Classifying Terrorism

Cody Given

October, 2017

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Another Terrorist Attack Strikes the Heart of London.” This is the title of a New York Times article published only a few hours after three Muslim men drove a van onto the sidewalk of the London Bridge on June 3rd. The article went on to proclaim that “No motive has been ascribed to the attackers.” The only detail that seemed relevant to the author was the fact that the attackers were Muslim.

Trying to determine what constitutes a genuine act of terrorism is always controversial. But recent media coverage of reported terrorist incidents is not merely controversial: it has become deeply troubling. Our society has become desensitized to acts of violence and it seems clear that race, religion, and ethnicity now play a key role in how news outlets frame terrorist incidents.

On October 1st, a gunman opened fire on a crowd of unsuspecting concert goers in Las Vegas, Nevada. It is crucial to compare media coverage of this incident to parallel events in order to understand how media bias or even systemic racism may impact our ability to understand these troubling acts in any sort of objective way.

Many would say that the label of “terrorism” should be reserved for acts motivated by political ideology or acts by individuals affiliated to larger terrorist organizations. From this point of view, the Vegas shooter should not be deemed a ‘terrorist’ until the motivation behind the shooting is decisively known.

While this argument on its face is valid, it is also true that people of Middle-Eastern descent are rarely, if ever, given benefit of the doubt in the same way. It is seldom possible for investigators to know the mens rea of a deceased suspect. When the suspected individual is white, the story is not immediately framed with the underlying premise of terrorism; nevertheless, if the suspected individual is Muslim, news media frame the event as a terrorist incident, without hesitation, based on stereotyped racial characteristics, as we saw in connection with the London Bridge attack.

A key narrative of the Las Vegas shooting largely overlooked by media outlets was explored in The Atlantic on October 2nd in an article entitled “Why Did the Islamic State Claim the Las Vegas Shooting?” The Islamic State‘s claim of responsibility was largely ignored by the major or multi-platform news outlets. When similar acts of horror occur where the suspect is known to be Muslim and a claim of responsibility is issued by the Islamic State, major news media elect to frame the event in a way that brings terrorist motivations to the forefront.

Coverage of these and other “terrorist” incidents in the West over the past several years is a lens into the world of mass media journalism. Coverage is not, as some might assume, a question of counting the victims, the means by which they achieve their destruction, or the audience targeted. There seems to be a formula for how major news outlets frame acts of mass violence as incidents of “terrorism”. Whether this formula is intentional or subconscious, an Arabic-sounding-name, and a darker complexion sets the tone for much analysis later on.

The 2016 shooting at the Orlando Pulse Nightclub was considered a terrorist incident as soon as details of the shooters identity became available. Indeed, the shooter happened to be a practicing Muslim who was later found to be affiliated with terrorist groups. There can be little doubt that this was a “terrorist” incident. What is troubling is the comparison to news coverage of the Las Vegas shooting and how quickly media outlets characterized the former as an act of terror, whereas media were very cautious not to label the Las Vegas shooter as a “terrorist”. In Orlando, media initially had no knowledge of the killer’s motives, other than his name; Omar Mir Seddique. This detail alone led media outlets to categorize this complex event as an act of terror.

It is important to be clear. I am not arguing that the Orlando Night Club shooting, or the 2015 San Bernardino attack, or the attack on Westminster Bridge were not acts of terrorism: indeed, they were and should be framed as such. I am arguing that the Las Vegas shootings, the attack in Charleston, and perhaps even the violence and murder in Charlottesville should be framed in the same manner, consistently, with other acts of extreme violence. Journalists should never allow bias, assumptions or stereotypes to dictate the telling of a story. Nor should they jump to conclusions that alter the lens by which a story is told.

Why is the word “terrorism” so freely used when a suspect is non-white? Why is “terrorism” used scarcely and carefully when a suspect is white? Predominantly white and Anglo-American cultures have some difficulty accepting why domestic terrorism continues to thrive. It does so not only on the basis of extremist ideology or religious affiliation. Acts of terrorism continue because many refuse to accept that someone from a culture like their own can be capable of terror.

It is far easier to digest troubling acts of mass violence when individual suspects come from misunderstood and unfamiliar regions. It is scary to imagine someone we know executing such atrocities. Perhaps this fear shapes how journalists convey the story. But we should not allow our fears to unduly influence how the news is told. Even though acts of mass violence are easier to accept, for journalists and citizens alike, when we blame “the other”, it is important that our society comes to grips with the idea that terrorists can be born, raised and crafted in our own cultural environment.