Challenging the conventional western narrative on terrorism produces unique amounts of rage and bile. It's worth examining why
By Glenn Greenwald
That this was a barbaric and horrendous act goes without saying."
I then proceeded to raise two main points about the attack. First, given that the person killed was not a civilian but a soldier of a nation at war (using US standards), it is difficult to devise a definition of "terrorism" that encompasses this attack while excluding large numbers of recent acts by the US, the UK and many of their allies and partners.
Second, despite the self-serving bewilderment that is typically expressed whenever western nations are the targets rather than perpetrators of violence--why would anyone possibly be so monstrous and savage as to want to attack us this way?--the answer is actually well-known and well-documented. As explained by the CIA ("blowback"), the Pentagon (they "do not 'hate our freedom,' but rather, they hate our policies"), former CIA agents ("we could try invading, occupying and droning Muslim countries a little less, and see if that helps. Maybe prop up fewer corrupt and tyrannical Muslim regimes"), and British combat veterans ("it should by now be self-evident that by attacking Muslims overseas, you will occasionally spawn twisted and, as we saw yesterday, even murderous hatred at home"), spending decades bombing, invading, occupying, droning, interfering in, imposing tyranny on, and creating lawless prisons in other countries generates intense anti-American and anti-western rage (for obvious reasons) and ensures that those western nations will be attacked as well. In the London case, the attacker cited precisely such anger at US/UK aggression as his motive ("this British soldier is an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. . . . the only reason we killed this man is because Muslims are dying daily"). Those are just facts.
Labeling the violent acts of those Muslim Others as "terrorism"--but never our own--is a key weapon used to propagate this worldview. The same is true of the tactic that depicts their violence against us as senseless, primitive, savage and without rational cause, while glorifying our own violence against them as noble, high-minded, benevolent and civilized (we slaughter them with shiny, high-tech drones, cluster bombs, jet fighters and cruise missiles, while they use meat cleavers and razor blades). These are the core propagandistic premises used to sustain the central narrative on which the War on Terror has depended from the start (and, by the way, have been the core premises of imperialism for centuries). That is why those most invested in defending and glorifying this War on Terror become so enraged when those premises are challenged, and it's why they feel a need to use any smears and distortions (he's justifying terrorism!) to discredit those who do. As Sullivan's reader perfectly put it in his email:
"The emotional intensity with which you demand that the London attack be described as 'terrorism' (as opposed to 'horrific act of violence,' 'killing,' 'hack to death,' 'barbaric and horrendous act,' etc., as Greenwald writes) only confirms Greenwald's point that it is important to define what 'terrorism' means, particularly because certain folks have an emotional, political and/or legal reason for insisting on its usage. What free thinker would want to shout down that discussion? Respectfully, that is 'very hard to understand, let alone forgive.'"
But as was clear from the furor that erupted after the debate over the anti-Muslim views of Sam Harris and company, and as is demonstrated again by Sullivan's unhinged reaction here to what I wrote, the need to maintain the belief that Islam is a uniquely grave danger in the world--and that western violence against them is superior to their violence against the west--is one that is incredibly deep-seated and visceral. That seems to be true for several independent reasons.
First, it's a by-product of base tribalism. Americans and westerners have been relentlessly bombarded with the message that We are the Noble and Innocent Victims and those Muslims are the Evil, Primitive, Savage Aggressors, so that's what many people are trained to believe, and view any challenge to that as an assault on their core tribalistic convictions. The defining tribalistic belief that Our Side is Superior (and our violence thus inherently more noble than theirs) has been stoked by political leaders since politics began to sustain support for their aggression and entrench their own power. It's a potent drive--something humans instinctively want to believe--and is therefore one that is easily manipulated by skillful propagandists.
Second, all sorts of agendas are advanced by maintaining these premises in place. As the scholar Remi Brulin has documented, "terrorism" in its recent incarnation was designed by the US to justify all of the violence it wanted to do in the world from Central America to the Middle East, and by Israel to universalize the vicious and intractable conflicts it has with its Arab neighbors (our wars aren't just our fights with them over land; it's a global struggle to stop a plague that is also your fight: against Terrorism). A great new book by Harvard's Lisa Stampnitzky makes the argument indicated by its title: "Disciplining Terror: How Experts Invented 'Terrorism'". The functional meaninglessness of the term "terrorism" and its highly manipulative exploitation are vital to several political agendas. That fact renders the guardians of those agendas furious when the conventional and highly emotional understanding of the term is questioned, and especially when it's suggested that anti-western violence isn't best understood as the by-product of unique pathologies in Islam but rather in the context of decades of western aggression toward that region.
Indeed, most of the responses to my argument ignored the questions I posed about the definition of "terrorism" and instead rested on pure irrational rage: this was a Muslim who used a knife to kill a westerner; of course it was terrorism (or, as Sullivan put it, "If we cannot call a man who does that in the name of God and finishes by warning his fellow citizens 'You will never be safe' a terrorist, who would fit that description, apart, of course, in Glenn's view, Barack Obama?"). Or, alternatively, critics of what I wrote simply fabricated what I argued (he blames the west and thinks the Terrorists have no agency!), or spewed outrage at the mere suggestion that anything the west does is comparable to the violence we saw on the London street.
And questioning "the defining tribalistic belief that Our Side is Superior (and our violence thus inherently more noble than theirs)...renders the guardians of those agendas furious," which is why Americans get so fanatical about defending their mascots, headdresses, and other Native stereotypes. They're "deeply invested on a psychological and personal level in protecting the narrative" that they and their ancestors are blameless for the crimes against Indians.
The corollary is their claimed right to appropriate Native cultures and ignore Native realities because "we won, we're no. 1, we're America!" As they tell Indians constantly, because "you lost, it's in the past, get over it."
Today's fanatical hatred of and bigotry toward Muslims is yesterday's fanatical hatred of and bigotry toward Indians. It's literally the same thought process. They (Muslims, Indians) dared to challenge Western imperialism so they're evil and must go.
If we're not willing to exterminate Indians anymore, we're willing to let others do it (e.g., in Guatemala or Brazil). More importantly, we're willing to marginalize, dismiss, and ignore them. As long as they remain second-class citizens and don't get too uppity, we'll tolerate their existence. But they're still primitive savages and barbarians who have no right to tell civilized people what to say or do.
For more on terrorism, see People Hate Being Bombed and Killed and "Why Do They Hate Us?" 2013.
Below: Anti-Indian propaganda then corresponding to anti-Muslim propaganda now.