How many more members of Congress have to be victims of politically motivated violence before we acknowledge terrorism is defined by the act and not the identity of the actor? Any person who “use[s] violence (or the threat of violence) against civilians in order to attain goals that are political or religious or ideological in nature … through intimidation or coercion or instilling fear” is a terrorist.
While clearly suffering from some sort of mental disorder, Jared Lee Loughner was clearly motivated to some extent by anti-government politics. Had his name been Mohammed, we would be talking about homegrown terrorism, not gun control or mental illness.
The tragic shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is a wakeup call that religious profiling does not work. While our nation was obsessed with Muslim “homegrown terrorism,” Loughner stealthily planned his terrorist scheme.
It is no secret that since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the FBI has focused its anti-terrorism efforts on Muslims. Traveler watch lists have grown exponentially, primarily with Muslim and Arabic names. Internet web sites and chat rooms with expressions of political dissent coupled with Islamic rhetoric are presumably under vigilant surveillance. More recently, Muslim youth have become ensnared in sting operations as part of a zealous preventative campaign. So much so that civil rights groups claim the tactics may cross into unlawful entrapment.
To be sure, Muslims engaged in illegal terrorist activity should be investigated and prosecuted accordingly. But with its investigative authorities broadened after 9/11, why didn’t the FBI stop Loughner before he shot a Congresswoman in the head, killed six civilians, including a federal judge and nine-year-old girl, and injured 17 people?
In light of the FBI’s recent stings of Muslim terrorist suspects that involved months of surveillance, undercover operations and careful execution, where was the FBI when Loughner was plotting his murderous scheme? Did they fail to discover his plot because he did not fit the “profile” of a Muslim terrorist?
But Loughner is not the first time the FBI dropped the ball on countering homegrown terrorism. In February 2010, Joseph Stack flew an airplane into an IRS building in Austin, Texas, to protest tax laws and the IRS’s order for him to pay his taxes. Prior to his crime, he publicly expressed his intent to protest the tax laws through violence. In the end, his terrorist act killed a federal employee and veteran. Had the plane crashed into the building a different time of the day, hundreds of IRS employees could have been killed.
In another troubling case in 2008, the FBI was apparently unaware of James Cummings’ preparation of a dirty bomb. Only after the police investigated his shooting by his abused wife did the FBI discover that Cummings’ house had a cache of radioactive materials suitable for building a “dirty bomb.” In addition to literature on how to build dirty bombs and various radioactive materials, the FBI found evidence linking Cummings to white supremacist groups and his ardent admiration of Adolf Hitler. Fortunately for the prospective victims of his dirty bomb, he was unable to murder and terrorize an unknown number of people.
As our law enforcement fixates on young Muslim males in the legitimate goal to stop domestic terrorism, those outside the profile execute their terrorist acts undetected. Thus, it should come as no surprise that when law enforcement misguidedly focus their resources investigating individuals and communities based on ineffective racial or religious profiles, they miss the Loughners of the world.
The rise in terrorist plots by right-wing extremists is not accidental. Ever since Barack Obama’s historic election, there has been a troubling proliferation of armed right-wing groups. Many of the groups question the legitimacy of Obama’s presidency and by extension anyone supporting Obama’s policies. Indeed, Giffords was among numerous elected officials subjected to threats because she voted for health care reform, pejoratively coined “Obamacare.”
The violence in Arizona appears to be the latest episode in this troubling growth of right-wing violent extremism. It is a tragic reminder of the perils of focusing on only one particular religious, racial or ethnic group when countering homegrown terrorism. For the sake of our collective safety, not to mention our civil liberties, let’s hope our government never forgets this basic fact.
Sahar Aziz is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Policy and an associate professor at Texas A&M University School of Law, where she teaches national security and Middle East law. She is also a member of the Egyptian American Rule of Law Association. This article was initially published by truth-out.org on January 12, 2011.