Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Month: April 2013 (page 1 of 2)

Guns vs. bombs in the terrorism debate

In his column today, Glenn Greenwald asks: “Can an act of violence be called ‘terrorism’ if its motives are unknown?”

Greenwald surmises:

“It’s hard not to suspect that the only thing distinguishing the Boston attack from Tucson, Aurora, Sandy Hook and Columbine (to say nothing of the US “shock and awe” attack on Baghdad and the mass killings in Fallujah) is that the accused Boston attackers are Muslim and the other perpetrators are not. As usual, what terrorism really means in American discourse – its operational meaning – is: violence by Muslims against Americans and their allies.”

FWIW, I have agreed in the past and have done a little media analysis of my own.

Though I still tend to agree, a discussion with a colleague this afternoon raised another question: How much of initial assumption (particularly before the media knows anything about the suspects) is predicated on the type of weaponry involved?

So first off, let’s make a set of assumptions that may or may not be factually accurate:

  • Those who commit violence with bombs have spent considerable time thinking about and preparing their crime.
  • Those who commit violence with guns may have spent time thinking/preparing, but may have simply “snapped.”

Personally, I think there’s an overarching Islamophobia (or, more accurately, fear of Muslims) that pervades this discourse, leading us to assume that shooter Nidal Hasan Malik was a terrorist immediately, even though early evidence indicated that he could have been a terrorist or may have just snapped.  But apart from that, or if we were to ignore the racist element or remove cases involving Muslim perpetrators from the dataset, would it be possible to make reasonable assumptions about whether a given crime was terror based solely on the weaponry used?

Ali Abunimah wrote a good analysis of whether the crime fits the official US definitions of terrorism, highlighting passages in the definition as such:

Title 22 of the U.S. Code, Section 2656f(d) defines terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.

Both definitions of terrorism share a common theme: the use of force intended to influence or instigate a course of action that furthers a political or social goal. In most cases, NIJ researchers adopt the FBI definition, which stresses methods over motivations and is generally accepted by law enforcement communities.

With that definition in mind, it probably wouldn’t make any more sense to use weaponry as an early indicator than it does one’s religious background, given examples like the murder of Dr. George Tiller (terrorism by the above definition), or the murder of Holocaust Memorial Museum security guard Stephen T. Johns by a white supremacist (probably terrorism, though I’m not sure it was ever defined as such).

And pre-planning doesn’t always indicate terrorism as defined by the FBI either: Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold planned meticulously for their murder spree, and yet they were never labeled terrorists (interesting side-note: Slate has published an analysis asking if the Tsarnaev brothers’ relationship was like that of Harris and Klebold).

That said, it strikes me that I can’t think of a case where bombs were used that was not deemed terrorism.

I am no expert on any of this (though, let’s be honest, are most of those who call themselves “terrorism experts” these days actual expert?), so I don’t want to run my mouth further, but I’d be curious if anyone could point me to some previous writing or thinking on this question.

More commentary on a generation

I think that the core of what I was getting at last time I talked about my generation is the tension between being called digital natives and being capable of feeling nostalgia for analog.  I eat out of these cereal bowls that were passed down and are probably 40 years old and they remind me of the Brady Bunch and sitting at home after school because I ate chips out of them as a kid.  I think about cassette tapes and bootleg concert recordings and VHS, and then Prodigy, and AOL Instant Messenger, and early Napster and Livejournal.

I am, I suppose, a bit of a digital native in that I started blogging at 19, in 2001, one year after I sold my first piece of (online) writing.  (Incidentally, I often think of my college years sometimes as sort of muddled, but in retrospect, it’s pretty clear what I wanted to do: write.)  I joined Facebook in September 2004, just a few months after I graduated from university, and Twitter in 2008, when I was 26. I suppose nativism can be relative.

Generation Catalano, Generation XY, whatever.  If culture is just comprised of references, traditions, relations, then I stick to my guns that we are in-betweens.

Talkin’ ’bout my generation (I think)

It was odd, this morning, to spot this piece by Chelsea Clinton debunking myths about Millennials. Odd, mainly, because while Clinton refers to them as somewhat alien, she is by most definitions a Millennial herself. Except, like me, it’s quite apparent that she doesn’t see herself that way.

Millennials are commonly categorized by a few things: materialism, a desire for wealth, digital nativism, anti-competitiveness, and helicopter parents. Of course, that’s a shallow assessment, but that’s how generational definitions work. Much has been written about the Millennials (or “Digital Natives,” or “Generation Y”) and I’ve read much of it. And the more I read, the less I relate.

The thing is, digital natives are often described as having grown up online. They are faster than their parents at adapting to new technologies, they “natively” understand how to use them. When I read Palfrey and Gasser’s Born Digital—which defines this generation as starting with those born in 1980—the truth was, I couldn’t relate. I think I even left a comment on an internal wiki as such: that I felt they generation they were describing actually started somewhere around 1985; that is, those young people likely to have been born with a wired computer in their home, who probably got a mobile phone in high school. Not me.

And then there’s the generation prior, Gen X: They were all the rage when I was a kid reading teen magazines. They were the ones challenging the norms, watching MTV, philosophizing, slacking off. I knew I was on the far end, if included at all, but I nevertheless related to the media of the time.

This morning, after reading Clinton’s piece—a perspective I can relate to—I looked up the age ranges of each generation, just to check. Turns out, I’ve been (sort of) right all along.

Generation X is defined, variously, by the following age ranges:

Generation Y, on the other hand, is said to begin in either 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982, or 1983.

That puts a whole lot of us right on the cusp.  Having been born in mid-1982 myself, I can see why: While “my generation” grew up watching the Real World and worrying about AIDS, many of us also got online at an early age (for me, 11) and owned mobile phones in high school (I was 17, but it was a total brick). While we embraced Slacker and Reality Bites, its protagonists were actually our older brothers and sisters.  But while we use Facebook, it wasn’t released until after we graduated from university.

Thankfully, I’m not the first person to present this conundrum.  In an article featuring danah boyd, Fast Company references what it calls Generation Fluxwhile Slate cheekily refers to us in-betweens as, alternately, “Generation-I-Watched-Saved-by-the-Bell-in-its-first-run,” “Generation Jem,” and “Generation Catalano” (and being just two years younger than the fictional Angela Chase, I totally get that one).

Does any of this really matter?  When I asked on Twitter this morning, I found a large number of people that felt that generational divisions are just “marketing BS.”  In large part, I agree, and yet as a member of the in-betweens (or, as I’m going with from now on, Generation Catalano), it resonates with me that two of the best shows of our generation—My So-Called Life and Freaks and Geekswere cancelled because they “failed to resonate with the broader population,” according to Slate writer Doree Shafrir.  It may not matter when you’re a part of something, but it matters a little when you feel alienated from all of it.

As Shafrir writes, “This urge to define generations is also about a yearning for a collective memory in an increasingly atomized world, at least where my generation is concerned.”  Indeed, it is.  In the US, I relate to my age peers through the television we watched as kids and teens (on its first run, that is), through the video game systems we owned (Coleco Vision then GameBoy for me), and through the age at which we first used the Internet.  Globally, it’s some of the same things, plus music, the fall of the Berlin wall, the start of the Euro.  We are solidly in between, searching for something that we may not find.

Finally: “Generation Catalano is never fully comfortable with its place in the world; we wander away from the periphery and back again.”  I think that sounds about right.

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