Bad guys have accents. Didn’t you notice? Consistently in British and American film and television, the bad guys have distinctive accents or strange reptilian features, impenetrable masks or persistent facial tics. They always stand out as ‘different’ or ‘other’.
Indeed, when they are actually Caucasian, more often than not they are played by an actor such as Mads Mikkelsen, portraying a non-Anglo Saxon nationality, because all foreign countries are interchangeable. Right? The villains we create in fiction are immediately and physically recognisable as villains through this technique of othering, and this directly influences the perceived villains we create in real life.
It is straightforward racism for the most part; racism in one of its more dangerous shapes. If we consider racism to be fear of an outsider, and terrorism to be an act of violence to intimidate, then both elements combine to create a toxic environment of fear in a society.
When our secret services are telling us that it would be impossible to foil every terror attack, when disaster could come from anywhere, we feel the need to create distinctive villains that we can recognise. This way if the anticipated terror attack does come, it will not be a total surprise, it will not be random, and we will not be forced to live with the idea that there is nothing we can do about it. We think that we will be safer.
If the white majority only uses the word ‘terrorist’ to brand a non-white attacker, it perpetuates the notion that these extreme acts of violence are only committed by certain people, and seems to excuse the violent crimes of Caucasians.By calling white attackers ‘lone wolves’ or ‘disturbed’, it avoids the necessity of making uncomfortable connections. The connection, for example, between a Caucasian teenager choosing violence because they were ostracised by their peers, and a Muslim teenanger who does the same; in both cases, they have been forcibly isolated from a wider community.
This renaming allows people to ignore the fact that Western societies have some responsibility in these terror attacks. Aggressive drone strikes, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, racism, Islamophobia, insensitivity to refugees – all of these have had an impact on the radicalisation of ‘terrorists’. By linking terrorism to a specific racial or religious group, the West deflects the blame elsewhere. Although Western society is not wholly responsible for terrorist attacks, it is to blame in more ways than it cares to admit.
In America you are significantly more likely to be killed by another white American than a Jihadist. However, this is a statistic that will never be admitted, because people are afraid of dying, and equally afraid of the prospect that violence and aggression could come from anyone in a crowd.
It is a difficult realization to admit, however, because it’s easier to create a villain who has distinctive characteristics that mark them out as different, as in Hollywood blockbusters, than recognise that the villain could be anyone.