On Saturday morning, NYPD officers raided a Greenwich Village apartment in New York City. They found a veritable arsenal of dangerous weaponry and unstable explosives. The bomb squad was called in. Police later found an array of disturbing manuals, including "The Terrorist's Encyclopedia V. 102," guides to improvised firearms including a DIY manual for the construction of a sub-machine gun, and Army manuals for constructing and placing traps and bombs. Two individuals with murky connections to anti-government activities were arrested.
Sounds like a clear media field day, right? Wrong. Almost immediately, news organizations were near-universally reporting that the accused, 31-year-old Harvard graduate Aaron Green and girlfriend Morgan Gliedman, 27, were not terrorists. They were just relatively harmless drug addicts.
Green and Gliedman were found with two shotguns (one a sawed-off Mossberg 500, the other a $1,000+ Ruger over-under hunting shotgun), high-capacity magazines and tracer ammunition, shotgun shells, a replica M203 grenade launcher designed to launch flares, and a vial containing 7 grams of a white powder later identified as HMTD, a high-power and extremely unstable explosive. But The Daily Beast reports that police quickly reached the "tentative conclusion that the explosives and weapons were just part of a drug-fueled, twisted sense of what constitutes cool," a high-ranking police source saying "it looks like they're junkies … well-to-do junkies, not terrorists."
Would it be reasonable to, in the lack of available evidence suggesting otherwise, accuse these two of being terrorists? Of course not. That would be ridiculous, right? Fortunately for Green and Gliedman, the two happen to be relatively attractive, wealthy white people. That gives them a certain degree of immunity from the media and the police.
Is there any doubt that if their skin was a different color or the two were adherents to a non-Western religion, the media would be reporting a different story: that of an alleged terror plot, even without evidence of a plot to back up those accusations?
In November 2001, Dick Cheney implemented what is known as the "1 percent doctrine," which holds that even if there is a "1 percent chance" that a terrorist threat is credible, "we have to treat it as a certainty" in terms of response. This directive may have made sense in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, but it has also directly led to widespread targeting of the Muslim community over the past decade. The Bush administration's securitization initiatives helped propel a wave of paranoia about terrorists, creating an endless cycle of terrorism speculation and media cheerleading or acceptance of spurious moves against the Muslim community.
Countless Muslims, Sikhs, and other minorities have been endlessly hassled, interrogated, or accused by the authorities since 9/11. The military even prosecuted an Army chaplain for a number of false charges such as "spying, espionage, mishandling classified documents, mutiny and fraternizing with the enemy," apparently for the crime of attempting to "improve awareness of Islam and the Muslim culture" at Guantanamo Bay. Muslims, Asian-Americans, and Arab-Americans have all faced a consistent atmosphere of racial profiling and government surveillance since 9/11. Rutgers professor Sylvia Chan-Malik claims "the notion that Islam is the 'enemy' and Muslims are not to be trusted is a central logic through which institutions and individuals make decisions these days," citing recent NYPD surveillance of Muslim communities and the recent shooting at a Sikh temple which killed six people in Wisconsin.
Of course, we don't extend this surveillance to the upstanding white community. In 2010, anti-government extremist Andrew Joseph Stack flew a plane into an IRS building, killing himself and an IRS manager. 13 others were injured, two of them severely. He left a manifesto and may have loaded his single-engine Piper Dakota with extra fuel to ensure extra damage was inflicted in the attack. Bombing-scale damage appears to have been the horrifying result.
Yet Fox News and other organizations repeatedly reported the incident as either an "anti-IRS suicide" or profiled Stack as "generally easygoing, a talented amateur musician with marital troubles and a maddening grudge" against the IRS. Muslim groups petitioned the government to label the attack as an "act of terror" but were rebutted. Conservative Representative Steve King (R-Iowa) personified the 'white people aren't terrorists' creed of thinking by personally saying he "[understood] the deep frustration with the IRS," and claiming if the U.S. had abolished the IRS "back when I first advocated it, [Stack] wouldn't have had a target for his airplane."
Even the Sikh temple shooting, conducted by known neo-Nazi Wade Michael Page, apparently passes the terrorism smell test. The Sikh community was recently disappointed by the FBI's lack of ability to even tie the shootings to systemic racism (which "could not be demonstrated as the reason Page shot up the gurdwara," despite a "strong tradition" of white supremacist "lone wolf attacks"), let alone terrorism.
Compare this with the Republican Party's reactionary and infantile response to the Department of Homeland Security's labeling of right-wing extremists as potential sources of domestic terrorism. Then-House Minority Leader, and now Speaker, Representative John Boehner (R-Ohio) accused DHS of "using [the term 'terrorism'] to describe American citizens who disagree with the direction Washington Democrats are taking our nation." Experts such as Middle Eastern history scholar Juan Cole have detailed how the U.S. media has been complicit in maintaining the distinction between white and nonwhite perpetrators of violence.
As Cole mentions, "the family of a white terrorist is interviewed, weeping as they wonder where he went wrong. The families of other terrorists are almost never interviewed." How telling, then, that the Daily Beast piece on the raid emphasizes the possibility "the raid on the apartment was the best thing that could have happened for [Gliedman], who can now expect to begin life in the New Year away from explosives and guns."
I doubt that if a Muslim-American woman's apartment were found with that stockpile of weapons the Beast would elicit such sympathy.
Strangely, accusations of terrorism seem mainly directed at relatively powerless groups, including those also accused of political dissidence. The FBI and the DHS apparently met with high-ranking Wall Street officials to direct "treating protests against the corporate and banking structure of America as potential criminal and terrorist activity."
That's just here, in our relatively human-rights-friendly corner of the world. The Associated Press reports that labeling political dissidents and minority communities as potential terrorists is even worse overseas. Over 35,000 people have been convicted as terrorists, with over 120,000 arrests, "at the urging and with the funding of the West." With Turkey and China accounting for over half the convictions alone, it seems highly unlikely that all those accused are guilty of terrorism – or anything approaching it. The U.S.' blanket endorsement of harsh counter-terrorism laws has helped provide cover and active support for governments to deploy those laws against similarly disadvantaged communities as well.
The end effect in the U.S? Those communities have little recourse, and feel victimized and oppressed.
"The fear is that, if at any point, you come into contact, whether intentional or not, with someone who later becomes a criminal, or later becomes a suspect or terrorist, that taint can never be scrubbed off," said Elizabeth Dan, the outreach director of NYU's Muslim Law Students Association.
A taint that does not, apparently, extend to white Americans.