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The Way We See Terrorism


Domestic terrorism accounted for slightly more than 73 percent of acts of terror in the United States between 1980 and 2000. International terrorism, although widely discussed, only made up 26 percent.

The barrel of a .44 pistol was pointed in Raisuddin “Rais” Bhuiyan’s face. At the other end, a redheaded man demanded money from the cash register of the gas station he worked at. Before he knew what was happening, Rais’ blood gushed from his head, collecting on the floor where he collapsed—though the bullet didn’t kill him.

Rais is a Middle-Eastern American who emigrated from a successful life in Bangladesh to study in America, he says. In Bangladesh, he had been an air force officer, jet fighter pilot, and a Microsoft-certified systems engineer. He left his supportive family and all that he knew to study in America.

Anand Giridharadas, a New York Times columnist, wrote the book The True American, which brings the story of Rais to light. The shooting took place on September 21, 2001. The man who attacked Rais, Mark Stroman, intended to get revenge for the events of 9/11 by shooting any Arab he was able to find—and Rais was one of them. Stroman later admitted to his crimes in a videotaped interview before his trial. He was sentenced to death by lethal injection, and was executed on July 20, 2011, in Huntsville, Texas.

Since the War on Terror, many Americans have developed the stereotypical image of a terrorist being of Middle-Eastern descent. In a study conducted by Pew Research Center in 2007, only 21 percent of Muslim Americans thought support existed for extremism within the American Muslim community. Forty percent of the general population thought otherwise.

Pew Research also found that 28 percent of Muslim Americans had experienced what they considered to be suspicious looks, and 22 percent had been called derogatory names. More than half say that the U.S. anti-terrorism policies target Muslim Americans for increased surveillance.

There is a distinction between acts of terror committed by Americans and acts of terror that result from foreign interference. International terrorism consists of terrorist actions that originated outside of the U.S. but are played out in the United States. Domestic terrorism is any unlawful violence committed toward Americans by Americans for a political or social cause.

According to Dale Watson from the FBI, of the 335 incidents of terror that occurred within the United States between 1980 and 2000, 247 were considered domestic while only eighty-eight were international.

Despite the fact that Americans are far more likely to experience domestic terrorism, international terrorism tends to cause the most fear. Fifty-nine percent of Americans are worried about the threat of terrorism by those who come from other countries, according to a New York Times and CBS News poll. Sixty-three percent are worried about foreign-influenced terrorist acts committed by people living in America.

Giridharadas says much of this fear comes from misrepresentation, and because people consider foreign-influenced terrorism to be international terrorism. This leads him to believe there is a greater fear of international terrorism, even though the threat is not as prominent.

Often, Americans do not classify domestic terrorism as “terrorism.” Dylann Roof shot and killed nine black Americans at a church in Charleston, South Carolina  in 2015. The shooting was a result of his feelings toward race and religion. Even though his actions could be considered domestic terrorism, he was charged with a federal hate crime.

Giridharadas believes people don’t tend to justify the acts of individuals like Roof. Instead, he says, acts of domestic terrorism like this are minimized. People like Roof are labeled as “troubled” instead of as terrorists, even though Roof’s actions and ideology mirrored those of white terrorist organizations.

When a foreign person commits this type of crime, the act is correctly and immediately labeled as terrorism. Yet Giridharadas thinks that a person like Roof—a homegrown terrorist—is often only thought of as a “lost little boy.” The minimization of domestic terrorist acts is furthered when legal charges call the acts anything other than terrorism.

This is true with Stroman’s trial as well. The general public treated it as a hate crime rather than terrorism. According to Giridharadas, Stroman was tried with capital murder while committing a robbery. But when Stroman shot and killed another man, Waqar Hasan, who was grilling hamburgers in his store in Dallas, there was no attempt of robbery. Clearly, money was not Stroman’s motive.

To Giridharadas, this was another example of minimization. Stroman was a self-defined “American terrorist,” and an Aryan Brother, a member of a white supremacist organization. The intention behind the crime, which was to eliminate Muslims in response to 9/11, was minimized and displayed to the jury as an act driven by the desire for money. The jury would then be more inclined to view Stroman as a lost man who robbed a gas station to get money instead of a man driven by hate.

Rais understands the fear caused by reports of international terrorism. He feels apprehensive when boarding a flight and experiences grief when he hears of radical acts of terror. However, in Rais’s experience, fear of foreign terrorism comes from the media isolating and focusing on specific incidents committed by terrorists of a different nationality. So when terrorism is not committed by Muslims, the fear is less intense. Rais says that the solution requires not placing blame on one group or minority, but instead coming together to solve the problem.

In a case of domestic terrorism from June of 2016 in Orlando, Omar Mateen, a U.S. citizen who was born in America, shot and killed forty-nine people in a gay nightclub as he called the police and declared his allegiance to ISIS. However, no evidence has been found to prove this connection. But Mateen did claim to have the same ideology as ISIS.

Giridharadas says that the Orlando case is especially scary because foreign organizations don’t need to have direct contact with anyone for individuals to claim an organization’s ideas. Technology has enabled individuals from anywhere to find and adopt the ideologies of radical organizations.

The line between domestic and international terrorism is blurry. Mateen committed this act within the U.S. without foreign contact or involvement, but he was still foreign-influenced. Giridharadas believes that the value Americans place on whether or not a terrorist act originated elsewhere is misplaced because technology spreads ideas anywhere, even without foreign coordination.

Terrorism has evolved alongside technology, and most terrorism affecting Americans is domestic. It is therefore important that cases of this kind are treated as what they truly are: Terrorism.

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