Let me be honest with you. I hate the word “terrorism.” I think it’s too loaded, too politicized, and used to justify harassment and state violence against people. On some level, I really wish the word would go away.
This might come as a surprise to some of my friends. Early on in the Austin bombings, I was adamant about calling it terrorism and, now that the perpetrator has been identified, calling him a terrorist seems a lot more common. There’s also been a lot of pushback against calling it terrorism, from conservatives and moderates who argue that there’s no clear political motive, but also from left-wing sources who argue there isn’t much point to trying to reclaim the word terrorism against the radical right.
So I should probably explain myself, starting with how I define terrorism.
In the weeks after September 11th, as Americans were reacquainting themselves with terrorism for the first time since the 70s, a professor remarked that a war on terror made no sense. Terrorism, he said, was a tactic, specifically the act of using targeted attacks to frighten the larger populace. I liked that definition, because it meant that terrorism could be used by anyone, for any reason. The motive was irrelevant. We didn’t have to give political weight to the confused ramblings of, say, the Unabomber or Dylann Roof.
What mattered was the victims of their attacks, the effect these attacks had on them. and the intention to have that effect.
That effect was what I saw during the Austin bombings. Even as early as the third bombing, you could see that uncertainty of death fall over the city. It started with the black and brown residents and then spread, until every rumor and bang was enough to trigger a flurry of status updates and ambulances. What I noticed was that people didn’t have a word to describe that fear. They hadn’t experienced terrorism before, so they didn’t know what to call it. I called it terrorism so they could have that word. It’s terrorism, you are absolutely rational to be afraid. That’s what they’re trying to do with these bombings. Now here’s how we can fight it.
You don’t fight terrorism by “getting the terrorist.” Even after the bomber was dead, there were still warnings of potential bombs in the city. That’s why terrorism is so effective in achieving these ends: catch the perpetrator and the fear can still linger.
You fight terrorism with resolve. You fight it by giving aid to the victims and warning how to spot an impending attack. You fight it by potentially standing up to attackers and would be attackers. Even if you find them under your own roof or in your own neighborhood. And, most importantly, you beat terrorism by continuing to live your life. By showing that your community is stronger than these attacks and the fear they’re meant to provoke.
I called it terrorism because knowing what’s happening to you can be empowering. My focus is on the victims, both the direct victims and the larger population. I called it terrorism knowing full well that the perpetrator could be a caricature of Trump’s worst enemies: An undocumented immigrant who’s simultaneously a member of ISIS, MS13, antifa, and the Gay Straight Alliance.
The perpetrator was irrelevant to me as was their motivation. I didn’t care if they did it for white supremacy, or socialism, or Islam, or because they thought that Joker was cool.
And I still don’t care. I have no interest in learning about the Austin bomber. What their politics were, where they were raised, what groups they were part of. Whether he was nice, or even what motivated him to commit terrorism. He voided my empathy and understanding the moment he placed the first bomb down.
I certainly don’t want to be a part of America’s “War on Terror.” I’ve seen what the war on terror does and I want no part of it. I don’t want it in Yemen, on the US border, or in East Austin — or even Pflugerville for that matter.
My focus, my heart, is my city, that just survived a terrorist attack. Now we mourn the dead, heal our wounds, and fight like hell for the living.
I’m not interested in having a debate about whether the bomber was a “true terrorist.” If the word terrorism can be useful to people who’ve suffered, I’ll use it. If not, then I don’t see the point. The conversations I want to have now are like the one I recently had with some friends, after we had confirmed the bomber had blown himself up. Someone remarked that they felt guilty for feeling happy. “Exuberant doesn’t begin to describe how I feel right now,” another friend said. I asked, “What about the word safe?” She responded, ” I like it.”