For many Americans, 9/11 was the day that the idea of terrorism itself was thrust into our minds. As the unperturbed glass of the Twin Towers shattered before us, so too did our perceptions of national security that many of us took for granted. We realized, then and there, that America could be struck a decisive blow. We were not the exception.
In the coming days, as our fear quickly transformed into anger, President Bush declared the War on Terror and identified those responsible for attacking the country. In both Al Qaeda and the Taliban, we found our enemy. They were seen as evil incarnate – a shadowy force of Islamic militants from overseas seeking to break our spirit and destroy the very principles we lived by. In our pursuit to stamp out such forces, the military swelled with recruits and brought us overseas to conflicts that we still have not entirely rid ourselves of.
Decades later, this type of terrorism is embedded in our psyche. Our subconscious clings onto the depictions of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and ISIS as the only forms of terrorism that threaten our shores. Now that we have brought the fight to them – stopping their plans and unceasingly pursuing their leaders – they have become more palatable. It is easier to accept who our enemies are if we are beating them.
But today, we are faced with new forms of terrorism that we are struggling to combat. Unlike that of 9/11, these strains come from our shores – growing up in our neighborhoods and learning our same values. They also have new names, like Dylann Roof, Samuel Woodward, and Robert Bowers.
The FBI currently defines domestic terrorism as “violent, criminal acts committed by individuals and/or groups to further ideological goals stemming from domestic influences, such as those of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature.” When Roof was convicted, prosecutors read lines from a journal he kept that outlined his desire to incite a race war. Woodward was a member of the Atomwaffen Division, an armed Fascist group with the ultimate aim of overthrowing the U.S. government. Bowers expressed extreme anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant views online, proclaiming that Jews were committing genocide against white people.
All three fit within the FBI definition, but these white men were not charged with domestic terrorism. Roof was convicted with 33 counts of federal hate crimes, Bowers with 11, and Woodward with one. While these men will never enter the public again, the lack of a formal terrorism charge reveals our inability as a society to identify domestic terrorism in all forms.
The common thread that runs between all three of these men is that their terror is grounded in right-wing extremism. It is no coincidence. It is the strain of domestic terrorism that we struggle to recognize the most. By failing to see it for what it truly is, we allow it to continue to perpetuate further unfettered – a vicious cycle.
We have been able to define near-parallel acts of violence as terrorism. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving ‘Boston Bomber,’ was charged with ‘using a weapon of mass destruction‘ – a terrorism charge. Similarly, Omar Mateen, the Pulse nightclub shooter, and self-radicalized “mujahideen” soldier was quickly branded as a terrorist as well. As a society, we have no problem seeing these acts of violence as terrorism because they fit our perceptions. They are people of color, radicalized by beliefs hailing from overseas, grouped together with the terrorists who perpetrated 9/11.
These two examples should rightfully fall in the same category of extremism, but we must also apply those same standards to every form of terrorism that lies amongst us. Furthermore, we must also demand our politicians to have the courage to call terrorism for what it is. Two days ago, a whistleblower complaint from within the Department of Homeland Security (the very branch of intelligence created in response to the September 11 Attacks) outlined that top officials within the agency had directed analysts to modify intelligence assessments to downplay the threat of white supremacy and gin-up the danger of violent “left-wing” groups like Antifa. When the very agencies tasked to protect us are muzzled for political purposes, not only are we put at risk, we are also dishonoring all Americans who’ve died at the hand of terrorism.
It is hard to imagine that our own could turn into something so heinous. We don’t want to believe that a neighbor could abandon the values and principles we hold dear. However, this is a reality we must come to terms with. If we’re going to honor 9/11, we need to have the courage to combat terrorism in any form – even if it has names like Dylann, Samuel, and Robert.