Commentary / World | THE VIEW FROM NEW YORK

Terror, terror on the wall, who’s the biggest of all?

by Hiroaki Sato

The top headline of The New York Times front page of July 18 was thoroughly predictable: “Attack on Officers Jolts a Nation on Edge.” The previous day three policemen had been shot dead in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Less than 10 days earlier, on July 8, five officers had met the same fate in Dallas.

These killings of policemen — both by former servicemen — were direct reactions to the recent, sensational spate of police officers killing citizens. I say “sensational” because these murders happened to be digitally recorded and broadcast via social media. One of them occurred in the same city, Baton Rouge, on July 5, with a video showing two policemen wrestling a man to the concrete of a parking lot, then shooting him dead.

Most killings of citizens by law enforcement officers do not attract such national attention, but the number should shock any other “civilized” society. It totaled 990 in 2015, according to “Fatal Force,” a database that The Washington Post set up last year to catalog “every fatal shooting nationwide by a police officer in the line of duty.” It is updated daily. For a listing of individual victims, there is another site, “Killed By Police.” It was established in May 2013. It is also updated every day.

You might ask, as the BBC did on July 18: “U.S. police shootings: How many die each year?” Citing FBI statistics, the broadcaster said 50 for 2015, which happens to be close to the average of the past 10 years of 49.6. So the “kill ratio,” if I may use a military term, of citizens the protected versus policemen the protectors is 20-to-1.

It was because of these killings that another front-page headline of the same July 18 New York Times piqued my interest: “Which Attackers Are ‘Terrorists’? Term Becomes Blurred in the Age of ISIS.” For a moment, I thought the article might question the use of the term “terrorist” that George W. Bush as U.S. president gave currency worldwide.

It did make a good point on the muddy state of “terrorist” killings these days. “Instances of wanton violence by deranged attackers — whether in Nice or in Orlando, Fla. — are swiftly judged to be the work of terrorists,” it noted, when they “do not fit a classic definition of terrorists as those who use violence to advance a political agenda.”

But the article limited itself to linking the term “terrorists” with Islamic State (sometimes referred to as IS), not raising the question of the kind that the British newspaper, The Independent, asked after Labour MP Jo Cox was shot and stabbed to death: “Why are we so reluctant to label white attackers as terrorists?”

Well then, how about applying the “classic definition” to cover international conflicts?

In early July, when the British government made public its inquiry into the Iraq War, the Chilcot report, Sarah O’Connor, whose brother was killed in the war, called Tony Blair “the world’s worst terrorist.” Beyond a surviving family’s sorrow, however, Blair, Britain’s prime minister at the time, deserved that condemnation. He was an abettor of a war started on false pretense and, in the terminology of the Nuremburg and Tokyo Tribunals, a conspirator.

His words, “I will be with you, whatever,” in his “secret and personal” letter to Bush quoted in the Chilcot report, would surely solidify Blair’s reputation as Bush’s “poodle.”

Bush, of course, was the main terrorist and he had gotten the condemnation much earlier. Back in February 2003, a month before invading Iraq with “a coalition of the willing,” with “shock and awe” — when Bush was still indulging in cowboy-film, histrionic threats to Saddam Hussein, ridiculing the U.N. findings — a student named Bretton Barber at Dearborn High School in Michigan called him “International Terrorist.” He wore a T-shirt with a photo of Bush’s face framed by those two words.

School officials told Bretton to take his shirt off or go home. He went home.

For that matter, in March 2007, a Spanish judge, Baltasar Garzon, indicted Bush and his allies for war crimes, the concept the United States had led in establishing as an international legal rule after defeating Germany and Japan.

In reality, could the U.S., Britain, et al, that messed up Middle East countries and continue to do so, bombing them and blowing people apart, condemn those who fight back as “terrorists”?

How about applying “the classic definition of terrorists” domestically, to those American “lawmakers” who expand “gun rights”? After all, the odds of dying in a terrorist attack is minuscule compared with being killed by a gun wielded by those routinely not deemed a “terrorist.”

Take Ohio. In mid-July, with the Republican National Convention about to begin, Stephen Loomis, the president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association, asked Gov. John Kasich to suspend “temporarily” the state’s “open-carry” law — a law that allows its inhabitants to “openly carry firearms in public.” But Kasich, a Republican candidate for president this year until he got too few votes and quit, declined. Which other “civilized” country would allow such a law?

On July 21, The New York Times printed Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton’s anguished plea, “Why I Can’t Protect My City From Guns” or, as the article’s online headline made it clearer, “Pistols at the Pool, Machine Guns on Parade and Nothing We Can Do.” Indiana, like 45 other states, has an open-carry law, though requiring a permit to do so.

Democratic Mayor Hamilton wrote he will again go to the state legislature to give back to cities “local authority” to regulate gun possession. But he is “not likely to prevail,” as long as “the well-funded gun lobby” opposes such measures, he wrote.

It isn’t that state “legislators” aren’t aware of another possible “terrible act of violence,” Hamilton added. The law they made selfishly prohibits “anyone but officers, legislators or judges from carrying guns in the statehouse.”

Mike Pence, the governor of Indiana and now the Republican candidate for vice president, is “proud” of freeing up guns for the residents of his state.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist in New York.