Within hours of the Christchurch massacre on March 15, a question was posed on Twitter: “What term should be used for white male terrorism?”
It sounds like an innocent query, a genuine attempt to name and thereby understand what had just occurred in a peaceful land. But the question reveals a troubling bias. It suggests that violence by white men is somehow different from that perpetrated by anyone else.
Why? The violence in Christchurch was, like any terrorist attack, barbarous, bloody, indefensible. It was meant to terrorize. A terrorist attack, whatever the ethnicity of the perpetrator, must be called by its proper name. In a speech made after the shootings, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern unequivocally stated: “It is clear that this can only be described as a terrorist attack.”
The attack on two New Zealand mosques was terrorism just as much as that on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi in September 2013; on the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine in January 2015; on western tourists on a Tunisian beach later that same year, or on concertgoers at the Manchester Arena in Britain in 2017.
The extremist group Al Shabaab claimed responsibility for Westgate; the gunmen in Paris said they belonged to Al Qaeda in Yemen; ISIS said it was behind the Tunisian beach assault; the Manchester suicide bomber may have been radicalized in Libya.
No one has ever expressed doubt that the incidents listed above were acts of plain-and-simple terrorism. Politicians and police forces have had no problem describing them as such.
Many ideologically inspired crimes – often against non-white people – are not described as terrorist acts, just a manifestation of mental illness or temporary insanity.
Will Christchurch restore the true, broader meaning of the word “terrorism,” as the use of violence and intimidation to coerce a government or community into acceding to specific political demands? That should be the response from the top down – by leaders around the world, starting with the president of the United States.
In fact, no category of terrorist is more dangerous to America right now than its own, home-grown far right wing.
In February, a U.S. Coast Guard lieutenant and self-described white nationalist was arrested in Maryland for plotting to kill prominent journalists and Democratic politicians as well as “leftists in general.” He had amassed a huge arms cache and like the New Zealand shooter, had detailed knowledge of the manifesto written by Anders Behring Breivik, the far-right Norwegian who killed 77 people in 2011.
If this were not alarming enough, look to a November analysis by the Washington Post of data on global terrorism. The Post found that of 263 incidences of domestic terrorism from 2010-2017, the right wing was responsible for 92 – nearly three times as the 38 committed by those who subscribed to an ideology of militant Islam.