Charleston and Foreign Policy: Our obsession with terrorism is hindering smart policy

Originally published on FutureForeignPolicy.com

I am an American. And, as an American, the process of tragedy, confusion, debate, politicisation, and condolence following mass violence should be all too familiar to me by now. Mass shootings have become normalized to the American population. The electorate’s reaction rarely differs from crisis to crisis; liberals call for increased background checks and assault weapons bans, conservatives weave narratives of the tragedy of our nation’s mental health system, and the National Rifle Association inevitably calls for whatever class of citizen was effected to carry a handgun at all times. The given shooting makes the rounds through the 24-hour news cycle and then fades into an alarmingly growing congregation of examples of American-on-American mass violence throughout the last decade, joining shootings at Sandy Hook, Aurora, Fort Hood, and Arizona.

The shootings in Charleston were obscene, historically symbolic, and heartbreaking, and the American reaction to these shootings has actually seen some unique attributes, particularly the discussions over the Confederate legacy across the Deep South. Now that the dust has begun to settle, eulogies have been given, and at least a couple of Rebel flags have come down, perhaps it’s a appropriate time for a discussion of what the American nightmare of mass shootings indicate about the United States’ recently peculiar approach to the concept of security.

The term security, like most other important terms in the study of international relations, has a generally understood meaning which no one could necessarily summarize in its entirety. Like all complex terminology — power, progress, sovereignty — security’s definitional difficulties lead us to ask questions about how we define something like security, and these questions lead us to insights about our logic, bias, and assumptions.

In the mid-1990s, a group of academics generally associated with research institutions in Denmark created the term ‘securitisation’, and with it the Copenhagen School of Security Studies. Securitisation dictates that all societies — but particularly democratic ones — tend to prioritise threats based on popular perception of danger rather than the threat they materially pose. The ‘securitisation process’ refers to the rhetoric used to describe a threat; once a threat is ‘securitised’, it is constructed by the political discourse of the given society as important and dangerous to national security.

The easiest and most frequently cited example of the securitisation process is what modern political rhetoric has done to the word “terrorism”. Even just seeing that word in this article, I can imagine the reader conjuring up images of everything from Osama bin Laden to the World Trade Center to Afghanistan to Western flags burning on the streets of one Middle Eastern capital or another. We likely picture counterterrorism as well: a multi-trillion dollar effort which has resulted in the invasion of two nations and ongoing air and sea campaigns in two others, involving everyone from the most highly trained special operators in the world to the average metal detector operator at an airport. The word “terrorist” itself has become an obsession of our political dialogue, and anywhere a person is killed in anger — from the streets of Boston to a suburb of London to a chemical factory in Lyon — we throw ourselves into a lengthy debate over whether or not the perpetrator is worthy of the monicker “terrorist”. We do this because the weight of that label allows us to box the motivations of the attacker into those of an animalistic, anti-civilisational, mentally sick outsider who seeks nothing but destruction. This definition gives us a clear enemy to fight and a clear reason to fight them, eliminating the cumbersome complexities of both the attacker’s actual grievances and the response our governments should take to such attacks. Hence goes our perception of terrorist attacks, from 7/7 in London and the Boston Marathon bombings. There are people out there who despise everything decent people hold dear and will do anything to destroy those values.

Yet when we examine the material impact of terrorism around the globe — specifically Islamic extremism — we see a significantly less apocalyptic tale, particularly for those living in Western countries. Taking for granted that Islamist terrorism is a violent act with theological justification and political implications taking place outside of an active war zone and which targets civilians indiscriminately, we see that such extremism has caused around 300 casualties per year since 2001, globally. The leading non-medical causes of death in the United States are motor vehicle accidents and firearms, with 33,561 deaths and 32,251 deaths respectively according to the most recent data available (2011–2012). Islamist violence has killed about two dozen people total in the United States since September 2001, while over 100,000 have died in non-Islamist firearm homicides during the same period. Of those killed by firearms in the United States, 1 in 13 were killed by police officers, while about 1 in 5,000 of such homicides were committed by Islamic extremists.

With these statistics, we can clearly see how the securitisation of terrorism and Islamic extremism occurred within the United States. Within the days, weeks, and months following 9/11, the US Navy shifted to a wartime-footing, the United States began pressure on the government of Afghanistan and prepared a military campaign to unseat the Taliban, and the PATRIOT Act forever changed the American intelligence community’s approach to data-gathering from both US citizens and foreign nationals. Similar debates over the need for security followed the ‘underwear bomber’ incident — which resulted in no deaths — and the Boston Bombings — which resulted in 8 deaths — . During the Obama Administration alone there have been about 15 high-profile mass shootings in the United States, and many more which fall under the national media radar, and yet no considerable action has occurred to address the issue of firearm homicide. No matter which side of the gun control debate one places oneself on, it must appear strange that after each shooting, the political attempts at any sort of meaningful change to current national legislation over everything from assault weapons to concealed carry to background checks rarely makes it into the media’s attention. Despite majority public approval for many proposed gun control measures, the public does not seem to desire to pay attention to these issues long enough for politicians to draft, debate, and pass legislation through the NRA’s indomitable hold on Congress in Washington.

With the statics and hurdles listed above, I do not look to propose solutions, nor do I look to identify a single facet of these threats — extended magazines, police militarization, drunk driving, etc. — rather I am trying to show that the sensationalism with which we discuss the threat of Islamic extremism blinds us completely to other far more dire threats. Not only can we not see actually dangerous threats to American citizens’ security, we cannot see that many of the threats we overlook, including some of what I’ve discussed, are far easier and less costly to combat than the process of Islamic radicalization. There are many threats that, especially if given a set of resources comparable to our global counterterrorism efforts, we could neutralize effectively rather than exacerbate through our nation’s involvement.

We discuss Dylan Roof’s status as a “terrorist” because of the extremely heavy connotations that word carries in post-9/11 America; connotations we have all had a hand in constructing and sensationalizing. If Roof is a “terrorist”, he is then constructed as far more dangerous, alien, and militant than he actually is. We are placing a racist, low-life boy at the same level of threat as, say, an al-Qaeda-trained Iraqi militant who is a skilled veteran of a lengthy sectarian war. This view prevents us from creating intelligent policy by focusing our national debate on words describing the shooting and not on actions to prevent such shootings from happening again.

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