Before 9/11, a person who went out on a ‘killing rampage’ was viewed by the public as one who “went postal’, a ‘bomber without a cause’ or a ‘serial killer’. In other words, it was considered the act of a ‘common criminal’, not a political or act of war. After 9/11, that same person committing the same act is considered ‘a war terrorist’ and ‘a crazy person’, to boot.
When and how did we decide to re-classify our definition of ‘common crime’ as ‘an act of war and terrorism’, and to link it to mental illness? Who helped shape our collective ‘perception’ of ‘imminent’ danger?
I will share my views about how mental illness has been scapegoat, after 9/11, as terrorism in a veiled effort to control political and social dissent in our nation, which our current president has declared to be in “a permanent state of war”.
Parts of this post will go under the headings:
The politics of crime: crime in the US before 9/11
Our a-political perception of crime
Mental illness to the rescue
THE POLITICS OF CRIME: Crime in the US before 9/11
Before 9/11, mental illness was seldom considered the sole culprit of acts of violence in our society. Acts of violence by ‘civilians’ (killing co-workers or loved ones) was seen by the public mostly as something done by someone who ‘lost it’ or who ‘went postal’. Implied in these descriptions is some sort of collective understanding that the person committing the crime was under the pressures of work, finance, love betrayal, or other social problems; the public was able to point to a ‘social context’ behind the act of violence. Because of this awareness of a social context behind crimes, the citizens of a town, city or state could look for a social solution to the problem of violence, not for a ‘war’ policy or armaments solution.
Also, pre-9/11 there was an unspoken social ‘agreement’ on the distinction between a ‘common criminal’ and a ‘terrorist’. A terrorist was a foreigner ‘at war’ against us but not here in the USA, and home-grown violence (by civilians) was just ‘regular crimes’. Thus, terrorism = act of war.
In other words, before 9/11 there seemed to be no ‘political’ crimes in the USA, acts of violence to advance political beliefs. Seldom did the media or law enforcement agencies (at least publicly) tagged as ‘terrorism’ crimes that were clearly political in nature. Not even Timothy McVeigh, member of a separatist militia movement, was tagged as a terrorist, not until way after 9/11. The killing of a US President was NOT considered a political or even as terrorist act either. It was tagged as the act of a fanatical ‘lone-wolf’, who probably had been manipulated by the commies, a fact which would have made the crime a political one and a conspiracy. (But we never really went there, did we?) The ‘unabomber’ was a ‘rebel without a cause’, even a ‘mad genius’ but not a terrorist, certainly not a ‘political crusader’ for the animal rights movement, a fact many people don’t know about. And, finally, incarcerated political dissidents before 9/11, like imprisoned Puerto Rican liberation movement members, considered themselves ‘political prisoners’ (not terrorists) but the federal government had perennially refused to accept them as such, tagging them instead as ‘criminals’, until recently.
All of these examples of reluctance by the government to use the ‘t’ word, ‘terrorism’, fly despite the fact that it (FBI) had, before 9/11, a clear definition of terrorism:
“the unlawful use of force or violence, committed by a group(s) of two or more individuals,against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives”
That is a political definition of terrorism, based on power struggle between the government and other groups of people to “furtherance of political or social objectives”. It required a “group” (“two or more”), and purposeful coordination of acts was implied. But we hardly knew about this definition, didn’t we? Why? This is in part because of the “two or more” requirement, given that our criminals were almost always portrayed as ‘lone-wolves’.
OUR POLITICAL PERCEPTIONS OF CRIME
The one thing the government (federal and state) must protect above anything else is…no, it’s not ‘the nation’. It is the public trust in the government’s institutions. No trust in government = dissent, polarization, and power struggles for change in the way the government leaders run the nation, be it through peaceful civil disobedience or violence.
The public’s perception of ‘crime’ is shaped by the government’s criminal and justice systems policies and politics, among others. (It’s interesting to me that the first American group to be labeled as ‘terrorist’ was the animals rights movement in The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act of 2006, something unrelated to war or Al Qaeda.)
So, it is conceivable that, to protect the public’s perception that the majority of the people are satisfied with the government’s policies, that there is no significant dissent within the society, the actions of dissenting groups are described as ‘regular crime’ and ‘crazy’ to devoid them of its political statement against the government policies. It reeks to Nazism, doesn’t it?
So, in a nation engaged in a ‘permanent war against terrorism’ and in enacting political, economic and repressive policies (police and surveillance state), which attack the middle class (leaving de-facto only two classes, the elite and the poor), how is the government going to label the natural political acts of dissent and resistance of those affected by its unfair policies and the impact it has on the social fabric?
Tomorrow: the pre and post 9/11 perception on crime, and mental illness to the rescue.