If you’ve been using the term “domestic terrorism” or “terrorists” to describe what happened at Capitol on January 5, 2021, consider using the terms: white violence or insurrectionists instead.
Read articles in Just Security, The Brennan Center, and Human Rights Watch to learn more about why this language is harmful to marginalized communities.
Follow communications directors in this space like Lea Kayali and human rights attorneys like Diala Shamas to learn more about the role language plays in these acts of white violence.
In the aftermath of the violence that occurred on Wednesday, January 6, at the U.S. Capitol, news media, politicians, and observers worldwide are labeling those who participated “domestic terrorists.” At first glance, this seems to be a fair assessment: if white nationalists are engaging in the same kind of violence as other groups, we call “terrorists” have engaged in (attacking government buildings, breaking laws, endangering citizens, damaging property, etc.) then they too, should be labeled “terrorists.” Progressive politicians like Representative Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) have referred to the incident as a “domestic terrorist attack” to ensure the gravity of this violence is not downplayed, as it often is when perpetrators are white (Huffington Post).
However, by including white supremacist violence under this label, we are effectively expanding the definition of terrorism — and although the intention is good, it harms the most marginalized communities. Black and Muslim communities have been increasingly stigmatized and harmed by the counterterrorism policies resulting from such expansion. The government already has a number of laws under which they can prosecute people that are perceived threats (Time Magazine).
After Wednesday’s insurrection President-Elect Joe Biden “plans to make a priority of passing a law against domestic terrorism” (Wall Street Journal). Human rights attorney Diala Shamas tweeted, “predictably, Biden falls for it. I’ll say it again: history shows that legislation going after “domestic terrorism” will primarily be used to target Black organizers, Muslim communities, immigrant communities.”
Shamas and Tarek Z. Ismail argue that “expanding whom we call terrorists supposes that more law enforcement means more justice or fairness. That is ahistoric” (Washington Post). They cite the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) of 1996, implemented after the Oklahoma City bombing, as an example of a “counterterrorism” policy with negative results. This attack was carried out by two white men who were labeled “domestic terrorists.” Instead of preventing domestic terrorism, the AEDPA broadened law enforcement’s reach and allowed legal residents to be deported or jailed for minor offenses (The Atlantic).
Journalist Aarti Shahani, whose father was unjustly incarcerated and whose uncle was deported because of this law, writes, “legal residents accused of “terrorism” were deported without hearing the testimony against them, or who had offered it” (The Atlantic). This is just one example of how the U.S. government takes threats of “domestic terrorism” perpetrated by white attackers and weaponizes it against communities of color.
“The entire framework of terrorism is really problematic,” Lea Kayali, a Palestinian community organizer and digital communications professional for the ACLU, tells me. “It’s understandable that people want to describe the feeling of being terrorized [on January 6]. There’s no question that the people out there were clearly trying to terrorize as part of their mission.” But she cautions us away from the terrorism framework because the definition of terrorism is malleable and vague. “Vague language doesn’t invite good policy. When you create policy on vague definitions it invites law enforcement discretion. It actually provides ammunition to systems of policing and law enforcement” (For more on such policies’ effects on American Muslims, check out this article in Al Jazeera.)
In fact, a leak exposed that in 2017 the FBI had created a new “domestic terrorism” category called “Black identity extremism” (The Intercept). This new category was said to pose a growing threat of premeditated violence against law enforcement and resulted in numerous investigations (Foreign Policy). In 2018, the FBI admitted to using its most advanced aircraft to surveil and monitor Black Lives Matter protests in Baltimore and this year at BLM protests in Washington, D.C (Brennan Center).
Kayali notes that even outside of policy discussions, the term is a bad linguistic choice: “It serves to obfuscate the root causes of that violence.” By calling them “domestic terrorists” and not including the terms “white supremacy” or “white violence” in the description of these events, Kayali says we are effectively “navigating around the obstacles of white supremacy that are foundational to violence in this country.”
So, when we’re discussing the events at the Capitol, remember that the word terrorism holds a kind of power that goes beyond the dictionary definition. The word terrorism is attached to a framework that was created to criminalize Black and brown existence. Post 9/11, the term “terrorism” is inextricably tied to the entire counterterrorism industry, which has harmed marginalized communities, and which some research suggests has not deterred violent extremism at all (Brennan Center). For many, the word “terrorism” will never serve a movement that seeks to shrink the power of this counterterrorism industry and protect Black, Brown, and Indigenous people’s rights. Instead, we should be focussing on dismantling this counterterrorism framework of harmful policies and, rather, address the root of the problem: white supremacy.
Although well-intentioned, calling the white supremacists who took part in the attack on the Capitol “domestic terrorists” is actually harmful to marginalized communities because of the counterterrorism policies that result from that kind of language.
Counterterrorism policies often hurt communities of color by expanding law enforcement’s reach, allowing them to target, surveil, investigate, and prosecute these marginalized communities more easily.
In 2017 the FBI created a new “domestic terrorism” category called “Black identity extremism.” It has admitted to surveilling Black Lives Matter protests (Brennan Center).
In the words of Palestinian community organizer Lea Kayali, “Language is essential to manifesting the world that we’re trying to build and create together, words matter.”