Differences between White Terrorists and Others

From Juan Cole. (Thanks, Mr Jender!)

1. White terrorists are called “gunmen.” What does that even mean? A person with a gun? Wouldn’t that be, like, everyone in the US? Other terrorists are called, like, “terrorists.”

2. White terrorists are “troubled loners.” Other terrorists are always suspected of being part of a global plot, even when they are obviously troubled loners.

3. Doing a study on the danger of white terrorists at the Department of Homeland Security will get you sidelined by angry white Congressmen. Doing studies on other kinds of terrorists is a guaranteed promotion.

4. 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.

5. White terrorists are part of a “fringe.” Other terrorists are apparently mainstream.

6. White terrorists are random events, like tornadoes. Other terrorists are long-running conspiracies.

7. White terrorists are never called “white.” But other terrorists are given ethnic affiliations.

8. Nobody thinks white terrorists are typical of white people. But other terrorists are considered paragons of their societies.

9. White terrorists are alcoholics, addicts or mentally ill. Other terrorists are apparently clean-living and perfectly sane.

10. There is nothing you can do about white terrorists. Gun control won’t stop them. No policy you could make, no government program, could possibly have an impact on them. But hundreds of billions of dollars must be spent on police and on the Department of Defense, and on TSA, which must virtually strip search 60 million people a year, to deal with other terrorists.

9 thoughts on “Differences between White Terrorists and Others

  1. While it is easy to cast this deep-seated prejudice in terms of white racism, it is actually part of a broader phenomenon called in-group bias.

    Here is a brief article from the American Psychological Association that describes research on this topic.


    Here is a sound bite from the article: As Marilyn Brewer (1999, p. 438) put it in her summary of the evidence, “Ultimately, many forms of discrimination and bias may develop not because outgroups are hated, but because positive emotions such as admiration, sympathy, and trust are reserved for the ingroup.” The tendency of people to favor their own group, known as “ingroup bias,” has been found in cultures around the world (Aberson, Healy, & Romero, 2000; Brewer, 1979, 1999).

  2. white supremacy is not simply a relative tendency to prefer those of your ‘tribe,’ it is actually a powerful political structure.

  3. I’ve deleted some comments that violate our policies. However, perhaps some clarifications are in order: The author of the piece is Juan Cole, linked to above, not anyone at FP. The piece is written is about the US media, post-2001. Finally, it is quite obvious that the generalisations in the piece will be literally false. (Yes, you can find examples of white people being called terrorists!) That’s the way hyperbole works.

  4. Actually, looking again and being pedantic, I think a lot of the claims are not generalisations but generics, which are not actually made false by the existence of counter-instances.

  5. sk, we are not in disagreement. In-group bias is not benign when embedded in a political structure, and particularly when one group has a lot more power than another. I posted the APA article as a way of clarifying the psychological origins of this phenomenon. To continue to see white supremacists as somehow categorically different from other groups who engage in genocide is myopic. For example, the atrocities that occurred in Rwanda were not committed by white supremacists. This is a bias that resides in all of us, and when couple with unbridled political power, it can become something quite evil. Understanding it as a human bias that can spiral out of control dictates the necessity of safeguards to be put into place to keep it under control.

  6. I think Jender (#5) is correct; Cole’s statements include generics that are not made false simply by the existence counterexamples. On the other hand, they are certainly not made *true* by examples (not that any such examples are offered).

    I’d submit that some of the things in Cole’s columns express beliefs correctly held by Cole to be false, but falsely insinuated by him to be generally held. Some others are propositions that may be at least generically true but are misleading here, for among other reasons that they are explicable without resort to the implied spectre of racism or even just cognitive bias favouring an in-group.

    Finally, for some of these I think the tendencies may be quite the opposite to what Cole supposes. One could be forgiven for concluding (though this may be more the case in France, the UK and Canada than in the US) that Western media and governments are, all other things being equal, by and large *averse* to discerning/venturing non-Western ethnic or religious connections, themes, patterns, etc. between or among suspected perpetrators and violent acts (reverse in-group bias?). One example among a great many that come to mind, if memory serves, is the cringeworthy lengths to which the RCMP initially went to downplay the fact that the suspects in custody for the 2006 Ontario terror plot constituted an Islamic terror cell linked by common religious and ethnocultural ties. As I recall, the media repeated all this with a mostly straight face.

  7. i think you’re right, Denise Dellarosa Cummins: upon clarification, we are not in disagreement. i read a slight discrepancy between the hypothetical tone of the claim in the apa article and the more certain tone of your claim; i’m not convinced that psychology explains the problem alone or even at its root – that is not to say that it is not involved; certainly it is, i just wonder at its explanatory efficacy, let’s say, as opposed to the lens of politics, specifically the political structure of white supremacy. not that they are mutually exclusive – i would say that they are working together here.

    some further reading:



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