THEY didn’t understand terrorism until it was too late. Ever since 9/11, and arguably even in the years prior to that, Americans believed that terrorism was a Muslim problem. Such was this belief that in the post-9/11 years the Department of Homeland Security was created to protect the US from Islamist militancy. And as everyone in South Asia and the Middle East experienced, that was hardly all of it.
In Afghanistan, where the erstwhile 9/11 terrorists had hidden, a military campaign (still ongoing) killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. In Iraq, a functioning infrastructure of governance was dismantled, nearly a million innocent Iraqis were killed and several millions more rendered refugees. The weight of the cumulative carnage spanned decades and its true measure is still not known. When it became too costly to send soldiers, the Americans used drones, killing even young children with their approximate marksmanship and their penchant for mistaking funerals and wedding parties for terrorist convoys. At home in the US, every Muslim became a terror suspect, and mosques were filled with undercover FBI agents trying to find terrorists.
Those days lasted until Jan 6, 2021. Until then, and despite the rising number of home-grown white supremacist terror attacks, Americans still soundly believed that terrorism was a Muslim problem, inextricably tied to something about the faith. If anyone, particularly a Muslim, interjected, the retort would always be something like, ‘Yes, maybe not all terrorists are Muslim, but so many are’. It would be the beginning of a circular and pointless argument, whose only value was how it exposed the extent of American Islamophobia.
So deep was this denial that on Christmas Day 2020, when a member of the conspiracy group QAnon parked a camper truck full of explosives outside a building that housed a good bit of the 5G infrastructure belonging to the communications giant AT&T, US counterterrorism officials and media outlets refused to refer to the attack — which reduced two downtown streets in Nashville, Tennessee, to rubble — as a terrorist attack. “There was no political motive,” one such terrorism analyst held on CNN. It was a statement that was misguided at best and a downright lie at worst.
The helplessness the Americans feel is the helplessness that Pakistani citizens felt — wanting to do something but not knowing what to do as extremists attacked the country.
The QAnon conspiracy group believes, in summary, that Democrats run an undercover paedophilia ring and that Donald Trump is fighting this ring. All other sorts of nonsense, such as secret signs and clues, are wrapped up in the mix, and even the president, who has refused to condemn the group, regurgitated some of its beliefs in a criminal telephone call to the secretary of state of Georgia a little over a week ago.
Before the election, the planned kidnapping and execution of the governor of the state of Michigan and the storming of the Michigan State Capitol were all rationalised away and given none of the seriousness that would have been allotted to the issue had the assailants been Black Lives Matter protesters or American Muslims.
On Jan 6, Americans had to confront the fact that terrorism is not a ‘Muslim’ or even a poverty problem but a tactic that can attach itself to any ideology. The white nationalists who stormed the US Capitol were people they knew and never suspected, as demonstrated by the easy access that the thousands of gathered protesters had to the steps of the Capitol (several videos even appeared to show police officers assisting the protestors). What happened next has been seen by people all around the world.
The crowd was in a state of frenzy thanks to the president, who was the one to tell them to march to the Capitol in the first place. Trump’s son Don Jr warned lawmakers that “we’re coming after you” if they certified the election results, and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani declared it was time for “trial by combat” just that morning. And so the crowd stormed the Capitol.
Lawmakers had to take refuge in ‘safe and undisclosed’ locations, windows were broken, the speaker’s office was vandalised, the Senate and House chambers were overrun by the rioters who looted and stole and damaged with abandon, making sure to capture it all in selfies and live-streams on Facebook and many other platforms. Five people died and scores were injured; crowds were heard chanting “Hang Mike Pence” in response to his refusal to stop the certification process of Electoral College votes.
Based on the events, and the precedent set by the US itself, Canada or Mexico would be well within their rights to attack and take over their neighbour owing to its poor management of its home-grown terrorists. Like Pakistan routinely was, the US too can be labelled a ‘safe haven’ for white supremacist terrorists who can then carry out attacks in the wider world, given that they can gather, plot and roam free in the US, which does not keep track of its home-grown terrorists.
There is nothing good about an incident that takes innocent lives and causes such damage to people and property, but perhaps Americans who are watching in disbelief can use this time to consider the position of Pakistanis who watched their own country slip into chaos and carnage for the entire duration of America’s so-called war on terror. The helplessness they feel is the helplessness that Pakistanis felt — wanting to do something but not knowing what to do, also knowing that the intoxications of extremist ideology are such that those who have been affected by them cannot be converted to reason and rationality so easily.
The challenge before the US has only just begun; its failure to evaluate the dangers of the snake pit within means too many snakes are lying in wait for their moment to attack the machinery of the state. The rioters were not able to stop the certification process; Twitter kicked Trump off its platform and Amazon webhosting has denied platforms to right-wing talk shows. Even with this, the fight has only just begun.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, January 13th, 2021