Framing terror

By Michelle Chen May 28, 2009

The White House has made a point of retiring the “war on terror,” as a term of art, but this past week has proven that the tropes underlying that phrase have a long half life: the "terrorists" are everywhere and nowhere at once. The infamous Bronx terror plot sent a chill through New York City last week. The alleged plan to bomb Jewish institutions led to the nabbing of four men. Make that “four homegrown Muslim terrorists on a mission from hell.” Oh, and it looks like they’re Black, too. And did we mention one of them is an immigrant? (Wait, we’re not actually sure what religion they are.) The suspects—James Cromitie; David Williams; Onta Williams; and Laguerre Payen— have been painted as cookie-cutter derelicts: unstable (one reportedly suffered from mental health problems), previously involved with the criminal justice system, unclear, perhaps only marginal ties to Islam, bizarrely unsophisticated in executing their alleged attack plans. The FBI and NYPD have been showered with accolades, but activists say the story reeks of low-hanging fruit and trite publicity mongering by law enforcement. Ahmed Rehab has poked yawning holes in the official narrative surrounding the suspects:

“These arrests seem to be based on a government formula for announcing law enforcement ‘victories’ that we have seen all too often in the past — take a paid informant, insert him into a mosque or community without probable cause of criminal behavior, locate marginal characters open to financial or rhetorical inducements, facilitate criminal actions suggested by the provocateur, and then announce ‘terror’ arrests with great fanfare. “This formula, which could be used in any faith community, produces flashy arrests but rests on shaky constitutional ground and does little to advance legitimate law enforcement goals. It also serves to alienate an entire religious minority and provides fodder for those who seek to demonize Islam and marginalize American Muslims.”

Around the same time, the public got news of the supposed resurgence of Guantanamo “recidivists”–according to the Pentagon’s claims that many of the released Gitmo detainees are now engaged in militant activity. Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting found the New York Times coverage short on facts:

The article emphasized the notion that former prisoners "returned to terrorism or militant activity"–without adequately explaining the definition of either term, or examining whether those former detainees were ever "terrorists" in the first place…. And missing from Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller’s account was a full explanation of the Pentagon’s long history of releasing similar studies, which have been widely challenged and debunked.”

As with the Bronx bombers, the story suggests a reprise of previous, conveniently well-timed stories orchestrated by government sources. The earlier claims prompted researchers at Seton Hall to publish an alternative analysis challenging the alleged “return to the battlefield." While much this anti-terror spin may not have much basis in reality, it does have very real implications for the communities at the center of the hype. Some activists warn that the government’s alienation of Muslim civic groups not only promotes a witch-hunt mentality but denigrates organizations in the best position to aid with real national security issues. A coalition of Muslim groups stated in March:

Through civil rights advocacy, civic and political engagement, and the promotion of dialogue with interfaith leaders and law enforcement agencies, Muslim Americans continue to be a positive and stabilizing force in keeping our nation safe and secure from acts of violence and foreign threats…. Yet recent incidents targeting American Muslims lead us to consider suspending ongoing outreach efforts with the FBI.

But who needs outreach when you already have all the targets you need? Image: Huffington Post