With the tragedy at Charleston, whether the shooter is a terrorist or not has generated much debate on the internet. But one accusation made is Islamic extremists are terrorists while white extremists are just “mentally-ill”.
Yet the debate is really not how we legally define terrorism (the courts decide that). It’s who we perceive when we think of “TERRORIST”. It’s often an image of a bunch of keffiyeh-covered bearded men toting Kalashnikovs; not a pasty-faced white boy with a bad haircut. If you don’t, just google “Terrorist” to find out what the world thinks.
Several factors are in play, one being racism. But popular narratives tropes also play a role in how we view terrorists. We view Islamic extremists as minions while white extremists are loners or characters.
The Narrative of the Minions
Organizations are rarely the heroes and are often portrayed as the antagonists. Weyland-Yutani, the Galactic Empire, Death Eaters, and Spectre are antagonist mainstays of popular culture. And why not, organizations make great antagonists for protagonists. It’s difficult to sympathize with a logo and slogan and organizations are often comprised of minions, for the hero to beat up. It’s much easier to sympathize a hero for being so violent on minions when they are punching bags with a logo slapped onto them.
Terrorist groups are currently the organizations we love to hate. Just check out any news related to terrorism and it’s always a name, sometimes a flag and groups of fighters. The most infamous terrorist organizations (the spectacular ones) have all been Islamic extremists e.g. Al-Qaeda, ISIS.
Meanwhile, non-Islamic extremist groups are not achieving the same level of infamy. Which is why we don’t imagine terrorists to be non-Islamic. For the most part, right-wing extremists have been “lone wolf”s who were inspired by ideologies or organizations, which are not considered terrorist organizations (dicks maybe but not terrorists). Even European terrorist groups e.g. IRA are now mostly defunct. The most recent right-wing extremist group that attempted to commit terrorist acts against the United States was a militia group called the Hutaree, who were (fortunately) arrested by the FBI before they could enact any of their plans.
The Narrative of the Individual
Any lone antagonist will be well-developed in their motivation and humanized as individuals. In the Clint Eastwood flick “In the Line of Fire”, John Malkovich’s character, wishes to kill the president. However as he is working for himself his character and what motivates him is explored to understand his actions leading to his assassination attempt.
Sophisticated and large-scale terrorist attacks i.e. Sept 11, have been eclipsed by “Lone Wolf” attacks. Where extremist propaganda encourages homegrown extremists to commit terrorist attacks. Now, “lone wolf” Islamic extremists are exactly like right-wing extremists. The Parliament Hill shooter was as crazy, evil and had access to the same resources as many white terrorists, like the Wisconsin Temple Shooter. Yet because he declared allegiance to ISIS (who were more than happy to acknowledge him), said shooter is no longer just a “mentally ill” man. He is now seen as an ISIS terrorist.
Meanwhile, white extremist terrorists have rarely affiliated their attacks to any extremist organizations. Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian terrorist, was never affiliated with any extremist organizations, despite spouting enough ideology to support one. Even terrorists who were formerly affiliated with extremist groups i.e. Vegas Shooting Couple, were disavowed by said extremist groups. Thus, they are no bigger than their deeds and their motivations. Which leaves us with nothing but the narratives of who they were as individuals to explain why they did what they did.
Now this is not a black and white situation. There are many well-developed characters who are part of organizations e.g. The Operative from “Serenity”, and white terrorists who fought for terrorist organizations e.g. Patty Hearst. Relying on narratives is a legitimate way to view the world, but we should be aware how much tropes and its cliches influence how we perceive reality and understand the world.