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‘White Privilege’ and the War on Terror


By now a number of folks have weighed in on David Sirota’s fervent (and now repeated!) wish that the Boston bomber is a white American. The piece was obviously intentionally provocative, and he certainly got his wish. Let’s, however, do him the favor of taking a key element of his argument seriously — that “white privilege” helps dicate our response to terrorist incidents. Here’s how he puts it: 

In the context of terrorist attacks, such privilege means white non-Islamic terrorists are typically portrayed not as representative of whole groups or ideologies, but as “lone wolf” threats to be dealt with as isolated law enforcement matters. Meanwhile, non-white or developing-world terrorism suspects are often reflexively portrayed as representative of larger conspiracies, ideologies and religions that must be dealt with as systemic threats — the kind potentially requiring everything from law enforcement action to military operations to civil liberties legislation to foreign policy shifts.

Sirota supplies a link to a gentleman named Tim Wise, who puts it this way:

And white privilege is knowing that if this bomber turns out to be white, the United States government will not bomb whatever corn field or mountain town or stale suburb from which said bomber came, just to ensure that others like him or her don’t get any ideas. And if he turns out to be a member of the Irish Republican Army we won’t bomb Belfast. And if he’s an Italian American Catholic we won’t bomb the Vatican.

There’s much more, but you get the idea.

Underlying this argument is a fundamentally flawed starting premise: that extremist domestic terrorism is equivalent to Islamic jihadist terrorism. In other words, Osama bin Laden and Timothy McVeigh are roughly comparable. This is nothing but willful blindness (to borrow Andrew McCarthy’s marvelous phrase), the desire to stuff reality into your ideological box. Perhaps they would have a point if, say, McVeigh were a foot soldier in a larger ideologically-motivated army that had essentially taken control of the state of Montana, had trained thousands of heavily-armed fighters, launched a series of additional attacks at targets at home and abroad, and had ideological cousins that had taken control of sections of New Jersey and New Hampshire, had tens of thousands of trained fighters under arms, and was stockpiling rockets and other military weapons. No rational person believes that in such a circumstance our response wouldn’t be extremely violent, involve overwhelming military force, and fundamentally transform the way Americans view each other.  

Yet not even Sirota or Wise — in their most fevered imaginations — can transform American extremists into anything remotely comparable to al-Qaeda and its jihadist allies. On September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda dominated the nation of Afghanistan, was training a terrorist army, and had already executed a global terrorist campaign far more lethal than anything even the IRA had been able to achieve at the height of the “troubles.” Yet that was not the only powerful jihadist force — the PLO had three times taken control of significant chunks of territory in the Middle East (Jordan, Lebanon, and the West Bank) and had proven its ability to strike across continents as well. Hezbollah was armed to the teeth (and its precursor had killed more Marines than any armed force since Vietnam), and Hamas was growing in power. And that doesn’t even count the smaller jihadist organizations that had plagued the world for decades.  

Is there a contemporary American analogue to this campaign of terror?  

While there is no contemporary comparison, there was a time in American history when white men were motivated by a coherent ideology, gathered considerable military force, controlled a distinct territory, and launched armed attacks against the United States government. The response was total war. Talk to the Union dead at Cold Harbor or Fredericksburg or Gettysburg about “white privilege.”  

It is a very sad fact of American life that more than a decade after 9/11 millions of Americans either don’t know or refuse to know of the extent of the jihadist threat. Al-Qaeda is no mere gang of criminals. Jihadist Islam is an ideology with influence over millions of Muslims, and it has spawned not just isolated terror attacks but the creation of entire paramilitary armies with considerable military strength – armies that can only be defeated by a greater military power. To be clear, as of this writing, I have absolutely no idea who was responsible for the Boston Marathon bombing, but their identity is irrelevant to the clear and present jihadist threat, a threat many orders of magnitude greater than that presented by extremist Americans — regardless of color.


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