We have a definite bias when we think of terrorism. First and foremost, and for justifiable reasons, we focus on Islamist extremism (some focus erroneously on Muslims and Islam writ large, but I hope I don’t need to deconstruct that myth again). More and more recently it seems we are concerned about terrorism and violence coming from the extreme right: white supremacists, neo-Nazis and the like. In addition, area specialists are looking at other forms of religiously-inspired terrorism such as Hindu and Sikh (India), Buddhist (Sri Lanka and Myanmar) and Jewish (Occupied West Bank).
What tends to not register is far-left terrorism. It was definitely once at the forefront of world terrorism, back in the 1970s and 1980s with groups ranging from the Japanese Red Army to Germany’s Baader Meinhoff gang to France’s Action Directe to Italy’s Brigate Rosse (Red Brigades). These extremists were behind a series of kidnappings and bombings that terrorised local populations for years, all with the intent of imposing some kind of societal change.
But if you were to ask the eponymous person in the street today if s/he worries about far left violence you would be met with anything from a shrug to ‘how can tree huggers and lefties be seen as terrorists”? Well, I have bad news for you: anyone can embrace violence for any cause if they get to the point where they see violence as the only way to achieve their deeply-held goals. Their motivation can be any, or a combination, of political, religious or ideological.
Speaking of ways of achieving political or ideological goals, there is a group called By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) in the US that has been confronting neo-Nazis and white supremacists. According to an article in the UK paper The Guardian, the FBI has been looking into the group as part of its ‘domestic terrorism’ investigations. Many are outraged that BAMN is being looked at this way.
Don’t get me wrong: I loath white supremacists and neo-Nazis and commend anyone who stands up to these goons. Their positions constitute hate, pure and simple. Yet how people choose to oppose the violence inherent in these movements matters. The very name of the group – By Any Means Necessary – suggests that violence is an option. If it were not why would they use that kind of description?
When individuals or groups elect to use violence to make their point, even it is in opposition to those who are visibly violent, they lose their moral advantage. You cannot say that you are better than thugs and goons if you descend to the same tactics they do. It is all well and good to maintain that there is no other way to stand up for what you think is right and against what you think is wrong, but there is ALWAYS another way. Scholars and pundits can argue for donkey’s years whether or not non-violent methods are effective – think Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King – but they are there.
There is a lot I disagree with in the FBI report cited by the Guardian. For one I have a hard time seeing the Ku Klux Klan as ‘victims’ and I still see their use of the term ‘domestic terrorism’ as a poor choice (what is important in investigating terrorism is the underlying ideology, NOT the location). But I also support the Bureau’s efforts to investigate a group, or better perhaps a loose movement, where the use of violence is not explicitly ruled out (hence By ANY Means), even through (horror of horrors!) ‘in person surveillance’, which seemed to shock the writer of The Guardian piece. There is no question that this cause is ideological in nature and any use of violence in its name would therefore constitute terrorism.
I fear that we will see more instances of left-wing extremism in the years to come. There are a lot of issues subsumed by the left – climate change, economic inequality, etc. – that could lead to the creation of extremism and even violent extremism. And this has to be taken into consideration by security intelligence and law enforcement agencies just as Islamist extremists and the far right are today. Our citizenry would ask for nothing less. If it turns out that an investigation is carried out and there are no grounds to pursue further or to advance to criminal charges, then they move on. No harm no foul. Being investigated is not a violation of privacy, where there are reasonable grounds to investigate.
Ideological violence is ideological violence irrespective of the nature of that ideology. It would be good to remember that.