How Many Bombs Does a Non-Muslim Need to Set Off Before Being Called a Terrorist?
What if a 23-year-old Muslim man set off six bombs in a two-week period that killed two Americans and injured several others? Add to that, what if that same Muslim man ended his life as a suicide bomber, blowing himself up as the authorities moved in to arrest him, killing himself and wounding a police officer?
Any doubt the headlines would include the word “terrorist”? Of course not. The “T word” would be everywhere and we would see wall to wall terrorism-focused coverage on cable news, complete with a cadre of former FBI agents and terrorism experts exploring how this man was radicalized. And of course, Donald Trump would use the incident to further his own political agenda just as he did after last year’s deadly terror attack in New York City where he called for an end to the decades old Diversity Visa Program.
But when that exact fact pattern played out with the suspected Austin serial bomber, Mark Conditt, including Conditt in essence ending his life as a suicide bomber and injuring a police officer, the response was starkly different. First off, you don’t see the word terrorism used in connection with this incident, except for the media reporting that the White House stated that there’s “no apparent nexus to terrorism.”
Instead of calling Conditt a terrorist, the media has described him with terms like “intense loner,” who had been “homeschooled.” Even the Austin police chief told us that the 25-minute confession Conditt recorded before he blew himself up was “the outcry of a very challenged young man talking about challenges in his personal life that led him to this point.”
Do you recall these types of words used to describe the ISIS-inspired terrorist who waged a deadly truck attack in New York City last year? Of course not. In fact, shortly after the attack, Trump called that man an “animal” adding that we should “send him to Gitmo.”
While the Austin bombing was the top story on cable news on Tuesday morning, that quickly faded. If the bomber had been Muslim, it’s unlikely that would have been the case since history tells us that there would’ve been in depth discussions on how he had been radicalized, how to prevent future attacks, etc.
And Trump just about ignored the story because the incident couldn’t help him politically. His sole, simple tweet about the Austin bomber on Tuesday morning was this: “AUSTIN BOMBING SUSPECT IS DEAD. Great job by law enforcement and all concerned!”
We know his tweets would’ve been far different if Conditt had been an immigrant or a Muslim.
This raises the question: How many bombs does a non-Muslim need to set off before the media and Trump will call the person a terrorist? That’s easy to answer with Trump. In his case, if it’s a white Christian bomber — as with the Austin attacker — we can forget him ever using the word “terrorist.” After all this is the same Trump whose response after the white supremacist terror attack last August in Charlottesville that left Heather Heyer dead was to call the white supremacists there “very fine people.” Trump understands his base better than any of us, thus, he knows he needs the support of white supremacists.
With respect to the media, it’s challenging to get many — though not all — to use the term “terrorism” when it comes to a white person. After Charlottesville, few in the media used the term terrorist to describe the white supremacist who killed Heyer. Same goes for Dylann Roof, who executed nine African Americans in 2015 in the hopes of starting a race war. Instead we saw Roof often described, as the New York Times did back in 2015, as being “troubled” and coming from a “broken home.” It seems for many in the media, except for Timothy McVeigh, the word terrorism doesn’t apply to white people.
But what Conditt did was in fact terrorism. As listeners to my SiriusXM radio show who live in Austin, Texas made clear: They had been terrorized by Conditt for nearly two weeks. One listener, an African American woman, explained how after the first two Conditt killed were black, she and others in her community felt like they were being specifically targeted, adding to the fear.
Others from Austin shared with me how they stayed home at night and changed their daily routines because they were afraid of being the bomber’s next target. That’s not only the common sense understanding of terrorism but I’d argue fulfills the definition of terrorism under the federal law since Conditt clearly used his bombings to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population.”
The Austin bomber should be called a terrorist. That is what he was. And same for any person — regardless of religion or race — who engages in a campaign of terror like Conditt did that spanned nearly two weeks and was intended to terrorize Americans. The only thing preventing that appears to be that he isn’t Muslim.
And that not only shows a double standard, it makes us less safe as a nation. As the Anti-Defamation League has documented, of the 34 extremist related deaths last year in the United States, 18 were committed by right wing actors compared to nine by Islamic related terrorists.
Words matter and it’s time to use the word terrorism in a common sense way and not just apply it people from one religion. That is the only way to keep our nation safe.
Dean Obeidallah, a lawyer, hosts SiriusXM radio’s The Dean Obeidallah show and is a columnist for the Daily Beast and a CNN.com Opinion Contributor.
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.