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What’s in a Frame? The Perils of “Domestic Terrorism”

By Kay Whitlock and Michael Bronski

Audre Lorde
Photo source: Pachamama Alliance

Think of a frame as a conceptual path shaping how people understand an issue and what ought to be done about it.

Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness and Justice in American Culture and Politics

Three people were dead and nine others treated for gunshot wounds. Even as Robert Lewis Dear, the white man who, on November 27 2015, allegedly laid armed siege to a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs was taken into custody, social media posts—from progressive advocates, pundits, and some politicians—immediately characterized his actions as “domestic terrorism.”

What does it mean for liberals and progressives to embrace a “terrorism" frame,” that has traditionally been used by the Right—and is so fraught and over-determined in our post-9/11 political climate? What are the intended and unintended consequences of demanding that the government respond to violence against women’s health care providers with the same zeal it employs in its so-called “War on Terrorism”?

The Colorado Springs shootings are unquestionably symptomatic of deep structural forms of violence in the United States. Planned Parenthood stands at the center of a political firestorm obsessively intending to destroy the capacity to provide the health care that is one essential component of reproductive justice.

The Right targets Planned Parenthood because of its prominence, visibility, national reach, and symbolic heft. Yet, far more than the existence of an organization is at stake; a host of social and economic justice issues are also in the mix.

Attacks on the right to safe, legal abortion—the most visible of components of reproductive justice—have been a grim feature of the civic landscape since the 1970s. These include: vandalism, harassment of staff and clients, clinic invasions and disruption, death threats, arson, bombings, physical assault, burglary, stalking, and murder.

Given this, it’s easy to understand the powerful lure of the “domestic terrorism” frame—and the anger of the people who employ it.

False Promises of the “Domestic Terrorism” Frame 

The recent violence directed at Planned Parenthood is not the first time social justice advocates have turned to “domestic terrorism” as the frame for mobilizing opposition to assaults on vulnerable and marginalized communities. Many characterized the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings and the 2015 killings in Charleston, South Carolina’s Emanuel AME Church as acts of “domestic terrorism.”

The use of the frame is intended to—finally—compel public officials to take violence and the human toll it takes on vulnerable, marginalized groups as seriously as they take “international terrorism.” Wouldn’t this understanding of violence against reproductive justice advocates place police more on “our” side? Wouldn’t it generate greater federal and state commitment to women’s lives and rights? Wouldn’t law enforcement do more to monitor extremist groups and work to prevent such violence? Couldn’t this perhaps shift public attention away from the conflation of all Muslims, immigrants, and refugees with “jihadist terrorism” and more rightly place the focus on right-wing individuals and groups, most of whom are Christian?

It will do none of those things. The right is too invested in deepening polarization and promoting their own narratives of victimization at the hands of purported “baby killers,” “transgender invaders,” “reverse racists,” “union bullies,” and the “politically correct police.”

The very definition of “terrorism” is socially constructed and serves entrenched, structurally violent, political ends. There is no new crime called “domestic terrorism,” but the USA Patriot Act does define it in ways that give many justice advocates, including the ACLU, pause.

The “terrorism” frame offers only intensified surveillance, policing, and deployment of military force as its preferred strategies for creating safety and justice. There is no place for discussion of dismantling structurally violent social, political, and economic policies and practices. No commitment to exploring alternative approaches for creating more just, more caring, and less violent communities. As the deceptively named “War on Terror” shows us, the frame justifies consolidation and expansion of the structural white supremacy, gender violence, and economic violence foundational to U.S. law enforcement and military forces. In the pursuit of this war, there is no real concern for civilian lives.

“Terrorism” and its handmaiden, “domestic terrorism,” have already been used against the very communities progressives seek to protect—to squelch social, economic, and environmental justice movements that government authorities find troublesome. With that frame, authorities don’t look for racial, gender, and economic justice; they look for terrorists. Politicians and police frequently cite fear of terrorist violence as a way to disallow or contain public protests of all kinds.

And even if they have to invent some terrorists to suit their objectives, law enforcement authorities will find them.

For years, the terrorist frame has been applied to the environmental movement. In 2003, the right-wing, corporate controlled, American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) drafted a model law called the Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act. Known as “Ag-Gag,” state variations of the law have been used to apply the terrorist label to a variety of nonviolent activists. Climate change activism increasingly is coming under law enforcement scrutiny.

The very concept of “terrorism” is predicated on obscuring structural brutality and intensifying policing of suspect communities and individuals, purportedly to prevent (and then harshly punish) violence. It is incapable of accurately naming and dismantling the violence of structural racism, patriarchy, xenophobia, and poverty.

We will never find our way to a just and caring society by remaining in the conceptual gulag of “terrorism.”

Freeing Our Cultural and Political Imaginations

Matthew Dowd, former speechwriter for President George W. Bush reportedly stated, “If you argue against us while using our language, we're winning.”

He’s right. Language is powerful, and right-wing demagogues often use it to produce politically motivated violence.

Once a framework is firmly established in the public mind, almost all dialogue and debate occurs within it. Debate is now focused on who produces the scariest terrorists: the left or the right; Christianity or Islam. That immediately brings us to the competitive question of who is most victimized and which terrorists ought to be most heavily policed.

This is not a vision to inspire creative organizing and the building of strong mass movements necessary to produce change. We will never find our way to a just and caring society by remaining in the conceptual gulag of “terrorism.”

What we need is transformative change, not an expansion of the “terrorism” frame. Such change can occur only by understanding how violence against marginalized and vulnerable communities is inextricably bound to broader social and political systems. This cannot happen within the framework of “terrorism” that dominates the public imagination, serving as the only subject of debate.

It’s possible to describe violence plainly, clearly, accurately, and provide historical, social, and economic context without resorting to shortcut, placeholder phrases and slogans. It’s possible to describe the ways in which such factors as race, gender, disability, citizenship status, and class serve to unjustly distribute that violence. But that, by itself, is not enough.

It’s also possible to imagine radically new social structures that work to produce compassion and more just distributions of social, civic, cultural, economic, and ecological resources. It’s possible to imagine new community-based approaches to the creation of safer communities without resorting to policing and retribution. It’s possible to imagine holding those accountable for violence in ways that do not presume the inevitability of prison and the death penalty.

This will lead to developing new political action frames, strategies, and tactics that embody and support organizing around much bolder visions of structural change.

In this way, by refusing to remain in the framework of fear, mass movements create the future.


About the Authors 

Kay Whitlock is a writer and activist who has been involved with racial, gender, queer, and economic justice movements since 1968. She is coauthor of Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness, and Justice in American Culture and Politics with Michael Bronski, the award-winning Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States with Joey L. Mogul and Andrea J. Ritchie, and cofounder and contributing editor for the weekly Criminal Injustice series at CriticalMassProgress.com. She lives in Missoula, Montana. Follow her on Twitter at @KayJWhitlock.

Michael Bronski has been involved in gay liberation as a political organizer, writer, and editor for more than four decades. The author of several award-winning books, including A Queer History of the United States, he also coauthored “You Can Tell Just by Looking”: And 20 Other Myths about LGBT Life and People and Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness, and Justice in American Culture and Politics. Bronski is Professor of the Practice in Activism and Media in the Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Harvard University and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.