs” and “had extensive experience with electronics and alarm systems.” Also, apparently, “he worked as an independent computer technician with the real estate firm Fridrich & Clark,” “took really good care of his dogs,” and, as a child, was “quiet and polite” and enjoyed playing golf.
This sounds like a retirement party speech for my Uncle Ed, not a descriptor of someone who blew himself up, terrorized an entire city, and injured several people on Christmas.
U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee Donald Cochran even describes Warner’s death as if he were a victim himself, saying he “perished in the bombing.”
How is it that those who blow themselves up with the intention of inflicting wide-scale damage and destruction are “terrorists” and “suicide bombers” when they have brown or black skin or identify as Muslim, but when they are white men, they’re “polite computer techs” who “perish” in the blast?
There’s one reason. And it’s spelled RACISM.
This is one of the millions of examples of racial biases we are fed as a society, often without even knowing it. There’s a reason when many of us close our eyes and think of the word “terrorist,” a dark-skinned man’s faces comes to mind rather than Dylann Roof’s.
And Anthony Warner is just the latest white man to get that same preferential treatment. Because we all know damn well if he had dark skin, we wouldn’t be hearing about how much he loved his dogs.