What’s in a Word? Responses to Violence in the Trump Era

The Trump administration is continually failing to call the perpetrators of last week's violence what they are: terrorists.

[Photo: Mourners hold roses outside the Tree of Life synagogue]
It is these responses that frame the entirety of the acts of violence and that constitute our understanding of whose violence is deemed consequential, and whose isn’t. Brendan Smialowski / Getty

This past week the United States saw multiple homemade pipe bombs sent to former and current political officials; two Black people murdered at a grocery store; and an attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue that killed 11 people. Taken together, these acts of violence stem in large part from a growing climate of intolerance, racism, and bigotry in this country—many prompted by Trump’s rhetoric of exclusion, marginalization, and hate. And yet, Trump and his supporters largely refuse to call them what they are, what identical acts of violence would be called if Muslims were the perpetrators: terrorism.

Taken together, however, the question posed here is not why the perpetrators in all of these cases are not seen or constructed as terrorists. That would be beating a dead horse at this point as there is a clear, intentional reason as to why the government confines the the crime of terrorism to Muslims. Instead, it is vital to examine the aftermath of the attacks, the nature of the response from the president and his administration, and what consequences—if any—are deemed appropriate. This includes how suspects are charged, the sentences they receive, and any efforts devoted to restoring the lives of the victims. It is these responses that frame the entirety of the acts of violence and that constitute our understanding of whose violence is deemed consequential, and whose isn’t.

Last week, when packages were sent to George Soros, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden, among others, it was difficult to isolate Trump’s rhetoric from these acts of violence, especially in terms of who might have been motivated to commit them. Following the arrest of Cesar Sayoc on Friday morning, information has emerged that he lives in Florida and has a criminal history, and that he has a van plastered with pro-Trump stickers. Sayoc has been charged with fraud, battery, and a host of other crimes. But the intention of releasing such information on Sayoc’s background seems less about transparency and more about signifying his lack of connection to Muslim terrorist groups.

Last Thursday, Trump said that “these terrorizing acts are despicable and have no place in our society.” In Trump’s worldview, evidenced by these remarks, someone who commits an act of terrorism, but isn’t Muslim, isn’t defined as a terrorist. They are just someone who committed a terrorizing event.

Adding to this statement, Trump commented, “We must never allow political violence to take root in America.” This statement conveniently ignores the fact that “political violence” has already taken root in America—not just in its foundations of genocide and slavery, but during his administration as well. Just to name one recent instance, in mid-October, the pro-Trump Proud Boys assaulted protesters in New York City. These remarks also obscured the fact that the suspect in custody had reportedly threatened to conduct a bombing worse than 9/11 in 2002—a pretty clear threat of terrorism.

Trump also put forth a message of peace, saying, “The bottom line is that Americans must unify, and we must show the world that we are united together in peace and love and harmony as fellow American citizens.”

Trump’s response seems particularly insufficient in comparison to how he has dealt with other attacks in the United States.

For example, last year on October 31, when Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov, killed eight people and injured a dozen by driving his truck onto a busy sidewalk, Trump immediately tweeted that “My thoughts, condolences and prayers to the victims and families of the New York City terrorist attack. God and your country are with you!” and that “I have just ordered Homeland Security to step up our already Extreme Vetting Program. Being politically correct is fine, but not for this!” The next day, Trump said he’d consider sending the suspect to Guantanamo Bay. The difference was, of course, that Saipov was a Muslim. Maligning the entire Muslim community in this way not only gave license to the state to enact more acts of repression, but signaled to society that they too can hold Muslims collectively responsible.

Two recent events in the last few days have further illustrated just how differentially the word terrorist is used. On Saturday, 11 people were murdered at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The man arrested in the killings, Robert Bowers, was not only a vocal anti-Semite; he also specifically indicated his anger on social media toward Jewish groups for helping the asylum seekers caravan from Honduras, referring to them as “invaders.” In addition, Bowers blamed Jewish people for their role in bringing “evil” Muslims into the country. All of these make Bowers’ apparent motivation to commit this act of violence inextricable from Trump’s political rhetoric and actual policies.

In response to the attack on the synagogue worshippers, Trump stated, “It’s a terrible, terrible thing what’s going on with hate in our country, frankly, and all over the world …. The world’s problems go back for years and years …. You could say, frankly, for many centuries.”  In this statement, Trump not only fails to actually address the perpetrator’s specific motivation—anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia—but also deflects responsibility away the political context in which this brutal act of violence occurred. In other words, he shielded a white supremacist once again.

And thus far, Trump has not commented at all on the arrest of Gregory Bush in the killing of two Black people last week at a grocery store in Jeffersontown, Kentucky— after Bush tried and failed to enter a Black church first.

Many argue that the term terrorism is a meaningless word because it’s applied based on the identity of the perpetrator, rather than an objective assessment of the facts. Understandably, there’s also the concern that the term terrorism gives the government free reign to repress whomever it deems a terrorist. But there is something fundamentally deeper that needs to be addressed beyond semantics. This is because of what underlies the assumptions about Muslims versus others—that the violence Muslims perpetrate is somehow exceptional. Thus, it is difficult to imagine a change in the maligning of Muslims and the complementary shielding of white supremacists simply by using a different term.

In this way, extricating Muslims from the stereotype of terrorism—whether it’s about the use of the term—should first be about disrupting the narrative of Muslim violence as exceptional in scope or brutality. In the meantime, let’s begin making by an objective assessment of the facts to conclude that acts of violence steeped in or meant to send a particular political message are acts of terrorism that make the perpetrator, in turn, a terrorist.

Language from and by the state often has the effect of spurring violence among members of the public who have taken it as cues about which groups are worthy of existence and which aren’t. While there’s not much that Trump can do to convince subsequently targeted individuals or otherwise vulnerable communities that his rhetoric isn’t in large part to blame for emboldening and deepening the seeds of anger in this country, perhaps he can abandon his disingenuous and selective role as consoler-in-chief until he is ready to reflect on the legacy of continued religiously and racially motivated violence in this country that his words and policies have perpetrated. Whether or not he takes responsibility, however, we must hold him accountable.