Enough with militias. Let’s call them what they really are: domestic terrorists

Arwa Mahdawi
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Jeff Kowalsky/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Jeff Kowalsky/AFP/Getty Images

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The vocabulary of violence

Terrorists (noun): evil brown people.

Thugs (noun): violent black people.

Militia (noun): misunderstood white men. Groups of heavily armed individuals whose actions, while not exactly ideal, deserve compassion and should be looked at within a wider socioeconomic context. Instead of rushing to judgment or making generalisations, one must consider the complex causes (economic anxiety, video games, mental health issues) that have triggered these poor guys into committing mass murder, conspiring to violently overthrow the state or plotting to kidnap government officials.

I’m afraid to say that the misunderstood white men have struck again – or attempted to, at least. On Thursday 13 men were charged in relation to an alleged plot to kidnap Michigan’s Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer. The plan was to, “grab the bitch”, as they put it, and then try her for “treason”. The eventual goal being to create “a society that followed the US Bill of Rights and where they could be self-sufficient”.

Much of the media coverage of Whitmer’s would-be kidnappers referred to them as members of a Michigan militia group called Wolverine Watchmen. The wolverine, by the way, isn’t just a Marvel character – it’s an animal that looks like a small bear but is actually part of the weasel family. This seems appropriate because “militia” is very much a weasel word. It’s a way to avoid putting white extremists in the same bucket as brown people. It lends them legitimacy. It obfuscates what these people really are.

Governor Whitmer, to her immense credit, was having none of it. “They’re not ‘militias’,” she tweeted on Friday morning. “They’re domestic terrorists endangering and intimidating their fellow Americans. Words matter.”

Donald Trump’s words, in particular, matter. In April the president tweeted “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” as far-right protesters, many of them armed, railed against stay-at-home orders imposed by Whitmer. Protesters waving semi-automatic rifles later tried to storm the state capitol. “The Governor of Michigan should give a little, and put out the fire,” Trump wrote on 1 May. “These are very good people, but they are angry.”

Trump’s words, Whitmer said in televised comments on Thursday, had served as a “rallying cry” to far-right extremists. Not only had the president refused to condemn white supremacists, he stood on the debate stage last week and told the Proud Boys, a violently racist gang, to “stand back and stand by”. When our leaders “stoke and contribute to hate speech, they are complicit”, Whitmer said.

It’s not just the White House that’s complicit, it’s the media. Kyle Rittenhouse, for example, the 17-year-old accused of killing two protesters in Wisconsin last month, was celebrated as a vigilante by rightwing outlets. “How shocked are we that 17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?” Tucker Carlson asked on Fox News. Far-right pundit Ann Coulter tweeted that she wanted the teenager “as my president”. The New York Post, meanwhile, published photos of Rittenhouse cleaning up graffiti; he was framed as a concerned citizen rather than a cold-blooded killer.

To be clear: double standards aren’t just a rightwing media problem. A study conducted by Georgia State University last year found that terror attacks carried out by Muslims receive on average 357% more media coverage than those committed by other groups. While this is clearly racist, it’s also dangerous. White supremacists, plenty of evidence shows, are the deadliest domestic threat facing the US. By downplaying the threat of white nationalist terrorism, by finding politer ways to refer to it, the media have allowed it to proliferate. So please, let’s call things by their name. Enough with the “militias”, these people are terrorists.

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I’m not kidding.

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Harris, a short-clawed otter at a sanctuary in England, was widowed after his partner Apricot died. He seemed a little lonely so his human buddies made him an online dating profile on a site they created called Fishing for Love. He’s now shacked up with Pumpkin. Otterly lovely.