Patriot Act 2: Joe Biden’s Boogaloo

Mass protests at the Capitol in Washington, DC on January 6

The concept of “terror” in the United States is one inherently wrapped with racism and xenophobia — America’s trauma addled memories of 9/11 and the years that followed. “Terrorist” is a word used to aid in our identification of the other: conjuring racist, non-white images in the minds of those for whom the specter of the Iraq war is all too present. The shudder of horror that tingles up the spine when one hears the word “terrorist” is one that comes with fear of the unknown, the foreign.

Osama Bin Laden, the Face of terrorism

The word “terrorist” finds a face for many in the man pictured above. Osama Bin Laden was — for the better part of the new millenium — America’s BoogeyMan. It helped that the American people possessed precious few photographs of him. Quickly, Osama Bin Laden’s image became archetypical, rather than simply the face of a single madman. Political Cartoonists drew him in widely varied ways, with few similarities between them besides his brown skin. Osama Bin Laden — the face of terrorism — had really, no face at all. Spending his life cloaked in shadow, even his death was anonymized: a corpse at the bottom of the ocean. Thus, his name became synonymous with “terrorist”, and he was made simulacral: an image bearing no relation to reality whatsoever.His face — the face of the brown man who stands against everything the United States is for and vice-versa — is a symbol that lives on. Yet another image reduced to a symbol. Everybody who followed him, we were told, looked like him, sounded like him (we never heard his voice, but many parodies attempted a pastiche of a Mid-Eastern “foreign” accent), came from wherever he came from. This focus on Middle Eastern terrorism failed to acknowledge the United State’s outsized destabilizing effect post-9/11 that produced the terrorism against which it fought. Actually, for `a long time, the Middle East sat just above North America as the global region who saw the least terrorist activity. But by 2001, this history of good-behavior was all but forgotten, and thus the Middle East — aided by the United States — became like a factory for American nightmares.

Omar Mateen, James Holmes, and Adam Lanza

Domestic terrorism is not defined seperately from its parent term in the text of the Patriot Act, sharing such vague definitions as, “[any act] “deemed dangerous to human life.” “Domestic terrorism”, too, has always been discussed in terms meant to tap into these same feelings of orientalist fear that plain “terrorism” instills. Take for example, the 2012 Aurora movie theater shooting, and compare it with Orlanda nightclub shooting that very same year. For the first, you would be hard pressed to find a piece of news referring to either the shooting as an act of terror or the shooter himself as a “terrorist”. Meanwhile, headlines referred to Omar Mateen as a domestic terrorist and prosecutors targeted his wife for “providing material support to a foreign terrorist”. “Terrorist” implies some deviance from accepted behavior, in the same way color is viewed as a deviation from the norm of whiteness. Because a terrorist is a deviation, an aberration: a terrorist in American society cannot be white. This brings into starker focus America’s refusal to relinquish the myth of whiteness as a marker of freedom from evil. A terrorist walks into a midwestern elementary school and opens fire, killing 26 people: what color did you imagine the man? A mentally unstable man murders his mother, before entering a school and gunning down six adults and twenty children: what color is he now? One must take a moment to imagine who could commit any of the crimes recounted in the previous paragraph with their mental facilities fully intact. Two descriptions of the very same events create in the imagination two completely different images.

In the sudden rallying around the phrase “domestic-terrorist” or the hushed talk of antifa — the shadowy “organization” that is neither an organization nor all that shadowy, but merely a favorite Republican red-herring — we are reminded of the notorious Patriot Act of 2001, and how language was used therein. Bulldozed through the House as the country attempted to gain both its bearings and revenge in the single stroke of a pen, it entered “terrorist” into the national lexicon. So then, it is unreasonable to expect North Americans to associate the word terrorist with the image of young white men in MAGA-garb. Domestic terrorism is defined in the text of the Patriot Act, though it didn’t receive much In 2020, the label “domestic-terrorist” became a net like that of the word “terrorist” in the text of the Patriot Act: wide enough to sweep up anybody deemed by the powers-at-be to be a threat. A spin on an old saying: in its frenzied race to identify the tree, such language burned the forest to ash. The word “terror(ist or ism)” appeared nearly 300 times in the text of the bill, yet alongside a definition so nebulous that certainly anything could fall under it. “Domestic terrorism” is defined in a similarly opaque way. Many congressmen complained of not having had time to read the bill, yet signed it anyhow — the possibility of being seen as “soft on our enemies” handing over their necks like a guillotine’s blade. Thus, the United States ability to perform previously unlawful surveillance on its citizens — primarily its citizens of color — was strengthened and expanded. The war on terror was always an international affair, but with “domestic terrorism” becoming the word of the moment we are in danger of our own gun turning even more so to our shores. And not towards the parties normally identified as responsible for instances of domestic terrorism — heavily white and male far-right groups, aggreived young men turned violent — but black and brown peoplefighting for the rights of workers and against injustices like unlawful police violence. Home-grown far-right terrorism’s growth has significantly outpaced terroristic acts c ommitted by any other groups since 1994, yet counter-terrorism efforts continue to focus on communities of color most heavily. Before Joe Biden called rioters at the capitol “domestic terrorists”, the president of the Police Officers Federation called Black Lives Matter protestors the same thing.

Black Lives Matter protests in Summer 2020

New laws drafted in a similar spirit as the Patriot Act will lead only to a similar, perhaps worse disaster. The United States — unwilling to confront terrorism in the forms it really takes in favor of continuing to chase the spector of non-white aggression — is in danger of continuing that age-old dance of the dog chasing its own tail. The consequences of the Patriot Act’s institution to surveil activists has already proven disastrous. Expanding these power’s to defeat the spector of domestic-terrorism will ensure that the burden continues to fall, and fall even harder than it already has first on people of color, without addressing those who pose the more significant threat. The answer to quelling far-right insurrectionism is not in establishing new laws, but rather applying existing laws more evenly, should the laws require application at all. The larger question, perhaps, is this: when will the United States reckon with the fact that in a nation build on the terrorization of Black and Indigenous peoples, terror is like an vengeful ghost.

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