Only a few days after a mass murder (erroneously) coined as the “largest in US history,” Jo Cox, a Labour Party member of British parliament was assassinated. Both of these events have been interrogated in the media along similar lines: ideological motives, connections to international radical groups, and the mental instability of the killers. Not surprisingly, only in the case of Omar Mateen, the Orlando shooter, was the racially codified term and Trojan horse for post-9/11 paranoia “terrorism” applied. It seems political assassination is not extreme enough to merit the designation when a white person is the perpetrator.
These events are not just linked in time; they illuminate the stakes of our increasingly xenophobic political rhetoric. Donald Trump quickly used the Orlando attack as an ad hoc justification of his Islamophobic, anti-immigrant discourse. On the day of Jo Cox’s assassination, Nigel Farage, the leader of United Kingdom Independence Party (or Ukip, a far-right nationalist party) unveiled a poster that depicts a massive line of – mostly non-white – immigrants that reads “BREAKING POINT. The EU has failed us all. We must break free of the EU and take back control.” The all too explicit appeal made in both cases is: “You know what is wrong with the country. It is immigrants!”
The sick irony is that nationalists who take violent attacks as justification of their fear of others do not instead see their rhetoric as a self-fulfilling prophesy (that is to say if they are not simply too complaisant to see its effects). Regarding the hypocrisy of the far-right, Alex Massie recently wrote in a Spectator blog post:
“When you encourage rage you cannot then feign surprise when people become enraged…When You shout BREAKING POINT over and over again, you don’t get to be surprised when someone breaks. When you present politics as a matter of life and death, as a question of national survival, don’t be surprised if someone takes your word. You didn’t make them do it, no, but you didn’t do much to stop it either.”
Language no doubt influences behavior but it is important to remember that you cannot simply persuade something into existence. No rhetoric, no matter how seductive, is potent in itself unless it connects to real needs, and all the better if the satisfaction of these needs appears unachievable in the prevailing system. The effect of years of austerity and economic recession has no doubt contributed to the housing price inflation in London. Over £170bn of UK property (mostly in London) held overseas, as revealed in the Panama Papers, undoubtedly has too. Ukip did not create the current crisis, they merely devised an ideological scapegoat. For the myriad of invading forces of global capital they substituted the fictional cause of invading immigrants.
The trouble with anti-immigrant racism is not just its contribution to violence but the way it ideologically masks the underlying economic forces that drive competition and enmity. However, it is just as problematic for the left to stay at a superficial level of critique and feel that their duty to the victims of these horrific acts is fulfilled by merely calling out racist discourse.
The headline of Glenn Greenwald’s response in The Intercept represents such a knee-jerk reaction of the left: “Why is the Killer of British MP Jo Cox not being called a terrorist?” He contrasts the media’s treatment of the killer, Thomas Mair, to a nearly identical case in 2010 when a Muslim woman nearly fatally stabbed British MP Stephen Timms for his vote in support of the Iraq War. In the latter case, the attacker was immediately described as a ‘terrorist’ in Guardian and Sun headlines. He also compares the case to Mateen, who — like Mair — suffered from mental illness but was immediately labeled a ‘terrorist’ nonetheless. “Does anyone have any doubt at all,” Greenwald asks, “that if Cox’s suspected killer had been Muslim, yelling ‘Allah Akbar’ instead of ‘Britain First,’ then every media outlet on the planet would be describing him forever as a ‘terrorist’? The fact that they are not doing so [with Mair] sheds great light into what this world really is.” All of this is of course accurate, as long as we add the objection that the light on this issue is really not so dim in the first place. Denouncing an attacker as a ‘terrorist’ has a definite political context. For instance backlash of a lone, mentally ill terrorist shouting ‘Britain First’ (aligning them with a clearly racist far-right party) does not include state surveillance of white civilians who have no connection to the killer. On the other hand, a lone attacker yelling ‘Allah Akbar’ consistently invites surveillance of mosques and Muslim communities.
Of course, promoting a critical attitude towards media is important, but without also addressing the concrete forces that make those discourses powerful, criticism reduces to a form of relativism, where simply the most honest (seeming) person is good enough. Is this not, in fact, exactly what Trump appeals to? (Incidentally, Trumps invective tweets about the Orlando attack are intermixed with comments about the dishonesty of the media calling him out for his use of language.) The far-right responses to violence are predictable, but we should not get caught up in drawing predictable conclusions on the terms they set. We should not, simply satisfied with shooting down easy targets, forget that we must also struggle to address the more concrete problems – a struggle the anti-immigrant right is winning. The only way for the left to advance is to break out of the closed rhetorical loop determined by neoliberalism, and this involves no less than a reexamination of some of our basic assumptions of political correctness.
For instance, Slavoj Zizek argued in a recent talk at the Left Forum that in certain cases the politically correct defense of immigrants and refugees produces an unintentional effect of patronizing racism. Zizek claims that, in ignoring or arguing against far-right criticism that there are terrorists and rapists among refugees and immigrants we unwittingly participate in an idea that these groups are like children who need liberal apologists to relieve them of responsibility of such acts. The error of assuming such a position, he argues, is that while maintaining the appearance of empathy, refusal to morally condemn these cases of violence accepts the premise of conservative rhetoric:
“Even if most of our prejudices about them were proven to be true – they are hidden fundamentalist terrorists; they rape and steal – the paranoid talk about the immigrant threat is still an ideological pathology. It tells more about us, Europeans, than about immigrants. The true question is not ‘are immigrants a real threat to Europe?’, but ‘what does this obsession with the immigrant threat tell us about the weakness of Europe?’”
If one wants to prove that not all refugees and immigrants are terrorists – and of course they are not – this is a simple, empirical matter. Rather than feel a need to leap to the defense of so-called ‘Islamic terrorists,’ we must insist that not only would this not legitimize anti-immigrant racism, but we must also treat the notion that this is representative of immigrants and refugees as an obscenity over which there should be no need for public debate. Then we can begin the real work of examining why both sides are obsessed with the problem of mass immigration, and what it tells us about the future of globalized neoliberal capital.