Monday, March 01, 2004

Terrorism? What terrorism?

It's starting to become clear that, to the Bush administration -- and their corporate and media cohorts -- the definition of a "terrorist" is "someone we don't like."

All in the past week, we were treated to the following spectacles:

-- An administration official -- the education secretary, no less -- declaring the National Education Association a "terrorist organization."

-- The chairman of American International Group referred to lawyers who are opposed to Republican plans for tort reform as "bar terrorists."

-- CNN's Judy Woodruff, in an interview with Jean-Bertrand Aristide, chiding the Haitian leader that the armed thugs rampaging through the island nation were not "terrorists" but rather "political opponents."

But in the meantime, a mail bomber in Arizona can set off an explosion in a government office -- one aimed at promoting racial diversity -- and hardly anyone hears a peep about it. Certainly, no one has begun referring to the attack as terrorism, even though that is quite clearly what it is.

It happened Thursday in Scottsdale:
Bomb in mail injures 3 at Scottsdale city office

Don Logan, director of Scottsdale's Office of Diversity and Dialogue, suffered serious burns on his hands and arms in the 1 p.m. explosion at the Human Resources Building near Scottsdale City Hall. A mailroom employee delivered the letter-size package to Logan, to whom it was addressed, in his cubicle.

Logan's secretary, Renita Linyard, and a co-worker, Jacque Bell, suffered minor injuries.

When the package exploded, it shot shrapnel into the walls, carpet and ceiling and burned a 3 1/2-inch-wide hole in Logan's desk. About 25 people were evacuated from the building.

Of course, since this is only the local government office most likely to be targeted by white supremacists, and it was indeed headed by a black man, local police officials and the federal postal inspectors promptly declined to consider this an act of terrorism, emphasizing instead that they were looking into whether someone had personal reasons for sending the bomb:
City officials were unaware of any grievances, threats or orders of protection against Logan or others in the Office of Diversity and Dialogue. They say they have no reason to believe race or Logan's position provided a motive for the bombing. Logan is Black.

Well, it's obvious that investigators should be looking at personal motives for the attack. At the same time, the very fact that the office that was bombed operated a racially sensitive program and is a likely target for hate groups should have alerted investigators to the presumably equal likelihood this was a case of domestic terrorism. Evidently, it did not.

The same "see no evil" approach to the investigation seems to be the mode of operation for federal postal inspectors. In the next day's story there was this explanation:
"We are looking at all motives as a possibility," said Bob Maes, spokesman for the Postal Inspection Service. He said Logan's professional and personal lives are being investigated, with a focus on someone who might hold a grudge against him.

Fortunately, not everyone is buying this:
City leaders throughout the Valley questioned racism's role in the bombing.

Logan's colleagues said his position made him a natural target.

Logan, who is Black, grew up in south Phoenix and became one of the Valley's leading voices for diversity.

"His mere being and his work (were) a threat to someone, and that's unfortunate and that's sad," said Rory Gilbert, who heads up Phoenix's Human Relations Commission.

Logan, a 24-year Scottsdale employee, created Scottsdale's Office of Diversity and Dialogue in 1998, after allegations of racism in the city's Police Department. He's responsible for community outreach, employee training and dealing with grievances filed by citizens or employees.

Gilbert believes the attack against Logan could be tied to a hate group.

"We know there has been a lot more activity from hate groups as of late," Gilbert said. Leaflets that targeted Blacks were distributed in Glendale near 54th Avenue and Greenway Road on Wednesday. "We can't allow this to be the normative and just shrug it off."

Unfortunately, as we saw all too recently with the ricin attack on U.S. Senate offices, fairly clear-cut cases of domestic terrorism are being treated as ordinary crimes -- or "isolated incidents."

This is true not merely of law enforcement, but the media as well. Perhaps the Arizona mail bomber is, in Woodruff's formula, just a "political opponent" of the diversity office.

One can only imagine, of course, what the official and media reaction would have been if this were, say, the local Arizona immigration offices of Homeland Security that had been bombed instead. Consider what the response would have been had the target been a prominent anti-terrorism leader. Just as with the Texas cyanide bomb case, it seems fairly certain that this would have been lead news had the chief suspects been Muslims or left-wing "ecoterrorists."

Warbaby at World in Conflict put it this way, in the context of the ricin attack:
This is a big problem. Terrorism is political or social violence with effects that extend far beyond the immediate target. Crime is limited in its effects and directed towards limited personal gain. The two are fundamentally different and must be addressed by different methods and policies. The recent ricin incidents are terrorism. Period.

And until that sinks into the numb skulls at Homeland Security, the FBI, the U.S. Senate, the House of Representatives and the other denizens of government, law enforcement and the military, we're not facing up to the problem.

There is an institutional element to this. The FBI has traditionally been slow to recognize certain crimes as terrorism. For instance, for years they declined to treat abortion-clinic bombings as acts of domestic terrorism; that was, however, before Eric Rudolph's rampage made irrevocably clear that this was indeed their real nature. And if you examine FBI statistics on domestic terrorism and compare them to records of real crimes, you'll discover that a substantial body of fairly clear domestic-terror cases that fully meet the FBI's own definition of terrorism have been omitted from the FBI's consideration.

Nonetheless, it is clear that this tendency has, since Sept. 11, become the pro forma policy of federal law enforcement. I've described previously how the Bush administration's emphasis on the "war on terror" bears all the earmarks of a political marketing campaign, precisely because it exclusively focuses on Arab nations as the source of terrorism, and when dealing with its domestic aspect, is only concerned about Muslim extremists operating clandestinely here. The existence of far-right, white-supremacist domestic terrorism as a dual threat undercuts such a strategy.

As Robert Jensen observed in an interview on Amy Goodman's Democracy Now! program dealing with the Texas cyanide bomb case:
I think the reason for that, if I were to speculate -- not being in the brain of John Ashcroft -- is that cases like this -- of domestic terrorism, especially when they involve white supremacist and conservative Christian groups, don't have any political value for an administration, especially this particular administration. Therefore, why -- if one were going to be crass and cynical, why would they highlight this?

On the other hand, foreign terrorism and things connected to Arab, South Asian and Muslim groups, well those have value because they can be used to whip up support for military interventions, which this administration is very keen on.

So I think the politics are very clear here. Prosecutors' offices are always political. I mean, I have covered even small town prosecutors' offices and there's always a political element to them. But some are more political than others.

I think what we have to acknowledge here is that probably since the Nixon administration, we have never seen a Justice Department so completely and thoroughly politicized as this one.

Make no mistake: Domestic terrorists are at least an equal threat. They may not have mounted a body count to match Al Qaeda's 2001 attacks, but since 1995, the drumbeat of right-wing extremist violence has been regular and substantial -- much more so than anything committed by overseas terrorists. Oklahoma City alone should stand as a stark reminder of both the damage only a few of these terrorists can cause and the fact that they are motivated and quite capable of carrying them out.

As I've observed numerous times, it is important to keep in mind that the same folks who brought us Oklahoma City are still out there, still looking for opportunities to strike. And they have explicitly recognized that the post-Sept. 11 environment is ripe for taking action that benefits them.

After all, their agenda is to create as much social chaos as possible -- to so disrupt society, and divide it, and create as much terror and fear as possible, that eventually people come to believe (as they do) that democracy is a failure, that it cannot keep them secure; and so, they believe, eventually the white populace will swarm to their authoritarian agenda when that becomes clear. That has been their agenda for some time, and was the driving purpose of Oklahoma City. They clearly see the chance now to piggyback off the Al Qaeda and anthrax attacks as prime opportunities for creating serious chaos.

Making the public aware of the threat from domestic terrorists, especially as part of a real war on terrorism, would require getting the public to confront the reality that the "axis of evil" comprises not merely brown-skinned people with turbans and fanatical gleams but also that surly white guy next door with the pipe-bomb arsenal in his basement.

Robert Wright, in a terrific Slate piece titled "A Real War on Terrorism," astutely stipulated these principles as major factors in any such war:
For the foreseeable future, smaller and smaller groups of intensely motivated people will have the ability to kill larger and larger numbers of people. They won't have to claim that they speak on behalf of a whole religion. They'll just have to be reasonably intelligent, modestly well-funded, and really pissed off. It may be hard to imagine a few radical environmentalists, or Montana militiamen, or French anti-globalization activists, or Basque separatists, or Unabomber-style Luddites, killing 100,000 people. Yet what makes this plausible is exactly what makes radical Islam such a formidable long-term threat: two enduring aspects of the evolution of technology.

... Again, the point isn't to minimize radical Islam, which is probably the biggest single threat to American security of the next decade, if not longer. But as we address that threat on its own terms, we should be building a policy framework that will apply to the larger, more generic threat as well. This is especially true in light of the fact that the current phase of rapid change -- info revolution, globalization, etc. -- is hardly over, and periods of rapid change tend to spawn intensely aggrieved groups. ... The number of intensely aggrieved groups will almost certainly grow in the coming decades of rapid technological, and hence social, change.

The political problem, for the current administration, is that confronting this means throwing into stark relief the ineffectiveness of the Bush Doctrine -- particularly as it has played out in the invasion of Iraq. It makes all too clear that the current conflict is not only a grotesquely ineffective response to the unique challenges posed by terrorism, it is likely to worsen the problem exponentially.

It should be clear that Bush's "war on terror" is not only making us less safe abroad, its mishandling of domestic terrorism in the course of that "war" makes us substantially less safe at home.

Somehow, one suspects that if Bush's political opponents were to raise this point, they would wind up being called "terrorists" themselves.

[Cross-posted at The American Street.]

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