Many, many years ago, I read an article about terrorism making the case that what terrorist organizations had in common, most clearly, was a sense that they were living under foreign occupation of some kind.
The article may well have been written before the destruction of the World Trade Center, by the way, although certainly after the first attack on it in 1993. I think, perhaps maybe, it was in the course materials for Samantha Power at the Kennedy School of Government (I was employed in the office that handled those materials) or maybe it was later than that, I don’t know. It was many years ago, and I haven’t read any recent research, so it may not be true at all. But it seemed to me one of those kinds of pieces of information that I wouldn’t have thought of, but once I did, makes a lot of sense, and colors everything I think about afterward.
Of course, some groups really do live under foreign occupation and some groups who claim they do clearly do not. And some have evidence on either side. The American Indian Movement, the Shining Path, the Irish Republican Army, the Tamil Tigers, the Palestine Liberation Organization, ETA, Aum Shinrikyo. Some of these claims are more crazy than others. The Green Mountain Boys. The Maccabees. Al Qaeda’s claim to be living under foreign occupation was tenuous—ok, crazy—but they made the claim and people followed them.
That’s the thing that is getting to me, today, reading about the terrorist attack on Mother Emanuel. While I don’t really know anything about anything—I want to emphasize that most of what I think I know is wrong, most of what anyone thinks they know today is wrong—it appears that the attacker is part of a loose organization of people who think themselves under foreign occupation. These are white English-speaking Americans, mostly men, who think their government is not legitimate, thinks that there exists an un-American cabal tyrannizing the country, thinks that they are under threat from a power they cannot fight through politics.
This is crazy.
Now, if you said to me that the New Black Panthers believed that non-white people were living under threat from a power they cannot fight through politics, that the police were picking them off not only with impunity but with the active encouragement of the government, and that furthermore they were being denied representation and suffrage (in part through spurious felony charges and near-compulsory “plea bargains”) then… that would still not be a good reason for terrorist attacks. Which may be why the New Black Panthers don’t shoot white people in churches and shopping malls. But at least the claim of occupation would make sense to me as an interpretation of actual events in the universe I perceive.
The white resentment claim? Wow, no.
When I say that there is an organization of such people, by the way, I am not making the claim that they are actually organized, that they give and follow orders or make communal decisions. That would be less frightening. No, by organization I just mean that they share some rhetoric, some channels of communication, some leaders, some images, some symbols, some goals. That’s what we generally mean when we talk about terrorist organizations; it’s much the same when we talk about organized religion. So, yeah, terrorist organization.
And what could we do about it? How do we counter a rhetorical claim that white men are living under occupation in this country, when the claim has no basis in fact? Do we counter it with facts? With mockery? With argument? How do we weaken the hold that rhetoric has on people like Dylann Roof?
I don’t know.
All I can think of, today, at this moment, is to rededicate myself to celebrating the differences within our national brotherhood and sisterhood. To joyfully declaring that we are, Americans all, different one to another, and that is what makes our nation interesting and fun. To observe Juneteenth tomorrow not only with peace and love but with acknowledgement that all our Americans are Americans all, that the more we include the bigger we are. That there are no foreigners here.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,