What is a Ter­ror­ist?

Herizons - - Arts & Culture Columns - by Su­san G. COlE

Lan­guage is such a beau­ti­ful thing—but it is open to deeply prob­lem­atic abuse. Nowhere is this more ev­i­dent these days than in the lazy ways in which peo­ple use the word ter­ror­ist.

I’m not just talk­ing about U.S. Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial hope­ful Don­ald Trump’s as­sump­tion that all Mus­lims are po­ten­tial ter­ror­ists. Rather, I’m talk­ing about who gets la­belled as a ter­ror­ist and how the threat they pose is of­ten over­stated, as well as about who doesn’t get la­belled a ter­ror­ist and what that says about our col­lec­tive pri­or­i­ties.

I’m set to go on a cam­paign to la­bel rapists Canada’s most men­ac­ing ter­ror­ists. I might feel dif­fer­ently if I lived in be­sieged Syria, or Iraq, or Afghanistan, but women in the coun­try where I live face a se­cu­rity threat from men in their own com­mu­ni­ties that is greater than any imag­ined threat they face from Is­lamic State mil­i­tants.

Who gets la­belled a ter­ror­ist in the first place? In a se­ries of on­line posts, prompted by the Wash­ing­ton Post’s com­ment that white shooter Dy­lann Roof—the white­supremacist who killed nine church­go­ers in Charleston, South Carolina in July—was not charged with ter­ror­ism of­fences, var­i­ous com­men­ta­tors dis­tilled the de­bate in the fol­low­ing way: White mass mur­der­ers are au­to­mat­i­cally re­ferred to as men­tally ill, Black mass shoot­ers are seen as crim­i­nals and Mus­lim killers are called ter­ror­ists. The racism is plain.

When gun­man Michael Ze­haf-Bibeau en­tered the Par­lia­ment Build­ings in 2014 after shoot­ing Cor­po­ral Nathan Cir­illo at the Na­tional War Memo­rial, prime min­is­ter Stephen Harper was quick to ratchet up the col­lec­tive panic. He tried to con­vince Cana­di­ans that ISIS was a ma­jor threat to our coun­try and pro­posed send­ing planes to the Mid­dle East to bomb all the Is­lamists to king­dom come.

In Toronto, po­lice board chair Alok Mukher­jee re­sponded with this tweet: “Amer­i­cans killed by Is­lamic State mil­i­tants: 3 Amer­i­cans killed by po­lice: 500+.” This was be­fore the San Ber­nadino, Cal­i­for­nia, shoot­ings that saw 14 peo­ple killed by a cou­ple who may have been ex­trem­ists, but weren’t di­rected by Is­lamic State mil­i­tants.

Mukher­jee’s point was that Harper’s ex­ploita­tion of the Ottawa shoot­ings was pro­foundly cyn­i­cal and that the strat­egy to en­gage in all-out mil­i­tary ac­tion against Is­lamic State mil­i­tants half­way across the world—and, we might add, Harper’s pre-elec­tion bat­tle on women who wear the niqab—was a huge over­re­ac­tion.

Harper couldn’t wait to call the Ottawa at­tacker a ter­ror­ist, but what ex­actly is a ter­ror­ist any­way? Wouldn’t there be just as much va­lid­ity in us­ing the term ter­ror­ist to ap­ply to a rapist? He meets the cri­te­ria: His goal is to un­law­fully take power; he can im­mo­bi­lize en­tire pop­u­la­tions, much moreso than any­one em­u­lat­ing the San Ber­nadino shoot­ers. Even if those killings had been di­rected by Is­lamic State ex­trem­ists, would that Cal­i­for­nia spree have sub­se­quently dis­cour­aged any­one from go­ing to their work­places?

Yet, think about the im­pact of a sin­gle sex­ual preda­tor on an en­tire com­mu­nity of women. When women hear about a rapist in their com­mu­ni­ties, they start mov­ing only in well-lit ar­eas, they fear walk­ing alone and tend not to travel late at night.

Even with­out a spe­cific threat, women of­ten tend to mod­ify their be­hav­iour out of fear of be­ing at­tacked. See a group of guys head­ing to­wards you on the side­walk? Cross the street. You know you should be al­lowed to dress how you want, go where you want and hold your head high. But you cover up and keep your head down. No one knows this bet­ter than In­dige­nous women.

As the groundwork for the long-awaited fed­eral in­quiry into the murders and dis­ap­pear­ances of In­dige­nous women—whose num­bers, at around 1,200, are greater than the num­ber of sup­posed ter­ror­ist ca­su­al­ties in Canada—is pre­pared, we can push for the in­quiry to take on the sys­temic racism and sex­ism that make In­dige­nous women vul­ner­a­ble to violence, in­clud­ing mur­der.

It has taken years and a change of gov­ern­ment to get ac­tion on that file. We’ve known the ef­fects of sex­ual as­sault for even longer. Yet xeno­pho­bia and ir­re­spon­si­ble politi­cians of­ten min­i­mize the threat of violence to women, and to In­dige­nous women in par­tic­u­lar, on Cana­dian soil, fo­cus­ing our at­ten­tion on a bat­tle that barely touches us.

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