The horrors of the last four years that culminated in the Jan. 6 violent attack on our nation’s Capitol and on our democracy reveal what so many of us already knew: The racism and bigotry present at the inception of this country, while poorly masked at times, has never subsided.
The nation watched as pro-Trump supporters flung Confederate flags with pride, white supremacists donned Auschwitz shirts, and some threw up white-power hand gestures. There were a noose and gallows, “Come and Take It” flags, white nationalist flags and stickers — all symbols of hate, bigotry, racism, and xenophobia.
But calling the violent mob attempting to overtake our government “domestic terrorists” is not the way to reckon with the damage they have done to our democracy. The term only reinforces the legacy of racism we saw on display last week.
I understand the urge to do so. The FBI’s definition of terrorism includes, “violent, criminal acts committed . . . to further ideological goals stemming from domestic influences.” The nation was in fact terrorized, and the FBI and Capitol Police have warned of armed protests in Washington and across the country beginning over the weekend. We know there are more plans underway. But the use of these words only elevates a harmful counterterrorism framework that has historically been used to target Arab, Muslim, and Black communities.
The framework of terrorism has often been used to target peaceful political activity. This is about the slippery slope that we’ve been headed down for many years — most recently during the racial justice protests over the summer. Civilians and members of law enforcement falsely characterized members of Black Lives Matter as “terrorists.” They were and are deemed terrorists by the likes of the white supremacists who stormed our Capitol just days ago.
It’s important to keep in mind the history and bigotry of the failed “War on Terror.” Whether through the PATRIOT Act or merely the spread of disinformation, the “War on Terror” excused everything from racial profiling to seizure of property to the circumvention of due process. And if history has taught us anything, it is that racism and bigotry is used to divide, create fear, and push antidemocratic objectives in order to maintain or gain control over populations — all while convincing citizens that the ends justify the means.
The George W. Bush administration convinced nearly our entire nation that you were either with him or “with the terrorists.” This was his rallying cry and his justification to go into an illegal war, pass legislation that made it legal to surveil American citizens in ways that would have previously been illegal, and give masses of people what they considered a free pass to show their racism out in the open. All of these excuses and justifications snowball. And provide fodder for more funding to be misappropriated, all in the name of “freedom and justice,” civil liberties be damned, and all while Black and brown people continue to be marginalized, abused, and killed. The continued use of the terminology only serves to further exculpate the wasted time, energy, and resources on racist and bigoted programs that have already failed before. After the horrendous attacks on our nation on Sept. 11, 2001, these tactics were used against Arabs and people who appeared Arab. In an inherently racist criminal justice system, that funding ends up being used to target Black and brown communities.
When lies and disinformation from President Trump result in an attempted insurrection, there’s no greater reminder that words matter. And words also matter for those of us who believe in democracy and truth. Over the last several days, many elected leaders and broadcast media commentators, including those with good intentions to condemn racism, and leaders and allies in the pursuit of racial and social justice, have used the term “domestic terrorists.” But we haven’t yet had an honest dialogue in this country about when to use the term terrorist, and whether it’s a useful term or way of looking at militant or treasonous activity.
Call them white supremacists. Call them a violent, murderous mob. Call them insurrectionists. Call them fascists. Call them traitors or treasonous. But please remember that the words used have an impact on broader, already oppressed communities. And despite those good intentions, which include, for some, the pursuit of justice and the dismantling of systemic racism that has been a cornerstone of this nation, it is possible to unintentionally work against those interests.
Rania Batrice is a strategist for progressive political campaigns.