Fear State

Note: This was a paper I wrote for a class a few months ago. With the tragedy recent events, I wanted to post it.

 

On September 11th, 2001, the United States suffered the most devastating attack in the country’s young history. 19 men decided the fates of thousands of people on that September afternoon by hijacking several commercial airlines. However, it was their hijacking of Islam that cause death, destruction and pure, unadulterated hatred for the following decade and beyond.

Only nine days following the deadly attacks across northeast America, president George W. Bush stood in front of the country:

 

“I will not forget the wound to our country and those who inflicted it. I will not yield, I will not rest, I will not relent in waging this struggle for freedom and security for the American people. The course of this conflict is not known, yet its outcome is certain. Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them.”[1]

War.

Less than a week and a half following the deadliest attack in American history, George Bush declared war. However, he did not make a statement a country to declare war on, nor did he precisely identify an organization that may have exacted such an awful attack. George Bush declared a war on “terror” and “terrorists”. In fact, over the course of a massively long speech, Bush mentioned Taliban and al Qaeda a combined ten times while using the words terror or terrorist over 30 times. George Bush declared war on a feeling. George Bush declared a war of ambiguity.

Of course, Bush made statements in his address to America that this was not a war on Islam, rather “Islamic terrorism”, but the phrase went a long way into codifying an American war on difference. In the days preceding the speech and the months following, news stations ran thousands of hours of stories about “Islamic terrorists” and plastering the faces of the 19 perpetrators, 15 of whom hailed from Saudi Arabia, two from the UAE and the others from Jordan and Lebanon. In the years following the attack, the American media and government was conditioning citizens to fear Muslim people. This fear manifested itself in many different ways, but the worst, of course was the government sanctioned profiling to be exacted by both the law enforcers of this country and mere citizens.

“If you see something, say something.” Plasters itself across the walls of pubic transportation in New York. It is hard to go a day without reading something where a government reminds me to be afraid. That is what it is! No time have I seen one of those signs and felt safer, because it operates to instill anxiety. Even worse, it allows vagueness to be perceived as danger and appropriates vigilantism. A random man could make another person out to be a threat and exact sanctioned violence against them or inform a more empowered body to do so. In Fanon’s “Black Skin, White Mask”, it is talked about at great length that a minority person’s being an intention is so often defined by the empowered group. That pattern plays itself out hundreds of times a year when unarmed black people are gunned down by police officers operating out of a supposed fear for their lives, but the police officers are rarely asked to pay for their mistakes because society says they are allowed to afraid of black people and that black people are expendable. In that same vein, “If you see something, say something” has a similar impact as the racist “stop and frisk” laws that plagued New York no less than a few years ago. These laws allow for empowered bodies to decide the worth of a marginalized and allow them to exact violence against them imputatively.

The language of “terror” and “terrorists” remains problematic due to its equivocalness. It disembodies actions from people. Labeling disagreeable acts as terrorism allows people to remove themselves from the why, when that is often the most important question. So often there is a jump to arms because “we need to fight terrorism”, except history has taught that jumping into wars, especially with a vague cause will only create more war and death, all of which is pointless. At least trying to understand motives opens the door for a more tactile approach to curbing violence and yet there is rarely an effort by the public or politicians to think critically. It is always more popular to declare war. After all, with a government made up predominantly of white men, they know it is in their nature to use violence to confirm their status. To them, violence is always the answer. Not only does “terrorism” create ambiguity in the action, it is the type of storybook verbiage that dehumanizes groups of people. In Jasbir Puar and Amit Rai’s excellent piece “Terrorist, Monster, Fag” they expound on the idea of making a monster out of these extremist groups.

“Merely glance at the language used by the dominant media in its interested depictions of Islamic militancy. So, as an article in the New York Times points out, “Osama bin Laden, according to Fox News Channel anchors, analysts and correspondents, is ‘a dirtbag,’ ‘a monster’ overseeing a ‘web of hate.’ His followers in Al Qaeda are ‘terror goons.’ Taliban fighters are ‘diabolical’ and ‘henchmen.'” Or, in another Web article, we read: “It is important to realize that the Taliban does not simply tolerate the presence of bin Laden and his terrorist training camps in Afghanistan. It is part and parcel of the same evil alliance. Al-Qa’ida and the Taliban are two different heads of the same monster, and they share the same fanatical obsession: imposing a strict and distorted brand of Islam on all Muslims and bringing death to all who oppose him’”[2]

The language used to describe extremists is reminiscent of the language used to dehumanize and vilify blacks in America for hundreds of years. This language opens the door for Muslims to be viewed as subhuman and second-class citizens, for white America to let fear rule their opinion of a people… That is what remains worst of all about “terrorist”. While it disembodies and dehumanizes one group of people, it empowers white America to commit violence in the name of some “greater good”.

White anger and white violence are what has shaped and driven this country. From the revolution that birthed America to the violent workers uprisings over the course of many decades that shaped reforms, white violence has always been something that was expected and appropriate. America celebrates its white war heroes, but America will never celebrate colored revolutionaries in its history nor will it encourage black violence. Major gun control legislation was not introduced into America until the rise of the Black Panthers in the 1960s and the government said that all convicted felons and drug users could not purchase firearms. Of course, in a country where blacks are disproportionately arrested and charged for such crimes, this leaves legal firearms primarily in the hands of white people. Of course, in the year 2015 where there are mass shootings on a regular basis, usually carried out by white males, congress constantly resists against more gun control. It was only when blacks were empowered to use firearms to protect themselves were politicians ready to curb the distribution of guns.

Of course, this violence that white America can utilize goes beyond the distribution of firearms. It goes to real time, active violence that immediately results in the death of civilians. How many drone strikes have America carried out that have left innocent people dead or without homes? How many weeks ago that an American airstrike blew up an Afghani hospital, murdering the injured, sick, innocent and those helping them… How are these attacks any different that militants shooting up a movie theater in Paris? All of the death is tragic and all of the violence was committed in the name of defending ideologies. However, we are not asked to think about American violence in such a way, because it is never called terrorism. Going back to violence on our own soil, a white man carrying out a shooting against black people in a church will not be called terrorism, nor will a white man killing people, including police officers, at a Planned Parenthood. Of course, both men were acting under their extremists convictions, just as the Paris shooters were, but “terrorist” belongs to white America to label marginalized people who they are threatened by. The moment “terrorist” is used by people of power to describe a white male shooter; it will deteriorate the system in which it functions.

White anger is a sacred entity. White people are allowed to be confused, angry and threatened and immediately act on them, but will redirect any anger directed towards them or label that anger as violent and monstrous. Anger, of course, can be a productive force. As Audra Lorde says, anger “is a liberating and strengthening act of clarification, for it is in the painful process of this translation that we identify who are out allies with whom we have grave differences, and who are our genuine enemies”[3] The issue is that public anger is something that is reserved for white people. In Lorde’s essay, she talks about how when she tries to express her anger with systemic racism and explain to white people how they are complicit or what they can do to make a change, the common reaction is to divert. The white people, women in this case, want to talk about how they feel about people being mad at them. They want to divert because a black person’s anger makes them very uncomfortable. This is a microcosm for American society. America refuses to acknowledge the anger that may fuel violent extremism, but rather focus on the actions themselves. Of course, America would love to ignore the atrocities it has committed against Middle Eastern countries. It would also like to forget that the groups America is currently fighting are the same groups this country armed and trained to fight wars for us thirty years ago. There is so much rooted into modern violent extremism that we as a country can learn from and actually work towards positive outcomes, but instead, the root of violence is ignored, the acts are brandished as terrorism and this country hates and wars on and it will continue to do so for many more years.

“If you see something, say something.” Is the 21st century call to arms for white vigilantism. It is the embodiment of the last 15 years of this county’s history and the growing national disdain for Muslims and anyone of difference who may pose a threat to white America. As Sara Ahmed explains in “Affective Economies” there is so much in our language that makes white people feel it as their duty to hate. How hate is ingrained into American’s by saying it reaffirms their patriotism.[4] Love of country is hatred of those who are different, as they threaten white supremacy, and thus, America. This ideology is manifesting itself wholly in Donald Trump’s running for president. He is using hatred and fear, calling Mexican Immigrants criminals, all Muslims terrorist and saying the Black Lives Matter movement is a criminal organization. His rhetoric has already caused violence against different minorities and has empowered people to hate even more publicly and violently. “Make America Great Again” is the new “If you see something, say something” because it is this affirmation of white violence and saying that it is the white man’s duty to hate and profile. Trump is using this mindset to reinforce racist ideologies and fuel his campaign and it is dangerously affecting how Americans are dealing with their fear and anxiety.

All of these problematic functions are different heads of the same hydra. White, American supremacy succeeds through exacting violence upon the different and working in any way to qualify their violence while neutering and disembodying the protestations of the oppressed. Of course, all acts of violence are problematic, but how we label them on a case-to-case basis can create even more vitriol and death. Using “terror” and its derivatives is a primary function of this, and its use needs to be changed or end altogether.

[1] Bush, George W. “Transcript of George Bush 2001 Speech.” CNN. Cable News Network, n.d. Web. 21 Dec. 2015.

[2] Puar, Jasbir, and Amit Rai. “Project MUSE – Monster, Terrorist, Fag: The War on Terrorism and the Production of Docile Patriots.” Project MUSE – Monster, Terrorist, Fag: The War on Terrorism and the Production of Docile Patriots. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Dec. 2015.

[3] Lorde, Audra. The Use of Anger. Thesis. City University of New York, 1981. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

[4] Ahmed, Sara. “Affective Economies.” (n.d.): n. pag. Print.