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Mischief, riot, or terrorism?

Considering the politics of identity and terror.

The Capitol Hill insurgency was unprecedented in many respects. Historically speaking, the attack not only had the potential to be one of the deadliest right-wing terror attacks on American soil, but it was also an overt demonstration of white supremacy. While the actions of the mob on January the 7th were significantly propelled by the rhetoric of Donald Trump at his ‘Save the Steal’ rally, their frustrations were preceded by months of misinformation and rallying from a number of public officials to reject the results of November’s election. As developments unfold and we learn of the lethal possibilities of that Thursday morning, these figures have entirely evaded responsibility for their role in fostering dangerous ideologies.

While swift condemnation came from both sides of the aisle—Democrat and Republican alike—numerous conservative commentators failed to condemn the riot and acknowledge Trump’s role in inciting it. They all but missed the point, instead blaming Antifa and Black Lives Matter protestors, and stressing that no “true” supporters of Donald Trump would commit such violence.

The media discourse we notice in the United States is not unfamiliar within the Australian context. Conservative media pundits here drew direct links from Capitol Hill to the condoning of “leftist violence” earlier this year; maintaining that leftist politics normalised and contributed to the violence on Capitol Hill. Deputy PM Michael McCormack similarly equated the riots to BLM protests, suggesting that the two events were somehow equally insidious and dangerous.

What we recognise from this commentary is a persistent narrative of ‘both sides’ being equated as one. Whether it be Charlottesville or the Capitol Hill riots, attempting to lessen the culpability of perpetrators by shifting the blame to the other side serves little merit. And ultimately, these narratives refuse to recognise right-wing violence and the increasing threat it poses to society.

Reports published last year detail a considerable rise of right-wing activity in Australia across physical and online spaces. COVID-19 particularly has been utilised by numerous right-wing groups to recruit members and increase the scale of their operations—with groups such as The Proud Boys making appearances at anti-lockdown protests).

In spite of the growing threat of far-right terror, the term ‘terrorism’ itself has persistently been reserved for established perceptions of people of colour—particularly Muslims.

While offenders such as the Capitol Hill rioters are spared harsh labels in the coverage of their actions, non-white offenders are often branded terrorists before proven guilty. When Ashli Babbitt died during the riots, media coverage highlighted her status as a former-veteran, and her service to the United States. When Raghe Mohamad Abdi was shot dead by police in December, headlines centred upon his status as a terror suspect. Pointing out these discrepancies within media coverage does not serve to condone or legitimise any form of violence over the other. The intention is to simply emphasise the continued double standard present between coverage of white versus non-white individuals. Moreover, it is important to recognise the stereotypes pertaining to people of colour, as they equally play a part in fuelling right-wing ideologies akin to those we witnessed at Capitol Hill.

American scholar Khaled Beydoun remarked that white Americans have all but evaded responsibility over the Capitol Hill attack; emphasising rather that this “burden of collective guilt is only assigned to communities of color”. For people of colour, when acts of violence are committed by members of their ‘community’, they are tasked with the additional burden of demonstrating their allegiance to peace and non-violence.

Growing up as a Muslim in Australia, I’m familiar with the relief that is exercised by Muslims upon learning that an attack was not committed by an individual invoking Islam. Contrary to what Islamophobes may believe, the Muslim community experiences the same shock and sorrow as others when acts of terror are committed. In the aftermath however, there often comes an inevitable tide of backlash against Muslims, stoking resentment and hateful ideologies.

Tides of backlash are not unfamiliar to other minorities. One does not have to look far to confront the continued backlash against movements such as BLM, as well as the resurgence of hate crimes against East Asians post COVID-19. When it comes to events such as Capitol Hill, it does not do justice to merely notice these events and dismiss them as quickly as a week’s worth of headlines. Confronting the lingering threat of right-wing terrorism requires critical engagement and a shift in the discourse around terror; and this simply cannot be fulfilled without realising the link between harmful discourses and irresponsible media coverage.