Hours after last week’s attack in Manhattan, President Donald Trump took to Twitter to say, “We must not allow ISIS to return, or enter, our country after defeating them in the Middle East and elsewhere. Enough!” By the next day, Trump was already using the attack to justify more aggressive restrictions on immigration.
Less than a week later, when Trump was faced with the worst mass shooting in Texas history, a massacre that killed more than three times as many victims as were killed in the New York attack, the president was quick to exclaim his powerlessness: “This isn’t a guns situation . . .This is a mental health problem at the highest level. It’s a very, very sad event.”
This galling double standard shouldn’t be surprising, after all, these responses are coming from the same man who was unable to muster rage against white nationalism this summer or provide meaningful policy proposals in response to Dylan Roof’s racially motivated murder of nine people in Charleston the day after Trump announced his candidacy in June 2015. Trump called the incident “incomprehensible” and offered condolences, but did not condemn or even reference Roof’s racist ideology. He did not label Roof a subhuman beast or suggest a crackdown on white supremacist groups. Instead, he simply stated that “[t]his is a time for healing, not politics.”
More recently, Trump abjectly failed to respond to the Las Vegas shooting, the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history. He refused to label that grotesque act of mass murder as “terrorism,” and declined to use the immense power of his office to take any steps to prevent such attacks in the future. Again, Trump was quick to see the Las Vegas attacker, who was white, as mentally ill. The “wires were crossed pretty badly in his brain,” the president said. Even though we still don’t know the motive for the Las Vegas shooting, Trump was quick to assume there was no connection to terror because the attacker was white.
Trump’s media antics hold up a powerful mirror to larger media trends. When perpetrators are men of color with Muslim-associated names, they are immediately flagged as “terrorists”—often before investigators have even begun the full investigation. Yet when white individuals, with no association to Islam, attack our cities or communities, we rarely hear the word “terrorist.” We call such attacks “tragic incidents,” or “heartbreaking episodes,” or even “the work of a madman”—but not “terrorism.” For Trump, and many others, the New York and Charleston attackers aren’t even in the same category. In Trump’s words, one was “an animal” with a truck, the other was a mentally disturbed man with a gun. But their crimes were the same (mass murder), their goals were the same (kill as many people as possible), and nothing differentiates them other than race and religion.
Terrorism is universally repugnant, regardless of the perpetrator’s ideology, race, or weapon. Our failure to apply the “terrorism” label equally and accurately to anyone who uses large scale violence to advance an agenda has real and damaging results.
Our leaders’ and media’s inconsistency leaves Americans with a skewed understanding of the threat. At a time when many Americans wrongly believe that most terrorism is religiously inspired, data form the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League show the majority of U.S. terrorist attacks come from white supremacists and/or right-wing extremists.
Because right-wing attacks receive far less coverage, the risk they pose is downplayed, and we use fewer political, economic, and legal resources to combat the larger threat. In February, the Trump Administration considered scrapping federal efforts to prevent right-wing attacks, transforming the federal “Countering Violent Extremism (CVE)” program into “Countering Islamic Extremism.” Despite holding off on the proposed name change, the administration did decide to cut funding to the one group receiving CVE funding to counter white supremacists. Here in New York, the discriminatory mismatch is even more extreme. Despite the white supremacist threat, including a deadly attack this summer that claimed the life of Timothy Caughman, the Office of the Inspector General for the New York City Police Department (NYPD) found that 95 percent of NYPD intelligence investigations target Muslim New Yorkers or associated organizations. This misallocation hampers the fight against terrorism, undermining not only our civil rights, but our public safety as well.
The white supremacist who harassed two young Muslim women on a train in Portland, Ore., and killed two bystanders who tried to intervene, was a terrorist.
The white male shooter who targeted a Republican congressional softball practice was a terrorist.
The white nationalist who purposefully drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Va., killing Heather Heyer, was a terrorist.
The white supremacist who killed nine people in a church in Charleston was a terrorist.
The man who transformed his truck into a weapon, killing eight in New York, was also a terrorist. Let’s stop pretending he was the only one.
At the time of writing, Albert Cahn was Legal Director of the New York Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.