The Muslim Bans are Terrorism

“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” — Maya Angelou

The first #MuslimBan was an act of terrorism and so is its replacement. The words “terror” and “terrorism” are highly politicized, of course. Official definitions, which function as part of a legal framework, naturally exempt state actors, since they are proffered by governments concerned with how to deal with non-state actors. Some dictionaries follow this practice, uncritically. However, limiting the definition of terrorism to “unlawful” acts by non-state actors is arbitrary. Like murder or theft, terrorism is a social act, and its meaning cannot depend on who the perpetrator is. State-sanctioned terrorism has the same motivations and the same consequences as non-state terror. It is still terrorism.

Definitions of terror and terrorism are of course highly contested, and I am not going to try to offer a simple definition here. I think most people would agree, though, that the hallmark of terrorism is the strategic use of violence or the threat of violence against civilians to achieve political goals. Moreover, terrorism operates symbolically. Suicide bombers blow up airplanes and cafes, not because they are waging a war of attrition against air travelers and coffee drinkers, but to send a message that no one is safe. In order for it to work as terrorism, therefore, the perpetrators need to take credit.

The strategic use of terror was perfected in the US South to uphold its system of racialized chattel slavery. Since the white planter class was greatly outnumbered by enslaved Blacks, terror proved to be the most effective way to maintain control. Terror continued to be used to maintain explicit white supremacy for the hundred years after the collapse of Reconstruction. The slightest perceived insolence, intended or not, could spark a lynching or massacre. It is because of the symbolic nature of terrorism that cross burning is considered a hate crime.

The regime argues that the Muslim bans are not a Muslim bans because they do not include every majority Muslim country, and the text of the EOs do not mention religion. But that logic reflects a breathtaking ignorance of US history, which is replete with examples of ostensibly race-neutral laws that had unequivocally racist outcomes. Plus, everyone knows it’s a lie. We all know that banning Muslims was their intent because they told us so.

Some suggest that the chaos and confusion, which resulted from the decision (since rescinded) to include permanent residents, the failure to go through inter-agency review, and the failure to allow time for the bureaucracy to prepare — are signs of incompetence rather than malice. This is a false choice. The people at the top of the regime have been quite clear about who they are. It would be foolish to give them the benefit of the doubt when they are doing exactly what they promised to do — namely, promoting white nationalism through the demonization and scapegoating of non-European, non-Christian immigrants. And, their supporters know as well as their opponents what they’re up to.

So yes, the first Muslim ban was an act of terrorism and so is the second. No matter how the regime spins it, the bans put Muslims on notice that this regime is unconcerned with their civil or human rights — that it will exercise power in whatever way it thinks it can get away with and leave it to the courts to sort it out. Meanwhile, it has given implicit license to the terrorists among its supporters. Their message is clear: Muslim lives do not matter.

Finally, these bans work more effectively than any foreign terrorist attack ever could in putting US America’s founding values in jeopardy. Few principles are as fundamental to this society than the rule of law and due process. Neither of these seemed to have much currency during the roll-out of the first ban, as Customs and Border Patrol agents denied access to council to detained travelers and refused to comply with multiple court rulings.

Beware of the urge to go back to sleep. It is tempting to believe the regime is just being a little aggressive, but not truly malicious. We so want to believe it’s all really OK. Maybe we’re just being paranoid. The Constitution will protect us from presidential overreach. Maybe. I have no desire to be alarmist. But we must not for one moment forget who is in the White House. Steve Bannon has publicly stated his desire to destroy the state. As the first Muslim ban demonstrated, if the White House wants to create havoc, a great deal of harm can be done before the courts have a chance to step in.

They’ve shown us who they are. We’d be wise to believe them.