Art for White Riots, White Wars.
Rafia Zakaria,  January 15

White Riots, White Wars

On the connection between American white supremacy here and abroad

w
o
r
d

f
a
c
t
o
r
y

It is not as if Americans were not warned. The white nationalist and other hate groups that stormed the Capitol last week were open about their intentions to use violence to overturn the results of a “stolen” election. Americans, however, refused to take them seriously.

One warning came last fall when the FBI reported that a militia group in Michigan had hatched a plan to kidnap and perhaps even execute Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Despite the horror of those particulars, most Americans underreacted. Another warning came on Christmas Day when a man blew up an explosive-laden camper near the AT&T building in Nashville. The cable news channels refused to call the bombing a terrorist attack. There was no “political motive,” one anti-terror analyst said on television; others emphasized that the bomber seemed not to have left a reason for his attack. This despite the fact that he had shown an interest in conspiracy theories related to “lizard people” governing the planet. Despite these and other signs of violent fantasies among home-grown terrorists, America largely gave a collective shrug and focused on their New Year plans.

Amid this willful ignorance, militias and white supremacists have flourished and flowered in the hothouse nourished by white privilege. Like other Muslim-Americans who have been rendered forever suspect by 9/11 and the wars that followed, I was aghast. America seemed perched on a precarious precipice, but Americans milled around as before, blindfolded to the possibility of a fatal fall. That fall came on January 6, when a mob led by men wearing horns and fur pelts and black sweatshirts that said “Camp Auschwitz” overran America’s seat of representative government. They vandalized the Speaker’s office and stole her podium, they carried Confederate flags, and there are reports that excrement was smeared over the hallway floors.

President Donald Trump worked hard to set this riot in motion. His gun-toting supporters, whetted by martial rhetoric and the avalanche of lies that Trump has perfected, came to fight and even to kill. Videos of the attack revealed a crowd that in some parts overwhelmed resisting Capitol police officers and in other locations was welcomed, ushered through barricades and past fences. White people, everyone seemed to have assumed, are good and civilized—what harm could they do?

That harm is now well documented, but the myth that sustains the premise of their goodness has not been attended to. The myth that white people are essentially (read: always) upstanding people was central to the success of the white insurrection. In these grim days, between the reality of one attack and the possibility of several more, Americans are also having to consider what the myth of white goodness has done to their country. The picture that has been on lurid displace since January 6 is somehow unfamiliar to those who easily rid their minds of the Tiki-torch-bearing racists who converged on Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, or the assault-weapon-wielding shooters who have killed students in public schools. The myth of white goodness has been again exposed, and yet white people in their own minds will continue to be the normal people, the voices of reason, the purveyors of orderliness. That they could be terrorists is, for white Americans, unthinkable.

What do we recall when we see the thousands of National Guard troops deployed to the Capitol and the District of Columbia?

The denial of white terror has not been fostered and fed by President Donald J. Trump alone: it goes further back. What do we recall when we see the thousands of National Guard troops deployed to the Capitol and the District of Columbia? Many widely shared photos show them sprawled and splayed in the corridors. The photos are eerily similar to videos from a different war. In spring and summer of 2003, images of American soldiers camped out at Saddam Hussein’s former palaces were all over the internet. A YouTube video shows the soldiers playing volleyball on the fourth of July, milling around the palace in Tikrit, and camped out in its interiors. If the white terrorists who trail Trump today believe that he won the election, white Americans circa 2003 believed that attacking Iraq was somehow necessary for their own safety. To others around the world, particularly the ones who bore the brunt of America’s terror-fighting proclivities, the idea that democracy could be forced on a population seemed just as bizarre, even insane. The American troops that lounged around Saddam Hussein’s former palace believed this lie and offered up their lives for the policy premise of democracy proliferation. Americans were superior; there to teach the blundering Arabs and Afghans how things should be done. The centrality of whiteness to this equation was not examined.

The “war on terror” was a war borne of white privilege. When President George W. Bush started to bomb Baghdad and invade Kabul, he was also reiterating the colonial myth of the white man being the superior man. Everywhere American troops went, the population was afraid and cowering, the American soldier was always right, always noble, always a symbol of American supremacy over the whole world. “You’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror,” George W. Bush famously said in November of 2001. The rest of the world was forced to agree, morosely lining up to be “with” Bush. Perhaps it was the fear of American soldiers camped out in their own institutions that pushed them into obedience; perhaps it was just the fear of being obliterated. So Afghans and Iraqis were expected to smile and nod, as America busily went about setting up the trappings of democracy, holding elections, funding parliaments, and throwing money at endeavors that were largely guaranteed to fail.

President Donald J. Trump, now twice impeached, is not a fan of democracy proliferation. His white nationalist agenda was focused on isolation, building walls, and banning Muslims. The similarity in the agendas of the two presidents is simply that Trump wanted to do at home what Bush and his cadre of neo-conservative buddies had done abroad. As the war on terror was being wrapped up, the contradiction between white supremacy abroad and identity politics at home had to be taken apart. The white supremacist agenda so central to Trumpian ideology—developed in part by Steve Bannon, who went on to foment this grievance in other countries—is thus inextricably intertwined to the white supremacist wars that George W. Bush initiated all over the world.

Bush’s war on terror was racist at home as well. It was Black and brown Americans who formed the bulk of those arrested for alleged plots on flimsy evidence. White Americans, who were the real Americans, were told to report anything suspicious happening at the homes of Muslim neighbors and co-workers. FBI informants infiltrated mosques, and those who refused to do the FBI’s bidding were pressured and punished. Fighting terror required keeping brown and Black people in check. The Department of Homeland Security, whose bloated budget is never questioned by Democrats or Republicans, centered nearly all of its activities toward this end.

It is no wonder then that this same Department of Homeland Security failed to anticipate, let alone thwart, the attack on the U.S Capitol. The image of the terrorist in the American public imagination and in its institutional policy is that of a Black or brown and Muslim person. The January 6 attack has been an assault on that idea of the terrorist. Suddenly, the vocabulary of radicalization, instigation, cult-like faith in a leader, and the weaponization of social media is now being associated with white terrorists.

In the nearly two decades that have passed since 9/11, America has been on a worldwide binge of occupying, destroying, meddling, and intervening, largely with impunity. As public attention to those wars has waned during the Trump administration, the beliefs of white supremacy have turned inward. It makes no sense for the country that lords over brown people in the Middle East to treat the same brown people with respect at home. This legacy of white supremacist wars abroad has thus fed and fostered the same beliefs at home. Faith in the necessity of constant and unrelenting violence has seeped into the nation’s soul. The twenty-year-long veneration of toxic white masculinity has nourished men who are only too willing to fight to protect white privilege. President Donald J. Trump has been a catalyst and a mobilizing force, but the American proclivity toward violence has been nurtured all along by foreign wars. Unsurprisingly, one of the sets of pardons handed out by Trump this month went to private security guards from Blackwater who had massacred Iraqi civilians, including small children.

The troops camping out at the U.S Capitol are expected to stay there through next week to thwart any future insurrections during inauguration week. Similar military presence is likely to be installed at most of our fifty state Capitols, all of which have been identified as potential targets. The white terrorists, however, are here to stay, given their solid lines of funding and the freedom they continue to have to gather and plot and plan. In order to truly fight them America requires a racial reckoning, an estimation of how white supremacist wars create and foment a white supremacist nation.

Rafia Zakaria is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon 2015) and Veil (Bloomsbury 2017). She is a columnist for Dawn in Pakistan. She writes regularly for the Guardian, Boston Review, The New Republic, and The New York Times Book Review.

You Might Also Enjoy

Hero to Zero

Kim Kelly

Concern for essential workers becomes a casualty of pandemic fatigue.

word factory

Hail to the Grief

Jess Bergman

President-elect Joe Biden is “the most gothic figure in American politics.” He is “grief’s charismatic confessor,” “a. . .

outbursts

Further Reading

Heads Up: We recently updated our privacy policy to clarify how and why we collect personal data. By using our site, you acknowledge that you have read and understand this policy.