Harsha Walia: We Must Dismantle The Security State, Not Expand It

This is not just a semantic debate, such as “what is terrorism” or “can the definition of terrorism be expanded"

Harsha Walia
January 19, 2021 | 5 min. read

In response to the storming of the US Capitol by Trump supporters, including white supremacist groups such as the Proud Boys, federal Liberal, Conservative, and NDP leaders are all throwing their weight behind proposals to designate white supremacist groups as terrorist organizations. 

This may feel like a meaningful thing to do as an immediate response to the frightening escalation of violence but, as someone who is connected to many people who have been labeled as “terrorists” or otherwise impacted by Canada’s anti-terror laws, let me be clear that calling for the inclusion of white supremacist organizations in the fold of our anti-terrorism legal infrastructure will not work. It is a fundamentally regressive legal infrastructure and targets Black, Indigenous, Muslim, Arab, Sikh, racialized, and left communities by its very design.

For starters, should not the mere fact that white supremacist groups are literal Nazis and open fascists be enough to mobilize us into action? Why can’t we designate them as “white supremacist organizations” and take action accordingly?

In that sense, white supremacy and fascism are already terrorizing and underlying forces that must be named and confronted. What is whiteness, as a power construct, if not the omnipresent terrorizing violence of colonialism, imperialism, enslavement, and racial (and relatedly, caste) apartheid?

Furthermore, "terrorism" is a state-defined term. The invocation of ‘terrorism’ is to typically signal a threat to the state and its legitimacy. The discourse of “terrorist” is most commonly deployed against those considered outside the state, and hence as threats to the state - for example, Indigenous, Black, Muslim, Arab, Sikh, racialized, anarchist, and left communities in the US and Canada. 

It is therefore oxymoronic to think that anti-terrorism can be deployed against white supremacists by the state's legal, judicial, or political apparatus when, in fact, whiteness is the state. White supremacists are deeply invested in white supremacy as nation-building. Naming white supremacist organizations as “terrorist”' places them as an anomaly or marginal, rather than as a central organizing and ideological force of violence in the US and Canada. Essentially, this is political and ethical hypocrisy - as evident in numbers of state, police, and military officials who are active in white supremacist organizations, and is a form of white innocence.

The congruence of the state and white supremacy also exposes another important issue, which is that it is not that the Canadian government does not already have ample and effective tools at its disposal to combat white supremacist organizations. For years, Canada’s own spy agency has argued that white supremacist organizations are one of the leading domestic threats in the country. Yet, the Canadian government has chosen not to act. These sudden hand-wringing calls for more strict 'counter-terrorism' measures are smoke and mirrors because there are lots of existing tools at their disposal to dismantle white supremacist organizations that they have chosen to ignore. 

While it is arguable that some concepts can be reclaimed from the right, like “freedom,” terrorism is just not one of them. Terrorism, both as a socially-constructed racialized concept as well as a political and juridical set of state policies, maintains and extends entrenched forms of oppression.

This is not just a semantic debate, such as “what is terrorism” or “can the definition of terrorism be expanded.” There are material consequences for the War on Terror. Governing through criminalization and securitization is not a neutral terrain; these are fundamentally and foundationally racial regimes. The global War on Terror - already a war of terror - was conjured up in the public imagination to further gendered, colonial-capitalist white supremacy; it is simply implausible to assume the architecture of the war on terror will subvert the very same systems it is intended to entrench.

Many people have the luxury of not knowing how anti-terror, counter-terrorism, or national security policies actually work and how unjust they are. Having organized with security certificate detainees, West Coast Warriors who were raided shortly after 9/11, Indigenous land defenders targeted by Project Sitka, countless refugees and permanent residents facing deportation and admissibility hearings on security grounds, I know that the anti-terror legal infrastructure is rotten by design. 

The most glaring example of this fundamentally oppressive system is the state violence of deportation. For the past two decades, Canada has increasingly used non-existent and secret "evidence" against people - especially against Muslims, Arabs, Kurds, and Sikhs - as well as left organizations such as PFLP or FMLN. Migrants, refugees, and permanent residents are routinely being labeled as 'terrorists' or accused of being affiliated with 'terrorist entities' in order to escalate their stigmatization, criminalization, detention, and deportation. 

Of the over 55 listed entities on Canada’s terrorist list, most are Muslim organizations. Some argue that 'racial equality' can be achieved in anti-terror legislation - i.e. that instead of targeting Muslims, these laws should pivot to targeting white supremacists. But this is naive and gives long-term cover to anti-terror laws, funding, and infrastructure, which will then continue to expand and target oppressed communities and movements. Any expansion of the terror list, even to include violent groups like the Proud Boys, will likely backfire.

This is the same trend that we see in the expansion of the carceral state and the supposedly 'left' reasons for its expansion, like accountability for gendered violence. That accountability never materializes, yet carceral state warfare continues. Similarly, justifying anything under the cover of anti-terror legislation expands police powers, surveillance, criminalization through secret trials, preemptive detention, disappearances and torture in black sites, CVE programs, military interventions, extradition, and deportation. There is no "appropriate" left reason for more criminalizing or securitizing laws. The global war on terror and its ongoing aftermath must be dismantled, not bolstered. 

The War on Terror has been one of linguistic and legal contortions that, by design, allows the state to fortify it’s policing and surveillance powers. We need to dismantle this violent security state, especially the post 9/11 security state, that has and continues to wreak so much violence in people's lives. More of the War on Crime or more of the War on Terror will not end fascism or white nationalism; it will only fuel it and target more oppressed people. 


Harsha Walia is the author of the upcoming book Border and Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism, and the Rise of Racist Nationalism. She is also the award-winning author of Undoing Border Imperialism, co-author of Never Home: Legislating Discrimination in Canadian Immigration as well as Red Women Rising: Indigenous Women Survivors in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Harsha has organized in grassroots migrant justice, anti-capitalist, feminist, abolitionist, and anti-imperialist movements for two decades. She is the past Project Coordinator of the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre and current Executive Director of the BC Civil Liberties Association. You can find her on Twitter at @HarshaWalia.

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