White flight: critiquing the prejudicial response to the Germanwings crash

The dialectics of anti-terrorism are now inextricably woven into the fabric of U.S. society. Obviously, 9/11 was a watershed moment that brought about an era of hyper-surveillance, war, drones and aggressive policies meant to stem all forms of terrorism that could threaten U.S. welfare and interests. But what these national events (read: tragedies) did to our collective psyche is irreparable—we need only to hear about a plane crash to fully register this fact.

On March 24, a German plane crashed in the French Alps, killing all 150 people onboard. All accounts blame the co-pilot, who was discovered in the aftermath to have been depressed and mentally unstable. Immediately, certain media sources presumed terrorist foul play. For example, here is what a writer for the Washington Post said about the crash: “We don’t need to know the political or religious views of Germanwings co-pilot Andreas Günter Lubitz to call his crashing of a crowded airliner into a mountainside an act of terrorism.”

I agree—and yet, the dominant image of terrorism disseminated by U.S. media doesn’t comport with the writer’s opinion. We tend not to label White acts of terror as terrorism because that interpretation is simply out of line with the typical racial and religious stereotypes given to us by media.

Nevertheless, we have two very interesting phenomena occurring at once. First, we automatically reach for a terroristic account of large and unexpected fatal events; then we mostly discard that terroristic account when White individuals are the primary agents of terror, even if they undoubtedly mean to kill large swathes of people. This is problematic, and yet this is the result of our conditioning by media and the state.

Moreover, American and German media haven’t cast the crash in a terroristic light presumably because it wasn’t carried out by a group of non-white religious zealots promulgating their violent dogma. A lone and mentally unstable White pilot did it. The implications of all this give us great insights into the formations of stereotypes and racist mental scripts through which we all come to see national and international acts of terror.

However, if we look at why certain events are deemed acts of terror, we must also try to understand how terrorism is defined by the state. On its website, the FBI has divided what constitutes terrorism into domestic and international sections. The latter occurs, according to the state, when violent acts “appear to be intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and…occur primarily outside the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S.”

Going by the state’s definition of terrorism, the German pilot didn’t really commit a subversive act of terror. This begs the question: why aren’t general forms of terror considered terroristic by the state? The many millions of people affected by the vast U.S. police institution could consider police brutality a form of terror; essentially, police are groups of people who use their power to control and kill (if necessary) on legal grounds. But no one goes around deeming the violent acts of police terrorism because that interpretation doesn’t comport with the state and media’s definitions of what terror is.

Whether it’s in the U.S., or in Germany, western notions of terrorism have been imputed with racism and religious bigotry and this will probably continue unimpeded.

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