The myth of the “Muslim Terror threat”

Fox News co-host Eric Bolling recently defended the NYPD’s spying program by claiming that “every terrorist on American soil has been a Muslim” a preposterous claim that needs to be forcefully addressed, since it is so patently false as to constitute an outright lie.  In truth, Muslim terror attacks on American soil are a relatively new phenomenon–really just a product of the past 20 years–and do not even constitute a majority of domestic terrorist attacks within that relatively short time frame.

It is important to remember what the definition of terrorism actually is:  The use of violence and force against civilians to frighten and coerce.  In fact, the official legal definition used by the FBI is as follows:

“the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives” (28 C.F.R. Section 0.85).

By this definition, the number of white, Christian terrorists and terrorist organizations responsible for attacks on American soil include Timothy McVeigh, Eric Rudolph, George Metesky, the Weather Underground, the Aryan Nation, Scott Roeder, the Ku Klux Klan, The Order, The McNamara brothers and Ted Kaszynski. Non-Muslim, and not all-white terrorist organizations would include the Earth Liberation Front, the Symbianese Liberation Army, the Animal Liberation Front, The Black Liberation Army, Alpha-66 and Omega-7.  When tracked across the span of terrorist individuals, organizations and attacks this nation has seen since the dawn of the Republic, Muslim terrorists are merely a tiny spot on a vast canvas–worthy of mention only because of the scale and recentness of their efforts.

Since 1992 there have been only two successful terrorist attacks on American soil attributable to Muslims:  the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and the 9/11 attack.  There have been at least 9 successful Christian terrorist attacks on our soil during that same time frame:  The bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City, Eric Rudolph’s four bombing’s–including that of Centennial Park during the Atlanta Olympic games–and 4 murders of doctors in separate attacks by Scott Roeder, Paul Hill, James Kopp, and Michael Griffin.  Eleven if you include James Adkisson’s attack on a liberal church and Andrew Stack’s plane flight into the IRS building–which would mean that Muslim terrorism accounted for less than a fifth of all terror attacks in America in just the past two decades–and that over 80% of terror attacks have been committed by white, Christian men.  By Bolling’s logic the NYPD is wasting department resources investigating mosques, when churches are clearly more likely to produce active terrorists.

To be fair, there have been an additional two attempted attacks by Muslims–Ahmed Ressam’s Millenium Plot against LAX and Richard Reid’s shoe bomb fiasco.  I suppose I should include the 2010 Times Square incident, though calling the crazy, Rube Goldberg collection of shit that Faisal Shazad piled into the back of his car a “car bomb” is a huge stretch; if your explosive a) alerts passers-by,  b) provides them time to contact authorities,  c) provides authorities time to assess the situation and ultimately d) disarm the device–all after the device has been ignited–I think it’s fair to suggest that bomb-making probably isn’t your thing.  This is especially true if your”explosive” device employs one or more propane tanks, and if these tanks are full it’s probably a good bet that a significant amount of your “training” consisted of a marathon weekend watching action movies.  This guy’s luckiest break was that he was so colossally inept at constructing explosives that he didn’t manage to assemble anything with a statistically reasonable chance at actually exploding; had he been any more capable, he would have likely blown himself up during its assembly.  I know the authorities played up the threat, but what would you rather tell the press if you were the NYPD, that you thwarted a dangerous terrorist plot that had the potential to cause a great deal of damage and loss of life, or that you put out a poorly-constructed hazmat fire some idiot started in the back of his car?

There have been a number of instances that others might claim as attacks or attempted attacks;  The recent arrest of a Moroccan, the Portland Christmas tree bombing, the Miami Seven, the Buffalo Six, and probably others I’m forgetting, none of which were credible terrorist plots at all.  The problem with all of these cases is that in none of them was there any actual threat.  These weren’t terrorist plots, they were acts of political theater.  In all of these cases the FBI handled the recruiting, planning, financing, supply, and intelligence for the ostensible “plots”, making it much easier to scoop up the alleged perpetrators before anything bad actually happened.  None of the suspects would have likely even been involved if FBI informants hadn’t talked them into it in the first place, nor is there any hard evidence that they would have been involved in any other plots, absent U.S. government intervention.  If the past decade is any indication, the biggest mistake the FBI made in the run up to the 9/11 attacks was not coming up with the idea first.  The FBI’s counter-terrorism unit is like the tee ball division of professional law enforcement:  you get to carefully set up and plan the crime, you control every aspect of it, and everybody cheers like you’re McGwire hitting number 73 when you finally roll the chumps you hired for the dirty work.

In fairness to the FBI, they are in a difficult position.  They are tasked with stopping terrorist plots.  The politicians they report to want the occasional “proof” that they’re keeping American’s safe, and with only two actual and two credible attacks over the course of two decades, it’s not like they have a huge pool of real threats to draw from; I sympathize with the poor schmucks who joined the unit.  They no doubt expected they’d be keeping America safe from real dangers, only to discover they’d wandered into a career tar pit and the only way they would–or even could–score the big busts they needed to get themselves back out was to create the crimes they were officially there to “prevent” in the first place.  If any president of the United States ever creates an anti-elephant task force to protect Americans from the threat of wild elephant attacks, you can be goddamn sure that every year or two, the FBI is going to gun down a pachyderm and throw a press conference hailing the event–even if they have to purchase them from the Tennessee Elephant Sanctuary.  The American people will know, by God, that President Whoever is keeping them safe from a brutal trampling.

I’m also not including the Fort Hood shooting or plot, because it is not possible to conduct or plan a “terrorist” attack against a military base; the proper term for actions, real or intended, against a military target is “attack”.  The most one can accuse Nidal Hassan of is a guerrilla attack, which is something else entirely.  Likewise, the one or two “terrorist” plots that were allegedly planned against Forts Hood, Lewis, and Dix were also against military targets and therefore not “terrorist” attacks.  Terrorism is defined by the tactic, not the skin color or ethnicity of the perpetrator.

And that leads us to why, of all the people on the panel with Bolling, all but one of them agreed with the factually inaccurate perception that Muslims constitute the majority of terrorist perpetrators.  It is because they are different, they are foreign, they belong to a religion and hail from cultures that are alien to us.  That makes them inherently more frightening.  In anthropological terms, they are “the other”, and they instill a greater fear in us when they behave in ways both inexplicable and potentially or actually hostile than do the actions of people like us, who may hold different beliefs but are at least comprehensible.  We may not agree with Eric Rudolph setting a bomb off in a crowded Olympic pavilion, or Scott Roeder shooting a doctor who was attending church services on the steps of the building, but because they are like us and come from the same culture–if not the same subset–they don’t spark the same sense of panic and dread.  We can separate their cultural and religious subsets from our own because we comprehend the distinction between an ordinary churchgoing citizen and a crazed fanatic willing to kill for his warped, perverse sub-cult.  Furthermore, we understand that even within that subcult it is only a handful of extreme zealots willing to go “full retard“.  It’s easier for us to compartmentalize and contextualize their actions.

When the terrorists are “the other” it becomes significantly harder to do that.  Because they come from a religious and cultural background unknown to us, we can’t distinguish the hardcore zealots from the fervently faithful.  Their sects and the distinctions that separate them are alien and impenetrable, and lacking context we can’t tell the Islamic version of Fred Phelps–obnoxious and repugnant, but ultimately harmless–from an Islamic Michael Griffin.

The bottom line is that claiming “every terrorist on American soil has been a Muslim” is a remarkably stupid thing to say, and displays an utter lack of any serious thought or historical knowledge.  The vast majority of terrorist attacks on American soil have been carried out by Americans, the majority of whom were Christians.  Bolling’s claim isn’t just ignorant, it’s dangerous.  It creates and endorses a worldview that Muslims are some sort of specific threat, and does so in the face of rational thought and empirical evidence.  That the only guy who argued with him was Juan “Muslim clothes are scary” Williams has a particularly rich symmetry, but the rest of the panel was completely oblivious to reality, blinded by cultural filters and ignorance, steeped in fear of “the other”.

We can not allow ourselves to think this way, and we can’t remain silent when others publicly do. Fear can become a feedback loop; fear and suspicion of  “the other” leads to fear and suspicion from “the other”, and vice versa.  The fear that leads some to unfairly target Muslims for scrutiny creates the justification for the next Faisal Shahzad, which leads to increased scrutiny and suspicion, and the cycle continues and escalates until it is actively resisted or shattered by unspeakable tragedy.  This is the danger of sentiments like Bolling and his misguided fellows, the danger of not confronting it.  To break the cycle we must first recognize it, and then resist it.  Franklin Roosevelt famously said “the only thing to fear, is fear itself.”  This was exactly what he meant.

Note:  I did not include the Anthrax attacks of 2001 or von Brunn’s shooting of the museum guard, like the Raw Story article I linked to did, because it is unclear that either of these fit the definition of true terrorist attacks.  Von Brunn’s attack seems more like a run-of-the-mill hate crime, and without an actual suspect or motive for the anthrax attacks (the case against Ivins is weak at best, and leaves more questions than it answers) it’;s not entirely clear that it was a clear case of terrorism.  If it was a terrorist attack, why did no one claim credit, and what social or political agenda was it attempting to advance? 

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