Apr 25, 2013 - Issue 514

  BlackCommentator.com: How Do You Spell 'Terrorism'? - The African World By Bill Fletcher, Jr., BC Editorial Board

The bombings in Boston left me with a feeling of having been kicked in the stomach.  They represented an atrocity.  And in the immediate aftermath I kept thinking about not only the actual victims of the bombings but also my friends in the Boston area who could have become victims of, if not that bombing, further bombings.

The killing of one suspect and the apprehending of the second, therefore, was satisfying to many people, affected as we were not only by the brutality of the killings and woundings, but as well by the arbitrariness associated with the bombings.

Until the identification of the suspects, there were multiple discussions of which I was part where there was speculation as to the identity of the murderers.  In virtually every discussion at least one person said the same thing:  "...I hope that they were white supremacists because if they were foreign-born, there will be a racist and anti-foreign reaction..."  And so, for the last week there have been some interesting exchanges about just that question.  The identity of the suspects as Chechens complicates reactions since they are generally classified as "white" when they come to the USA but they are also, in his case, Muslim.  Ugh, amazing how white supremacy makes everything so difficult!

There remains this open question - if not open wound - as to how we, in the USA, understand terrorism.  I do not mean the question of whether President Obama should have used the word "terrorism" in describing the Boston bombing - a reference that brings with it certain legal implications - but rather how regular people understand terrorism.

The BC Cover Story this week is a commentary on just this question, focusing on the international implications. The other side of the coin is domestic. Specifically, terrorism is, in fact, being used in the USA as a word to describe political killings that serve a political motive that arbitrarily place white people in danger.  Terrorism, though having no official international definition, is the explicit targeting of civilians ("soft targets") for political reasons.  But the additional words I am adding in my definition reflect how terrorism is defined in real terms in the USA.

In examining the history of the USA there are countless examples of terrorism. The destruction of Native American villages; the lynchings of African Americans and Chicanos; the burning of the Asian homes and persons...the list could go on. There are specific organizations that have engaged in various forms of terrorist activity, e.g., the Ku Klux Klan, Black Guard, Posse Comitatus.  Rarely, unless discussed by those on the Left, are such incidents and organizations described as "terrorist."  Sometimes they are called "extremists", sometimes other terms are used; generally they are thought of as crazy or misguided; but rarely are they understood to be manifestations of terrorism, and in some cases, state-sponsored terrorism (i.e., sponsored by specific components of government in order to conduct extra-legal actions).

Subsequent to the Boston bombings many commentators discussed this as the first successful terrorist action conducted in the USA since the 11 September 2001 attacks.  Yet such an assertion is patently untrue.  First, the actual motivations of the suspects remains far from clear.  Were they, for instance, driven by a coherent world view, e.g., Timothy McVeigh, or were they living in their own fantasy world or driven by personal demons, e.g., Columbine?  Second, in the years since 9/11 there have been numerous police assaults on civilians, not to mention right-wing attacks and killings directed at people of color, or in some cases, as we have recently seen, representatives of the government.  Yet these actions are not described by the elite media as terrorist.

What we found, in the aftermath of Boston, is a reminder that when violence, arbitrary or targeted, is conducted against people of color, the elite classifies it as anything but terrorism.  When, on the other hand, violence directly affects whites or when the arbitrariness of it has the potential to negatively affect, whites, it becomes terrorism.  It is this sense that violence against people of color - and in fact other dispossessed groups - can somehow be contained and not affect the 'legitimate' population that results in a de-sensitization of white America to the atrocities that befall those of us who have experienced the underside of the 'American Dream.'

The confusion that currently exists surrounding how to understand the motivations of those who carried out the Boston Marathon bombings should offer us all an opportunity to re-open a discussion not only about terrorism in the current moment, but about the manner in which terror has been a central component of the development of the USA, whether utilized against people of color, or utilized against any significant portion of the population that threatened the status quo.

In the mean time, our hearts go out to the families of those who were murdered on April 15th, and to the individuals who were wounded as a result of the sociopathic act witnessed and replayed to millions.

BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board member and Columnist, Bill Fletcher, Jr., is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfricaForum, and the author of They’re Bankrupting Us” - And Twenty Other Myths about Unions. He is also the co-author of Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path toward Social Justice, which examines the crisis of organized labor in the USA. Click here to contact Mr. Fletcher.