The Meaning Of Newsweek's "Terrorism Debate"


I think Glenn Greenwald is right to be outraged by Newsweek's debate around whether the IRS bomber is a terrorist or not. Take this example from Michael Isikoff:

ok, just to weigh in on this -- I think some of the comments miss what I take to be the fundamental distinction. The underpants bomber, for all his ineptitude, was equipped and dispatched by a foreign enemy -- Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula-- whose ultimate leader (bin Laden) has declared war on the United States and who has demonstrated his willingness and intent to inflict mass casualties on our civilian population. That makes underpants man a terrorist and had he been captured overseas, would have made him an enemy combatant-- and why the Obama administration dispatches the U.S. military and Predator drones to destroy the people who sent him here. Similarly, the Fort Hood shooter may have been a disturbed "lone wolf" but he was in ideological alignment and in communication with a member of the same foreign enemy.

That makes them both terrorists.

The Austin tax protestor, the anthrax scientist wacko, the Unabomber-- all did heinous things that we can  describe any way we want -- certainly what they did were terrorist acts-- but they all remain a very different kettle of fish, which is why Mr. underpants man gets more attention that Austin tax protestor flying plane into building.

I have a great respect for Isikoff as a reporter, but this strikes as really weak logic. Isikoff concedes that the "Austin Tax Protester" committed "terrorist acts," but then claims he's not a terrorist. Under what circumstances could one commit "murderous acts" and not be murderer? In what instance could one commit an act of rape but not be a rapist? How does one commit an act of burglary, and yet not be labeled a burglar?

The implications are chilling. By Isikoff's lights--and by the lights of several of his colleagues--the Ku Klux Klan, an organization responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent people, the men who turned Birmingham into "Bombingham," who hurled molotov cocktails into the homes of Detroiters who dared moved west of Woodward, who lynched black men in the streets, who brought food, children and wives to the spectacle, who smiled next to smoking corpses in post-cards for far-off relatives, who displayed the knuckles and testicles of black men in pickle jars, were not terrorists, but "Ethnic Intrusion Protesters."

This is not merely about semantics. I deeply suspect that our inability to grapple with and understand our own history of home-grown terror, indeed defining it as something else, inhibits our understanding of the very terror we now face and claim to be at war with.

I wish I could claim that Newsweek reporters, in embracing a vocabulary wish allows a murderer to be transformed into "The Austin Tax Protester," were betraying an ancient trust. In fact, who knows the history of black people in this country, knows that that the white press crumbled, and was at times even complicit, the Klan's century-long reign of terror.  This notion that the press has "fallen," that the news medium has reached a new singular low, is belied by black history.

I guess I should be happy. At least the press is debating whether he's a terrorist. Fifty years ago they would have been looking the other way. No. They would have egged him on.

UPDATE: Below, Cynic highlights this portion of Isikoff's quote which, at least, makes his claim more sympathetic:

I am not suggesting domestic groups couldn't be terrorists--in fact, the FBI does have a domestic terrorist unit--which covers EarthFirsters, militia groups, anti-abortion fanatics who kill doctors, etc. All of those can certainly qualify as terrorists. But in addressing Devin's original question--why all the fuss about underpants man and isn't everybody else terrorists as well?-- I was trying to explain why underpants man was a much bigger terrorist deal that explains why we pay him so much more attention.

As I said below, fair enough. I still, very much, find Newsweek's attempt to define out who we call terrorists, and who is more of a threat disturbing. But Isikoff is at least more nuanced than his colleagues.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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