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The Decade America Terrorized Itself

The next 9/11 never came. Instead, we got Sandy Hook, and Las Vegas, and Parkland…
Two boys hug.
Christian Chavez/AP Images

When it comes to high-profile mass shootings, as with mass-casualty acts of public violence in general, whether something gets to count as “terrorism” is a moving target, determined by fickle calculi that weigh everything from the identity of the victims to the biography of the shooter to the place the shooting happened to whether or not a soundbite will play in a given news cycle. But fickle attention, inconsistent naming, and opportunism are already more than what happens to the steady churn of “normal” gun homicides in the United States. These go largely accepted, lamented but normalized; the question of whether they produce a kind of “terror” goes unasked.

A decade after the massacre at Fort Hood, another American perpetrated yet another mass shooting in Texas. This time, the killer was a white supremacist named Patrick Wood Crusius, a man virulently opposed to immigration and obsessed with conspiracies about a so-called Great Replacement. Rampaging through a Walmart in El Paso on August 3, 2019, Crusius specifically targeted people he believed to be Latinx. By the end of his spree, he had killed 22 and wounded 24.

Once more, the nation became briefly preoccupied with questions of naming. Was this an act of terror? How could it not be? The eerie parallels and devilish reversals could not have been more perverse and suggestive. Hasan saw himself as a religious warrior, a martyr who would stop his erstwhile comrades in the U.S. military from invading Muslim countries abroad. Crusius saw himself as a lone-wolf operator, a race warrior who would turn back the tide of immigrants he saw as invading “his” country. From a certain perspective, these men could not have been more different. But both men ultimately enacted their ideologies and grievances in a very similar, very American way: by picking up a gun and turning public spaces into theaters of death.

Even as the debates over naming roiled anew, the familiar cultural rituals played out as always. So too did the familiar consolidations of institutional power, the same doubling-down on an immense apparatus of policing, surveillance, and militarized social control. Two decades into an endless war on terror, Americans — a thoroughly terrorized people — have found yet new ways to keep inflicting the same old terrors on themselves.