Who Must Be A Terrorist, And Who Can Never Be
If Ilhan Omar and Lauren Boebert are in an elevator together, the dangerous one isn’t Omar. Weird how the War on Terror instructs otherwise, huh
If that headline and what follows seems familiar, it’s because I put half this piece in this week’s DISCONTENTS group newsletter. Here’s the full version. I liked the headline I used for the newsletter too much to change it. Also remember that when you buy a year of FOREVER WARS, you’ll get six subscriber-tier months of Luke O’Neill’s WELCOME TO HELL WORLD and Derek Davidson’s FOREIGN EXCHANGES. And the holiday season makes a great time to purchase REIGN OF TERROR: HOW THE 9/11 ERA DESTABILIZED AMERICA AND PRODUCED TRUMP, the critical smash hit that the Washington Post and Foreign Policy just listed among the best nonfiction books of 2021. If you’d like to read an excerpt from REIGN, Military Times recently published what I think is the sixth excerpt we’ve released.
SORRY TO ANY OF YOU MUSLIMS who got offended just because I called Ilhan Omar a suicide bomber, said Lauren Boebert, the GOP congresswoman from Colorado. Her Friday statement, destined to be misreported as an apology, was not a repudiation of her Kendall Roy-esque just-joking-or-am-I stand-up about Omar and an imaginary backpack we’re meant to understand was rigged to detonate, but a continuation of the riff. “There are plenty of policy differences to focus on without this unnecessary distraction,” she tweeted, managing to leave out the Cam’ron you-mad gif that captures the subtext of Boebert’s pantomime of interest in policy differences with legislators she called the “Jihad Squad.”
The episode is helpfully clarifying. Boebert is flexible about political violence. Like several colleagues, she’s offered an internship to Kyle Rittenhouse—who drove across state lines to shoot people protesting on behalf of Black Lives Matter; killed two and wounded one; and got away with it—and did so with characteristic grace. Last month, Rolling Stone reported that an organizer of the Stop The Steal rally on January 6, the waystation for the insurrection, was in contact with Boebert’s staff: “We would talk to Boebert’s team, Cawthorn’s team, Gosar’s team like back to back to back to back.”
And the elements of the right with which Boebert aligns are in a mood for righteous violence. Her ally, the white nationalist congressman Paul Gosar, did another of those joking-or-am-I riffs, this one about murdering Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Their other ally, Rep. Marjorie Taylor-Greene, remarked that the Boeberts out there should “never apologize to Islamic terrorist sympathizers, communists, or those who fund murder with our tax dollars,” a useful distillation of how she understands the coalition opposing her. (You can also hear the more respectable versions of this mood, the ones that attempt a sufficient distance from advocating violence, discussed on the episode of Know Your Enemy about the recent National Conservative conference.) If Ilhan Omar and Lauren Boebert are in an elevator together, Boebert is the danger to Omar, not the other way around.
Here we find the solitary, exclusive point Boebert is making, one forged in the fires of 9/11: Ilhan Omar is a terrorist because she is a Black Muslim. You can layer on the other aspects of Omar’s identity and program that offend Boebert—a refugee from Somalia and a democratic socialist Minneapolis congresswoman—but those layers are embellishment. Boebert, propelled by the the cultural force of the War on Terror, is saying that terrorists, definitionally, are people like Omar. The cultural force of the War on Terror fills in the rest: terrorists can’t be white people who, say, cheer on vigilantes who murder their political opponents or seek to steal elections they lost. Terrorism, says the subtext of the War on Terror, is not a thing people do, it's a thing people are—and only certain people. The War on Terror has a different word for white people with a flag, a gun, a cross and a will to power: counterterrorists.
Among the ongoing legacies of the 9/11 Era is a mainstream, normalized cheapness assigned to Muslim dignity, as well as Muslim life. As the Forever Wars persisted and America’s weaknesses became more glaring, elements on the right used Islam as a sort of beta test for what we now recognize as Replacement Theory. “Stealth jihadis”—that is, American Muslims—were no less than “violent jihadis” out to “replace Western civilization with a radical imposition of Shariah,” according to Newt Gingrich in 2010. This is the framework through which Boebert and others interpret Omar’s ascent from refugee to Congresswoman: the enemy in the War on Terror on the march, abetted by the delusions of liberals, who let people like her into our country. Go back to Taylor-Greene’s formulation: Islamic terrorist sympathizers, communists, or those who fund murder with our tax dollars.
That’s why Donald Trump mentioned Omar so persistently at his campaign rallies. It’s why his supporters chanted Send Her Back in response. Accordingly, it will be unusual if Boebert receives any meaningful rebuke from Congress. Kevin McCarthy knows who he has to both fear and cultivate.
Shortly after January 6, I reached out to Omar’s office for a comment for a story I was working on about why aiming the War on Terror at the insurrection was an epic mistake. She was inside the Capitol when the sorts of Trump fans who chanted Send Her Back might have gotten the chance to do her physical harm. But Omar, perhaps channelling her experience living through the 9/11 Era as a visible Muslim, argued to me that “we must resist the very human desire for revenge—to simply see the tools that have oppressed Black and Brown people expanded.”
Unfortunately, the Biden administration is declining to mount a sustained political challenge to those who sounded the call for insurrection and acting as if FBI and DHS scrutiny of those who answered it is an acceptable substitute. Whatever else this accomplishes, it will normalize aiming the security apparatus at the political opposition, at a moment when MAGA is looking for a pretext to continue something it started when Trump was in power.
Lauren Boebert was not making a joke. She was making something closer to a promise for the day when her allies again control the security services. The War on Terror tells you what to do to terrorists, and gives you all the weapons, bureaucratic machinery and the justifications to do it.
DON’T MISS AN EXCELLENT PIECE of journalism by Ian Urbina at the New Yorker. Urbina exposes the pipeline of European Union money and political incentive that leads to Libyan militias imprisoning Italy-bound migrants in torture prisons. Urbina and his team, in the course of reporting this story, get thrown in one of those prisons. It is extremely hard to read this story outside the context of the U.S.-sponsored overthrow of Qaddafi that made the entire endeavor possible—the destabilization of Libya, the western indifference to its consequences on human beings, the accelerated migrant flows, the backlash politics in the west, the outsourced securitization of the EU response, the return to torture prisons in Libya.
THE TED LEO x FOREVER WARS collab is up on Ted’s Bandcamp for anyone who wants to purchase the song, with, again, all proceeds going to abortion access charities in Texas. This brings our own fundraiser to a close; we will post totals and receipts later this week.
I’LL BE SPEAKING AT UCLA’S BURKLE CENTER for International Relations on Wednesday, Dec. 1. The livestream starts at 3pm ET/12pm PT. Someone ask me stuff that isn’t about REIGN OF TERROR!