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The LAX Shooting, Domestic Terrorism and the NRA

Posted on Nov 8, 2013
AP/Gregory Bull

Travelers are forced to walk home after the nation’s third-busiest airport was closed by gun violence.

By Sonali Kolhatkar

Each time a horrific shooting takes place, the nation pauses, politicians pay lip service and the country’s biggest gun lobby—the National Rifle Association—remains silent. After a suitable period has passed and public rage has receded, the NRA makes cynical pronouncements about activists abusing the memory of victims of the violence by calling for gun control. Americans, replete with lethal weaponry, move on without making any connections between the the cold metal in their holsters and the dead.

We tend to see gun violence not as a pattern that needs a strong and immediate response, but as a series of disconnected incidents that simply cannot be helped. But perhaps it is a matter of perspective.

Paul Ciancia, the 23-year-old accused of killing Gerardo Hernandez and wounding three others at the Los Angeles International Airport on Nov. 1, was immediately described as a “lone shooter,” a category that enables us to dismiss such incidents as aberrations rather than part of a larger spectrum.

Political commentator Rose Aguilar, in an interview with me about the LAX shooting, lamented, “I fear we’re becoming so numb to these events which are now happening on a regular basis. In fact, I was telling friends, ‘Oh, there was a shooting at LAX,’ and hardly anyone responded because it’s happening so regularly.”

But what if the killer had been brown skinned or Muslim? What if he had used a small homemade bomb rather than an assault rifle, killing and wounding just as many people? Would he have been described as a “lone shooter” or as “terrorist”? Would his actions have resulted in near-silence from politicians, or warranted a deep examination and systemic response?


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When I asked Fred Clarkson, senior fellow with Political Research Associates, about the hypocrisy with which we treat violence depending on the shooter’s skin color or the manner of killing, he replied, “It is certainly true—there are many double standards at play in terms of race and religion and national identity. I mean a terrorist act is a terrorist act by any reasonable definition.”

Almost no pronouncements have been made in the media or on Capitol Hill casting Ciancia’s alleged actions as “terrorist.” The FBI defines a domestic terrorist as a person involved in “acts dangerous to human life” that “appear intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.”

A “manifesto” allegedly written by Ciancia and left in his bag indicates that he may have targeted TSA agents to “instill fear into their traitorous minds.” Furthermore, according to authorities he identified himself in the letter as a “Patriot,” implying that he is influenced by the loose network of extremist right-wing Americans calling themselves part of the “Patriot Movement.”

Clarkson, who studies such movements, told me the Patriot Movement “really started out as an effort to form a coalition of a broad swath of the far right. The catalytic moment was when President George H. W. Bush used the phrase ‘New World Order’ in a speech rather inadvertently, talking about global cooperation. Well, this set off the conspiracy alarms in an awful lot of places and everybody from the neo-Nazi Aryan Nation, to various people who are “free men”—individualists who believe that they’re sovereign citizens—to Christian theocratic elements, and more, saw that they had common cause against the ‘creeping tyranny’ of government.”

But why target TSA agents? Clarkson speculated, it is “probably because it is part of the Department of Homeland Security primarily and a government security agency. The idea of the TSA as part of the ‘creeping government tyranny’ is widely perceived on the far right.” If the shooter indeed saw the TSA as representative of government overreach into the sovereign lives of Americans, his actions aimed at eliminating TSA agents could well be a message to the government and as such would qualify as a terrorist act as per the FBI’s definition.

In fact, there are many ideological similarities between Islamic fundamentalists—whom the U.S. government routinely designates as “international terrorists”—and the American extreme right. Muslim fundamentalists and the American far right are both motivated by extreme religious beliefs, tend to have antiquated ideas about the role of women, see themselves as “soldiers of God” (Ciancia wore military fatigues when he allegedly fired his weapon), and vigorously defend their way of life using violence if necessary. In addition, both groups tend to harbor strong homophobia—Ciancia reportedly used the derogatory term “bull dyke” in reference to former Homeland Security head Janet Napolitano in his “manifesto,” and Clarkson relayed that one reason he may have targeted the TSA is that “there is a belief on the far right that part of the TSA’s pat down process is really a bit of homosexual groping.”

It is in this context that the issue of gun violence becomes especially relevant. Ciancia allegedly used a Smith and Wesson M&P .223-caliber assault rifle, a weapon that can be easily and legally purchased precisely because of the efforts of the gun lobby and its primary base of support within the extreme right. The Patriot Movement, which strongly defends the Second Amendment, sees itself as a “militia necessary to the security of a free State.”

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