For all the legitimate questions that will be asked in the coming days (Why are there so many mass shootings in America? Why is it so easy to buy weapons-grade tear gas canisters? How much is this related to the availability of guns?); for all the insulting media coverage that will try to ramrod the dead Fargo-style into the woodchipper of the presidential campaign (New York Times headline: “In Wake of Colorado Shooting, a Concern Over the Proriety of Campaigning”); and for all the demagogues who will use this tragedy for their own gain (pro-gun GOP Rep. Louie Gohmert is today blaming the shooting victims for not being armed) — there is only one harrowing conclusion we can come to for certain immediately after such a heinous act: Terrorism has no specific nationality, geography, race or creed.
Not surprisingly, police and reporters have been quick to tell us the opposite — that the suspected shooter was likely just a “lone wolf” and that “this act does not appear to be linked to radical terrorism or anything related to Islamic terrorism,” as ABC News put it. This newspeak is supposed to reassure us that this is anything but terrorism — that terrorism is something that happens only in faraway places or huge cosmopolitan cities, not in an Anytown, USA, in the American heartland; that terrorism never comes at the hands of a “24-year-old white American male” named “James Holmes”; it comes only at the hands of dark-skinned “evildoers” with hard-to-pronounce names; that terrorism comes only from calculating operatives who represent organized political interests, not from “crazy” individuals who calculatedly act on their own ideology or psychopathy. In this, we are expected to be sedated by such reassurances, to ignore the ever-growing list of such “lone wolves,” and to reject a much wider definition of terrorism, no matter how much the reality of shooting after shooting after shooting screams at us to accept it.
But with bodies strewn across an Aurora movie theater and a nation clearly terrorized, we must ask: what is terrorism, if it is not a man in a riot mask and bullet-proof vest, armed with tear gas canisters and weapons, meticulously executing a military-style assault on a crowded movie theater?
Confronting that question, of course, is mind-bending and painful — in the age of “War on Terror” agitprop that purposely defines terrorism in one specific, narrow and politically convenient way, it’s akin to the cognitive difficulty of pondering the size of the universe … or, perhaps, death itself. It takes us out of our comfort zone and forces us to consider the causes of all kinds of extremism and violence — not just the foreign Islamic kind that we so flippantly write off as alien. Indeed, at a time when so many bloodlusting Americans cheer on our government proudly assassinating the imams who allegedly inspire Muslim terrorism, a shooting like this (if, indeed, it had nothing to do with Islamic extremism) begs us to wonder why we don’t feel similarly bellicose or enraged at the inspirations fueling so many other forms of terrorism — whatever those inspirations may be.