The phrase “white nationalist terrorism” has become newly ubiquitous in the wake of the El Paso shooting.
It is easy to see this as a victory, and, on some level, it feels like one. For years, people have rightly pointed out the obviously racist double standard of slapping the “terrorism” label on every violent crime carried out by Muslims or Arabs, while crimes by white people somehow never quite make the cut. The El Paso shooting seems to have burst through this dam.
Yet every time we have this debate, I feel a prickle of unease. The desire to expand the commonly held view of terrorism to include white supremacists is wholly understandable. The anger about the relatively benign treatment meted out to white extremists is justified. But once you call something “terrorism,” there’s no going back. The question becomes what to do about it. And to put it simply, I don’t trust American society—and especially the American state—to do anything very good about it at all.
Already, troubling signs are popping up about how we are going to handle our new focus on “white nationalist terrorism.” The New York Times editorial board urged American law enforcement to “target white nationalists with the same zeal that they have targeted radical Islamic terrorists,” adding, “ensuring the security of the homeland demands it.” Some conservatives are drawing the same parallels. 2020 candidates from Bernie Sanders to Pete Buttigieg—who explicitly compared El Paso to 9/11—have called for a ramping up of law enforcement activity against white nationalists.
I would actually much prefer that we don’t replicate the “war on terror” framework for domestic purposes. That war has been built on authoritarianism, torture, widespread assaults on civil liberties, and millions of dead bodies. Any domestic response would obviously play out on a different scale than an international one, but the “war on terror” has already had ruinous consequences for our domestic politics. This is surely not what most people on the left want, but we have to confront that it is what we might invite in by being so eager to embrace the language of terrorism. We have seen in the “war on terror” that, once you inject these ideas into the cultural bloodstream, it is hard to control them in a way that feels like real justice.
There is a level of inherent cognitive dissonance that crops up whenever this issue arises. Broadly speaking, the left is against the expansion of the carceral state, and does not trust American law enforcement—itself riddled with white supremacy—to enforce laws or enhance public safety in an equitable and just way. (Splinter’s Paul Blest recently summed this view up well.) The history of COINTELPRO alone shows the horrors that can emerge when the government turns its attention to what it considers to be domestic threats. There is precious little reason to assume that any post-El Paso expansion of the security state will actually be used to primarily target white supremacists instead of people of color, leftists, and other dissenters. It is also not outlandish to imagine the definition of terrorism being expanded even further, to places people do not want or intend.
That doesn’t stop people from yearning for the FBI to go after white nationalists, or for white killers to receive stiff jail sentences. People who would normally recoil at the harshest machinery of the state find themselves clamoring for it to kick into gear. This is, again, more than understandable—people are simply asking for the system as it is presently constituted to approximate some degree of fairness. But if we want a different system—one that is not based on a draconian, reactionary, all-encompassing criminal justice dragnet—we must at least recognize the contradictions playing out in front of us.
I recognize that I am writing this from the perspective of a white man who—despite the fact that I am also a Jew—is not, by any means, the chief target of white supremacists. And I don’t bring any of this up because I have an answer for what we are supposed to do. Just about every possible response has problems. Are we supposed to maintain the racist double standards around terrorism, or tell the government not to do something about the spread of white nationalist extremism? Of course not. But envisioning the end of the criminal justice system as we know it, or the rollback of the police state, or an end to forever wars abroad, means having a serious conversation about the way we think about violence in our society. It means having some uncomfortable conversations about exactly what kind of power we want our government to wield over its citizens, how we as a culture want to respond to the hatreds in our midst, and whether the framework we advocate for will help us build a more just world. That work can begin by being thoughtful—and critical—about the language that we use.