Terror and tolerance
What distinguishes a mass killing of 58 like the one that took place in Las Vegas last month, from last week’s terrorist attack in New York that took eight lives?
Clearly, the slaughter committed by Stephen Paddock in Las Vegas was far more lethal than the truck murders caused by Sayfullo Saipov. And yet, three days after the former atrocity, President Donald Trump, when asked about the fact that Paddock had a huge personal arsenal, and whether the government would now act on gun control, replied: “It’s too early to discuss that now.”
But within hours of the New York attack, Trump was on Twitter, demanding the death penalty for Saipov, or at the very least, incarceration at the notorious American prison in Guantanamo. Trump also vowed to end the immigration lottery system that has allowed 50,000 people around the world to settle in the US every year. This is the programme under which Saipov moved to America in 2010 from Uzbekistan.
Normally, terrorism is defined as committing acts of random terror against innocent civilians to further a political agenda. By this definition, Anders Breivik, the cold-blooded Norwegian killer who murdered 92, should have been designated a terrorist because he had a broad political manifesto aimed at stopping Muslim immigration.
Thus it would appear that right-wing nuts like Breivik, and lone wolf killers like Paddock do not fall into the category of “terrorists,” but Saipov does. Why does make a difference? For starters, by equating Muslims with random acts of terrorism, a direct connection is made between Islam and violence. It is certainly true that Islamic terrorist groups in many parts of the world have been killing innocent people. Their victims are mostly other Muslims. Tough security measures in the West have made it harder to carry out attacks there, but as we have seen, every once in a while, some killers get through.
In a recent article in The New York Times, Max Fisher and Amanda Taub write:
“But the new generation of Islamist terrorism, conducted by individuals citing far-off inspiration, has blurred the distinction between terrorist and disturbed loner. So have recent mass shooters who show signs of both mental illness and an attachment to vague ideological causes.
“As a result, terrorism is in the eye of the beholder, determined as much by the attacker as by the community that is targeted, which must decide whether it represents a broader threat requiring a response.
“Each attack, then, quickly sets off a zero-sum debate over the related issues of gun-control, immigration or religious tolerance – some of the most divisive issues in the country — litigated in a moment of national duress.”
The intensity of the American response to terrorism, as opposed to more measured reactions in most other countries faced with similar threats, is partly due to its unique history. For one, it has never suffered external attack before 9/11. Far from the warring continent of Europe, it had the luxury of deciding which conflict it would intervene in. So the trauma inflicted by the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon 16 years ago has given successive governments public support for their attacks on various Muslim countries.
Thus, the American presence in Afghanistan continues despite over 2,000 dead US soldiers and 110,000 Afghans deaths, plus an outlay of some two trillion dollars. The war in Iraq cost Washington another couple of trillions or so, and over 6,000 dead soldiers. The US-led intervention in Libya has left a chaotic, dysfunctional state that is the source of numerous arms that supply terror groups from Niger to the Sinai Desert. It is also the gateway to Europe for tens of thousands of African refugees.
Internally, the fear of Islamic terrorism generated by the government has caused ordinary Americans to support increasing defence budgets. While other departments suffer cuts, the Pentagon continues to receive more and more funds. Homeland Security, a department created after 9/11, is another recipient of government largesse.
But more importantly, America is developing a siege mentality that is transforming it from an open, welcoming society to one that is increasingly suspicious and intolerant. Trump’s election is a sign of this change, and an indication of things to come. The whole debate on terrorism and immigration feeds into the ferocious culture war being fought in America today.
The reason the Manhattan attack was branded an act of terror by the media is that according to the police, the shooter cried out “Allahu Akbar” as he stepped out of his rented pick-up truck. Had he yelled the same expression in English – God is the Greatest – I doubt we would have had the same hysterical reaction. And yet, as Wajahat Ali writes in a New York Times op-ed column, Muslims utter these words scores of times a day without committing acts of terrorism. He goes on to say:
“That’s why it hurts that on Tuesday, ‘Allahu” and ‘akbar’, those two simple words so close to our hearts, instantly shaped the entire news coverage and presidential response. A common, benign phrase used daily by Muslims, especially during prayer, is now understood as code for ‘It was terrorism’.”
Words and images shape attitudes, and can lead to prejudices. Neighbours who until recently were friends are transformed overnight into suspicious foreigners. Beards and burqas become symbols of a hostile faith. As these impressions are reinforced by news of American deaths on distant battlefields, people stop asking what they were doing there in the first place. If they were fighting Muslims, they were defending the American homeland. Thus, “Allahu Akbar” mutates from a simple statement of belief into a war cry. WHAT distinguishes a mass killing of 58 like the one that took place in Las Vegas last month, from last week’s terrorist attack in New York that took eight lives?