Greggor Mattson, interviewing Lisa Stampnitzky, author of Disciplining Terror: How Experts Invented “Terrorism” and Politics Lecturer at Sheffield University.
GM: Experts have been walking back classifications of Omar Mateen’s massacre at Orlando’s pulse nightclub as terrorism. And yet, LGBTQ people have consistently described the attack as terrorism. How can we understand the different understandings of the word?
LS: This is an attempt to draw a firm line between private forms of violence, like domestic violence, while reserving terrorism as a classification for acts that are inherently public and political. We rush to explain private violence by focusing on the individual’s psychology or his confused sexuality, and not some wider ideology that we understand as political. But trying to separate these things into two completely separate categories is doomed to fail.
The second part of your question exposes the fault line that exists in how we talk about terrorism, what it is, who commits it. Many communities feel in a very visceral way that they are actual targets of violence, regardless of whether experts or the government recognize this. African Americans are the targets of violence as a group, violence that is at least socially patterned but is often highly organized, one of the characteristics we associate with terrorism. Women also consistently face violence from men – intimate partners are most likely to murder women.
GM: But we don’t define domestic violence as terrorism.
LS: Right, because the way that terrorism is defined in the U.S. is as something that is public and political, and we classify domestic violence as an individual problem of bad men. Obviously, what gets to be inside the realm of politics is the key issue here. One of the ways we can think about this are the ways that people of color have worked to make violence against them a political issue, to get broader society to see an attack on them as an attack on everyone.
GM: In the wake of the attack on Pulse nightclub, many LGBTQ writers have characterized it as terrorism because they understood gay bars as safe spaces. Does the place of an attack help define what counts as terrorism?
LS: Absolutely. Terrorism is an unstable category, so its application is the outcome of political debates. Attacks on certain places or populations are more likely to be defined as terrorism than others. One thing I’ve analyzed about what sort of acts tend to be defined as terrorism in the US is that they come to be widely seen as an attack on the nation. If the target of the attack is seen as representative of the nation, then we more readily understand it as terrorism.
What’s new about the attack on Pulse was this was readily seen an attack on all Americans. This is is problematic because it erases the particularity of an attack on LGBTQ Americans and Latinos, and those aren’t accidental. Those get erased when we fit [Omar] Mateen’s attack into the terrorism category as an attack on all of is. What’s interesting is that this reflects how gays and lesbians have come to be assimilated into the mainstream and seen as representative of America in a way that they weren’t only recently.
GM: That’s true. I’ve written how the heroic and professional response by Orlando police may mark a turning point in the relations between the LGBTQ community and police, given the very recent history of police violence in gay bars, like the 2009 raids in Fort Worth and Atlanta that put gay men in the hospital. Can government agencies commit acts of terror?
LS: It depends on the whole issue of what we mean by terror. If we’re talking about terrorism as a concept that’s usually defined by the state, then by definition no, because no state will call its own actions by such a word. On the other hand, if we’re talking about violence that is patterned and is experienced as terrorizing, then of course. Police have committed patterned violence against LGBTQ citizens, against African Americans, against other groups. But who gets to define terrorism? That is always a dispute involving governments, activists, and interest groups.
GM: The gay rights movement has only recently woken up to gun control as a gay rights issue. What do you think about the proposal to ban terrorists from buying guns, one that was endorsed yesterday by the National Rifle Association (NRA)?
LS: It’s hugely problematic for many reasons. One, the way you framed the question is the way it’s framed by politicians. Two, it’s unlikely that any of the people we ban will be actual terrorists, that is, people who have committed terrorist acts. Those people are either dead or locked up or have fled the country. Third, Who will we ban? It’ll be people on the government terrorist watch list, which contains hundreds of thousands of people. It’s secret, names aren’t openly acknowledged, we don’t know the criteria that put people on it, we don’t know how you get off the list. It’s a terrible idea because it reifies and gives legitimacy to these watchlists, which are undemocratic and an invasion of civil rights. Finally–as if this is the most terrible reason–they won’t be effective. They will ban all sorts of people based on other social categories, because you’re Muslim, say, and we won’t ban all sorts of people who probably should be banned, like domestic abusers who commit violence against women throughout their lives.
GM: You’re a sociologist. What does that training contribute to your understanding of the Pulse massacre that is missing in journalistic accounts?
LS: Well, my training leads me to reject these either/or descriptions of what happened, about whether this was about the politics of ISIS or someone’s personal problems. That framing misses a lot. It doesn’t make sense to talk about these things in opposition, or even in isolation. We have to understand this in the context of American society, with its problematic understandings of immigration and who belongs, of what it means to be a man, to be gay, to be Muslim, and how these have interacted with terrorist ideologies, which have their own understandings of masculinity and religion and gender. Political ideology may or may not have driven him to act, but that doesn’t mean this wasn’t a political act.
GM: Thank you for your thoughts.