Long before 9/11, Americans had a firm understanding of what terrorists looked like. They’re assumed to be of Middle Eastern descent and, predominantly, men. With these characteristics in mind, racial and gender profiling have been implemented to make the country safer (supposedly): Brown male bodies signify danger.
The federal indictment of Colleen R. LaRose, a.k.a. “Jihad Jane,” has problematized this conception. LaRose is not only a woman, but a white, blonde, blue-eyed suburban American. The Montreal Gazette refers to her as “a Main Street, U.S.A. girl,” and it quotes Michael L. Levy, chief prosecutor of East Pennsylvania, as saying, “The case shatters any lingering thought that we can spot a terrorist based on appearance.”
White womanhood is a complex identity, because even as it is reviled to ensure the perpetuation of patriarchy it is also uplifted to ensure White supremacy. But when LaRose took the name Jihad Jane–thus identifying herself with Islam, a religion many westerners view as violent despite its core teachings and the behavior of most followers–she disassociated herself from Whiteness. And that made it impossible for commentators to once again apologize for a White American who commits domestic terrorism.
When Joe Stack flew his plane into an Austin IRS building recently, his Whiteness caused him to be understood as simply an angry man who felt trapped by the system rather than a representative of his race. Republican Texas gubernatorial candidate Debra Medina added to this construction by stating that Stack’s actions are reflective of “the hopelessness that many in our society feel.” Though Medina was quick to say, “You cannot excuse that kind of behavior,” she also called Stack’s final flight “an act of desperation.” Few have been willing to label him the domestic terrorist that he is, despite the fact that he left a lengthy manifesto describing his alienation.
More than gender separates Stack and LaRose. Stack did not frame his actions in language that Westerners associate with Middle Eastern terrorism and, in fact, many may identify with his gripes against the IRS. Stack was Everyman, his Whiteness never in question, whereas LaRose abdicated the privilege of her Whiteness.
Whiteness represents light and goodness; black and brown skin embody evil and foreboding. Consider this: Immediately after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, some were quick to suggest that a Muslim terrorist group was probably responsible. It did not occur to them that such an action could be committed by a White U.S. Army veteran.
Although LaRose complicates the idea of who may be a terrorist, the black/white binary is still affirmed. Since she has declared herself a jihadist, she takes on attributes of the “other,” and thus makes it clear that her ability and/or desire to cause harm does not initiate within Whiteness. David Kris, head of the U.S. Justice Department’s national security division, said the indictment of LaRose “underscores the evolving nature of the threat we face,” suggesting that law enforcement will now be hyper-aware that White citizens of the U.S. may indeed appropriate violent, terrorist strategies.
Even when LaRose has her day in court, the court of social opinion will try to resurrect and refine the purity and goodness of Whiteness. She will be reduced to Jihad Jane, a name that separates her alleged actions from White femininity. Like every other White criminal, she will be seen as an exception rather than the rule. Jihad Jane will serve as a cautionary tale: See, that’s what happens when a White person takes on attributes of the “other.”