Defining Terrorism as Political Violence is a Political Act

Written by Vera Wilde

Yesterday morning, two American journalists were fatally shot on live television in the latest, visible instance of the U.S. domestic gun violence epidemic. Because the motive for the killings wasn’t “political” — as in most violent deaths in the U.S., which are also most gun violence deaths — we aren’t calling this terrorism. But as recent debate over whether to call the Charleston and other mass shootings terror or hate crimes shows, defining the realm of the political is a political act.

Just as gun crime happens every day in America, so too is the political nature of defining the political an everyday occurrence — and it always has been. A historical example highlights the political nature of these definitional acts. During the McCarthy Era, many people — from federal employees to college professors — were asked to sign loyalty oaths attesting to their fidelity to the U.S. Government. Communism was seen as an existential threat, rather than a legitimate political opponent of capitalism on a valid spectrum in the marketplace of ideas. Or at least, people in power successfully defined it that way. Now healthcare spending is about 15% of GDP and the U.S. is a clear outlier among developed nations, paying more for worse health outcomes. But the public option in healthcare reform that might’ve ameliorated this continuing problem was rejected as socialist — as if socialism was inherently illegitimate as a set of political attitudes. So the boundaries of legitimate political debate are themselves political matters with significant political, social, and economic consequences. But like fish in water, it can be hard for us to question those boundaries from inside our own native political ecosystem.

When it comes to national security, this sort of unseen political boundary is keeping us blind to how politics restricts science against the public interest. Just as the invisible, political boundaries of what you can and can’t say in healthcare reform restricted the ability of health policy scholars to even experiment with a public option as part of improving our national well-being, so too do the political boundaries of what you can and can’t say in national security debates restrict our ability to build the evidence base about what will make Americans safer. We know epidemic gun violence spreads along social networks like a contagious disease. But the federal government bans the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from studying the underlying causes of gun violence.

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The NRA has reportedly accused the CDC of using science to promote gun control. This is probably because the science supports gun control. Sometimes, science supports political change. This science is political. Banning it is political, too. And refusing to call the effects of that ban by their proper name — terrorism, or violence with political purpose and implications — is a power play. To be sure, not everyone is playing: there is no international consensus on what terrorism is. It’s one of those ideas like liberty and privacy that we’re always redefining in light of new technology, cultural shifts, and the ways the law and institutions struggle to catch up with our chaotic, ever-evolving societies.

One of the best things feminists accomplished in the twentieth century, next to sexual liberation and the Lilith Fair, was popularizing the idea that the personal is the political — because defining what is and isn’t political is something people with power get to do. That makes the definition of the political realm, well, political. Making formerly private issues such as domestic violence, sexual assault, birth control, and caretaking public issues has empowered millions of women worldwide to take control of their lives, take better care of their families, and help make the world a better place by developing and contributing their unique talents and passions to the marketplace.

Now it’s time for us to pull this trick again with gun violence and terrorism. Gun violence, and the political ban on researching it, is political. That makes it a form of terrorism. Thus, addressing the gun violence epidemic — and the federal ban on research on its causes — is a national security issue.

That epidemic is real. And although it’s global,  the parameters of the gun violence problem in the U.S. are uniquely American. The U.S. has less than 5% of the world’s population, but between 35 and 50% of its civilian-owned guns. “We’re Number One!” when it comes to guns per person — and we have the highest gun suicide and homicide rates of any developed country to prove it. There’s a mass shooting — 4+ victims including shooter — every day in America.

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When people are dying every day in your country of avoidable causes that other countries avoid, and the deaths are not considered political, it kind of blows your mind. As it were.

The problem is not hard as a matter of data. Gun access predicts gun death, be it from homicide or suicide. And most gun deaths are suicides — and at least twenty-two of our daily suicides are veterans. Lethal means access strongly predicts successful suicide attempts, and depression is so common that you are probably drinking anti-depressants from the tap. Yet, Americans’ public opinions have shifted over the past 20 years to more strongly support the right to own guns.

We are killing each other. Police have killed more than 1,100 people since Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. Police officers are also killed on duty more frequently in states with more guns.

We can stop the violence. It doesn’t take many people or much money. Just the right people and the right moves — many of them beginning with the language we use, because language shapes thinking. Sure, the U.S. gun lobby — the NRA — is so powerful it can get Congress to hold the Attorney General in contempt for keeping sensitive national security information secret. But we still get to choose how we talk and think about our world.

It wasn’t until feminists began arguing the personal is political that we got the right to control our own bodies. Conversely, it was by denying the legitimate political nature of socialist attitudes that McCarthyists shut huge numbers of talented people out of government, entertainment, and other industries. And it is by failing to recognize the political nature of hate — all hate — as an attitude that harms community trust and thus touches the core of what politics is all about, that governments fail to make people feel safe. And the first job of legitimate government is to protect life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — to make people feel safe to flourish.

So let’s call epidemic gun violence in the U.S. what it is. It’s terrorism. We have a government to keep us safe from that.

About the author

Vera Wilde

Reformed Harvard Kennedy Fellow, wondering artist, wandering artist. www.wildethinks.com

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Defining Terrorism as Political Violence is a Political Act

by Vera Wilde
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