Terrorism is ordinary.
It may seem paradoxical or even perverse to make such a bold claim. After all, the horrors of the Sydney Siege and Charlie Hebdo were witnessed by many as extraordinary acts of violence perpetrated by “fundamentalists.” Yet, mapping terrorism according to these discrete moments of public rupture obscures the far more pervasive and pernicious acts of terror that many of people live through on a daily basis.
Under the Commonwealth law, terrorism is defined an act or threat made with the intention of advancing a political, religious, or ideological cause that intimidates or coerces (a section of) the public.
We do not need to look very far to find violent gestures that conform to such a broad definition.
In January, hundreds of asylum seekers on Manus Island went on a collective hunger strike as an act of protest while others attempted suicide. These desperate calls for freedom were not met with empathetic ears but with riot gear instead.
Australia cages refugees who arrive by boat indefinitely. They are treated as menacing movements rather than persecuted people, classed as “unauthorised maritime arrivals.” Many live in constant fear of physical and sexual violence. They are detained in camps that lack adequate medical and psychological care. The emotional and physical deterioration of refugees is not only tolerated but also encouraged as a means of “deterring” others from seeking asylum. Two people, Reza Barati and Hamid Kehazaei, were two of the recent casualties in Australia’s purported “war” to protect the borders.
Institutional torture is more than an unintended or unfortunate policy consequence – it is a deliberate strategy to intimidate those who refuse to accept the arbitrary terms of their incarceration.
“Why do we turn some incidents of political violence into public spectacles of terrorism while obscuring others?”
If we look even closer to home, quite literally, we find a different state of terror. Many women are stalked, raped, and/or murdered by a current or former partner. At least one woman is killed each week. Economic inequality, lack of safe housing, and social expectations (to name just a few) enable such violence to persist with impunity. These are not acts of a foreign “death cult.” They are perpetrated by “ordinary blokes” in domestic spaces or situations. Inflicting (fear of) violence against women works to enforce a patriarchal social order.
In December, Leelah Alcorn’s suicide revealed that gender norms continue to suffocate trans lives. Non-conforming gender expressions and non-heterosexual sexualities continue to be treated by some (like Alcorn’s parents) as pathology to be “cured.” Sadly, this is not a unique story. Homophobic and transphobic bigotry shape spaces that can stigmatise, silence, and shame those who refuse to live within the social boxes they have been assigned. Many queer people are never given room to breathe and are denied a future.
Some of these stories make the news. Many more, however, never generate any public mourning or policy responses.
So, why do we turn some incidents of political violence into public spectacles of terrorism while obscuring, or sometimes even justifying, others?
Unsurprisingly, we emotionally invest in lives and institutions in different ways. The mourning and rallying over the deaths at Charlie Hebdo differed considerably to that animated by the Baga village massacre in Nigeria. Our investments are typically subtle but they reveal how some political acts are made more grievable or visible to us than others. We need to push back against these investments. Worrying about terrorism is not something we can escape. Terrorism, however, is far more widespread than those occasional acts that involve killing random civilians.
That is what should terrify us.
Senthorun Raj is a doctoral researcher at the Sydney Law School and a columnist for Right Now.
Feature image: Jessica Carrascalao Heard/Flickr.