Were Timothy Mcveigh and the Unabomber the Only White Terrorists?: Race, Religion, and the Perception of Terrorism
Alabama Civil Rights & Civil Liberties Law Review, Vol. 4, Forthcoming
56 Pages Posted: 1 May 2012 Last revised: 24 Apr 2020
Date Written: May 1, 2012
This article examines real post-9/11 cases of bombings/attempted bombings and mass shootings, and asks why some of the cases have been deemed acts of terrorism, while others with similar fact patterns have not been. The easy, if cynical, answer is that an act of mass violence is terrorism if it is committed by someone who is Muslim (such as Portland’s alleged Pioneer Square bomber Mohamed Mohamud, or Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan), but it is not terrorism if it is committed by a non-Muslim (such as a father-son duo who planted a bomb near a bank in Oregon, or Arizona gunman Jared Loughner).
Yet, the easy answer glosses over seemingly plausible explanations for the disparity in perception. This article considers 'micro-level' views of the cases, such as the nature of criminal charges available to the prosecuting jurisdiction (state versus federal), that do explain the disparate perceptions. However, the micro-level view also misses the forest for the trees: notwithstanding the plausible explanations for why the cases are seen differently, there are real costs imposed on society when terrorism becomes branded with Islam: cognitive biases against Muslims become more potent; investigators risk losing the trail of non-Muslim perpetrators when they fixate reflexively on Muslims; and worst of all, some government officials, aware of the biases and concerned about appearing anti-Muslim, may overcompensate by deliberately ignoring specific 'red flags' about Muslim individuals, with tragic results, as the Fort Hood shootings demonstrate.
The article does not pretend that there is a panacea to solve the problem of perceiving terrorism through the lens of race and religion. There are, however, steps to be taken to address and minimize the problem, including de-biasing techniques and redefining 'terrorism,' at least in layperson’s terms to focus on the intended result, rather than the perceived motivation (as the latter tends to result in equating Islamic beliefs with terroristic motivation).
Keywords: terrorism, Islam, Fort Hood, Nidal Hasan, Jared Loughner, Mohamed Mohamud, cognitive biases
JEL Classification: K14, K41
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation