COMMENTARY

From 9/11 to 1/6: What does "terrorism" look like?

What does "terrorism" mean in an era when most terrorists are aligned with mainstream GOP politics?

By Amanda Marcotte
Published September 10, 2021 1:29PM (EDT)
 (Getty/Chet Strange)
(Getty/Chet Strange)

The definition of "terrorism" is, in theory, not that difficult to understand. The Code of Federal Regulations defines terrorism as "the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives." The FBI further teases this out by defining domestic terrorism as motivated by a desire to "further ideological goals stemming from domestic influences" and international terrorism committed by those "inspired by, or associated with, designated foreign terrorist organizations or nations." So terrorism is violence, usually of the showily public sort, committed to achieve a political end. It is really that simple. And yet, getting people to agree to a definition of "terrorism" has been notoriously difficult even in the best of times. After 9/11, the situation became impossible.

Conservatives have spent the past two decades successfully bullying anyone who pointed out that the category "terrorist" encompassed a lot more people than Islamic fundamentalists violently striking out against Western institutions. The result, 20 years after the events of 9/11, is the current situation in the U.S. The same Republicans who started the "war on terror" and spent years defending indefensible foreign policy on the grounds of "homeland security" have, under Donald Trump's leadership, organized themselves around coddling and minimizing the much more pressing threat of domestic terrorism.

After the attack on the Capitol on January 6, which was absolutely a terrorist attack by any reasonable definition, Republicans are more committed than ever to turning a blind eye to terrorism and allowing violent extremists to control American politics. 

It's arguable that, for conservatives, this is just a return to the historical status quo. Most terrorism in American history has been committed by homegrown radicals who are motivated by white supremacy, Christian fundamentalism, or other far-right ideologies. That was true in the late 19th century when President Ulysses Grant unleashed the newly formed Department of Justice to shut down the KKK, which was the terrorism arm of a larger movement to force formerly enslaved people back into second-class citizen status. It was also true in the various periods of American history, such as the 1920s and 30s, when mass lynching became a tool for white supremacists to kneecap Black economic empowerment. Critically, it was true in the decade before the 9/11 attacks, which bore witness to a rise of racist and Christian fundamentalist terrorism, including the targeted shootings of abortion doctors. One of the most famous terrorists of the 1990s was Eric Rudolph, a Christian fundamentalist who bombed abortion clinics, a lesbian bar, and the Atlanta Olympics of 1996, all in protest of what he saw as evil progressive values. Another was Timothy McVeigh, a white supremacist who bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people — 19 of whom were children at the building's daycare — in a strike against what he saw as a "liberal" federal government. 

Now the logic driving McVeigh and Rudolph — that vigilantes should be able to force right-wing views on a public that has rejected them democratically — is becoming the standard operating logic of the Republican party. We see this in the GOP cover-up of Trump's January 6 insurrection. We also see this in the new abortion ban in Texas, which bypasses law enforcement altogether and empowers self-appointed bounty hunters to chase down anyone suspected of helping women abort their pregnancies. 


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After 9/11, there was an effective campaign on the right to erase this extensive history of right-wing violence from the American conception of "terrorism." George W. Bush leaned heavily into using "terror" as a vague word connecting Islam and violence. The "war on terror" was used as cover to invade Iraq, a sovereign nation, and depose their president, even though there was no connection of Iraq or Saddam Hussein to 9/11. Bush's defenders would also pretend like his leadership protected Americans from terrorism, even though Bush's own FBI recorded multiple incidents of domestic terrorism linked to American politics, including the white supremacy and anti-choice movements. 

It was so bad that the right was able to bully Barack Obama's administration into ignoring that homegrown right-wing terrorism is still terrorism.

In 2009, the Department of Homeland Security issued a memo warning that "[r]ight-wing extremists will attempt to recruit and radicalize returning veterans." It wasn't a surprising observation. Just such recruitment is how McVeigh, the most famous terrorist of the 90s, got radicalized. Republicans nonetheless went full tilt in faking outrage, using the "honor the vets" cover for what was clearly a campaign to conceal the very real terrorist threat emanating from the extremist right. Unfortunately, the administration caved and withdrew the report, which turned out to be incredibly accurate, as one in five people who were arrested for participating in the January 6 insurrection were veterans. Distorting the word "terrorism" to make it a Muslim-only thing served not just the racist purposes of the right, but their own political goals.

The sad fact of the matter is that terrorism works. That is true of 9/11, which functioned exactly how Osama bin Laden wanted it to, by provoking an American overreaction that would radicalize young Muslims to his holy war. And it's true stateside, as demonstrated by the way the "mainstream" anti-choice movement works in tandem with terrorists to scare doctors away from providing abortion, a relationship which became even more explicit after the Texas ban. The January 6 insurrection proves this unfortunate truth once again, as evidenced by the Republicans who have stuck by Trump and denied the seriousness of the terrorist attack he incited. Running cover for domestic terrorists pays political dividends for Republicans, as those folks are using violence to achieve conservative political ends that more peaceful legislative means cannot. 

Trump had what you might call a friendly relationship to the terrorist impulse from the very beginning. Trump's unsubtle winking and nodding to white supremacist terrorism started early during his campaign, in August 2015, when he praised two supporters who beat up a Mexican-American man by calling them "passionate" and saying they "love this country." He proceeded to escalate for years, most infamously when he called neo-Nazi rioters "fine people" in 2017 and culminating on January 6, when he incited the assault on the Capitol. 

It is true that, in the face of rising white supremacist terrorist acts like the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in 2018 or the El Paso Walmart shooting of 2019, all linked to racist rhetoric Trump and his supporters routinely espoused, it became harder and harder to pretend that white supremacist terrorism wasn't a real thing that was killing real people. Even Trump's appointed FBI director, Christopher Wray, admitted to Congress in 2019 that, "A majority of the domestic terrorism cases we've investigated are motivated by some version of what you might call white supremacist violence." Despite all this, Republicans have stood by Trump and refused to admit that what he's unleashing on the U.S. fits the definition of "terrorism." 

On the contrary, Republicans have only doubled down on equating the word "terrorism" with that single strain of political violence committed by Islamic extremists. Even worse, many conservative pundits and Republican politicians have become even freer than they were during the Bush administration in conflating all Muslims everywhere with terrorists, which is the equivalent of saying all Christians are terrorists because of Eric Rudolph.

We see this in the demagoguery around the admission of Afghan refugees to the U.S. after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, which Republican politicians and Fox News pundits have routinely equated with allowing, as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said, "terrorists coming across the border." This is the same McCarthy who tried to block an investigation of the January 6 attack, and who continues to buddy up to Trump, the man who instigated the whole thing. 


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It makes a grim sort of sense that Republicans are growing increasingly anti-democratic. They can't win people over by persuasion and so turn to blunt force in order to get their way. The GOP increasingly leans on the same logic as terrorists. That's why their anti-voting laws have echoes of the Jim Crow laws that were coupled with racist terrorism in the past. And that's why their new abortion law relies on right-wing vigilantism. Mother Jones recently released an important video of their reporter Becca Andrews connecting the Texas law to the Capitol insurrection and right-wing militias, all rooted in a terroristic approach to gaining power. 

In an atmosphere of what pundits delicately call "political polarization," it's an open question of whether the word "terrorism" can be meaningful used anymore.

A huge bulk of American terrorism is related to the Republican Party, and not just because domestic terrorists and Republican politicians have the same general policy platform. We literally experienced a terrorist attack meant to gain the White House for a Republican who lost the election. But the American conception of "terrorism" has always been one of fringe actors lashing out against the powerful, not as a support system to help the powerful gain more power. It's been 20 years since 9/11, but it's still an open question whether we can update our image of "terrorism" to encompass what it really looks like in 2021. 

More from Salon on the 20th anniversary of September 11: 


Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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9/11 Capitol Riot Commentary Eric Rudolph January 6 Terrorism Timothy Mcveigh