Monday, June 29, 2015

Explanation: Avoiding the word terrorist

My blog Friday (see below) has generated quite a bit of discussion., I would like to spend a minute to clarify the reasoning behind my recommendation to avoid using the terms "terrorism" or "terrorist":

1. The term terrorist has been overused, and misused, often applied in xenophobic, racist ways
2. Thus, the term has lost much (or all) of its meaning. In fact, a roomful of adults can never agree on what is means.
3. The term is entirely subjective, and when used by a journalist adds nothing but emotion to the story
4. So, since we don't (or can't) use it well, since it adds nothing but fire to the story, why use it at all?

A study last week showed that since 9/11, twice as many Americans have died at the hands of domestic non-Muslim terrorist than have died because of so-called "Islamic" terrorists. This study is outstanding--a chance to break through the erroneous notion that so-called "Islamic terrorism" is the #1 threat for westerners. (There's a similar study for EU countries showing that domestic EU terrorism is a greater threat than "Islamic" terrorism.)

The bigger picture is peace journalism's desire to avoid emotive, inflammatory language, particularly when said language adds nothing substantive to the story. Why make a bad situation worse?

Finally, I did not say "never use the word terrorist." What I do believe is that we can use it less, and use it more judiciously.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Should peace journalists label Charleston shooter a "terrorist"?

What is a terrorist?

This important question has popped up this last week in the aftermath of the Charleston church shootings. In my peace journalism class at Park University, this question always leads to the most lively discussion of the semester, with some students taking a hard line while others narrow the definition to exclude, for example, “freedom fighters.”

As a professor, the issue is ripe for a “teaching moment” as I ask: Are all the groups fighting Syrian President Assad terrorists? Does this include ISIS? Are those who fight for a Palestinian homeland terrorists? Was the African National Congress a terrorist organization? Is the U.S. drone war fighting terrorism, or an act of terrorism itself?

The concept of terrorism is so slippery, in fact, that the UN has been unable to produce an internationally agreed-upon definition of terrorism, even during the immediate aftermath of 9/11.  Why? “The prime reason is the standoff with the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). The Arab Terrorism Convention and the Terrorism Convention of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) define terrorism to exclude armed struggle for liberation and self-determination. This claim purports to exclude blowing up certain civilians from the reach of international law and organizations. It is central to interpreting every proclamation by the states which have ratified these conventions in any UN forum purporting to combat terrorism.” (Human Rights; “UN 101.”)

Most terrorism definitions include both state and non-state actors, and usually include something about the use or threat of violence designed to provoke terror or panic in the public in the service of a larger military or political agenda.

This leads us to the Charleston shooting, and the debate over whether to call the act terrorism or the shooter a terrorist. Jeffrey Fields, assistant professor of international relations at the University of Southern California, wrote NPR a few days after the shooting to ask, “Why is NPR (and so many other media outlets) 'avoiding' using this term? It only serves to reinforce the notion that terrorism equates to Muslims and foreigners. Yes, this is a hate crime. That doesn't preclude calling it terrorism either in common parlance or legal terms.”

Fields, in his letter, pointed out that NPR, in its initial reporting on the Boston Marathon bombings, "at least acknowledged that President Obama had avoided using the term. That's very telling because 1. NPR hasn't done that with Charleston and 2. At that point the bombers in Boston hadn't been caught or identified (so motive and intention were still unknown). Here the alleged perpetrator has been caught and there are already reports of his own words suggesting his motivation and it points directly to the textbook definition of terrorism." (, June 19).

Others contend that not using the term terrorist has a racial element. In the Washington Post, Anthea Butler, associate professor of religion and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania, said if one “ listens to major media outlets, you won’t hear the word “terrorism” used in coverage of Wednesday’s shooting. You haven’t heard the white, male suspect…described as “a possible terrorist” by mainstream news organizations…And if coverage of other recent shootings by white men is any indication, he never will be. Instead, the go-to explanation for his alleged actions will be mental illness. He will be humanized and called sick, a victim of mistreatment or inadequate mental health resources.” (Washington Post, June 18)

Professor Butler said that U.S. media outlets practice a different policy when covering crimes involving African Americans or Muslims. “As suspects, they are quickly characterized as terrorists and thugs (if not always explicitly using the terms), motivated purely by evil intent instead of external injustices. While white suspects are lone wolves — Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley has emphasized that this shooting was an act of just “one hateful person” — violence by black and Muslim people is systemic, demanding response and action from all who share their race or religion.” (Washington Post, June 18)

Professor Butler’s assessment is correct, and her point important. Whether one agrees or disagrees on the use of the term, it must never be used selectively or in any way that indicates bias.
The terms terrorism and terrorist are clearly inflammatory, pejorative, and prejudicial. Those on both sides of the Charleston shooting debate would doubtless agree that these terms have been previously over-used and mis-used by politicians and the media. The result is that terrorism/terrorist has lost at least some of its meaning and its impact, especially given the racial bias in the way it is applied.

In general, then, the best advice for peace journalists is to avoid using the terms terrorist and terrorism, since they seldom add anything but emotion to a story. NPR’s response to Professor Fields’ critical letter explains the wisdom in eschewing these terms. Mark Memmott, NPR's standards editor, said that NPR’s policy is to avoid “rushing” to label an action. "We use action words to describe what happened and let the facts reveal whether it was terrorism, a hate crime, or murder," he said. He added, "We're certainly not going to shy away from reporting what is revealed about the suspect and his motivations." (, June 19).

Indeed, journalists should describe and explain the events as fully as possible, and let audiences decide what is or isn’t terrorism. In short, except under the most extreme circumstances like 9/11, journalists should avoid labeling anyone, African-American, white, or Muslim, a terrorist.​

--Follow me on Twitter @PeaceJourn--

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

NOTE: The following blog, from February, 2011, was written about our visit to Northern Uganda. The highlight of our stay was meeting then 109 year old Grandma Kerodia (pictured below with my son). I'm sad to report that Kerodia passed away last week at the incredible age of approximately 112. In honor of Grandma Kerodia, today we re-run this column in her honor. Rest in peace.

Acholi Cultural Lesson Leaves Lasting Imprint

From the Parkville Luminary

NEAR GULU, UGANDA—As a fretful parent, I constantly worry about pulling my son out of school and bringing him to live in Uganda for the Spring, 2011 semester.

After yesterday, I am fretting a lot less.

Even though his school, Lakeview Middle, is excellent, and the teachers top-notch, the cultural lesson my 13-year old son Alex absorbed yesterday far eclipses anything a student could possibly learn in a classroom.

Alex was uncharacteristically silent as we slowly wheeled our car onto a dusty, shaded compound in northern Uganda, near Gulu. We had come to visit my friend Gloria’s grandmother. Lounging on a woven mat in the shade, Grandma Kerodia (Claudia) greeted us excitedly, and smiled so broadly she almost injured herself. Claudia, thin but otherwise healthy-looking, loves visitors and adores her granddaughter, so this was a big day for her, especially since we were the first munos (white people) to ever visit this place where she was born in 1903. Yes, Claudia is 108 years old. Though she doesn’t speak English, Claudia still managed to carry on a lively discussion with us in Acholi, the local language. She even managed to tease a beaming but temporarily mute Alex about stealing her son’s name (he is also Alex). 

During our brief stay at Claudia’s place, I had never seen Alex so quiet, or so intently studying his surroundings, including symmetrical mango trees with dangling, not quite ripe fruit and hollowed-out logs serving as bee hives. Alex politely ate the extra crunchy dried potatoes he was offered by Claudia, even though they were a bit dry for his taste. 

As we left a smiling, waving Claudia, we learned a bit more about Claudia’s long life. Her granddaughter Gloria reported that Claudia was an outstanding dancer, something you can still see glimpses of in her thin, lithe form. Gloria said, “As a young and elegant dancer, Claudia was spotted by my grandfather, the late Rwot Okello Ecao, and Claudia became his eighth (!) wife and the youngest and most loved wife. In early 2000, Claudia visited her sons Odoch Walter and Bwomono Robert who live in London. During her stay in the UK, Claudia became ‘an aging star’ where she was always given money for singing and dancing for muni [white people]…She was always surrounded by people who came to look at her beautiful gray hair and take her picture.”

As if meeting someone 95 years your senior wasn’t enough for one day, Alex, his mom and I proceeded down the road to visit the homestead of Gloria’s parents. We were happy to see the entire extended family gathered there—aunts and uncles, siblings, and other miscellaneous friends and neighbors. The women, as always, were striking in their colorful dresses. Gloria’s family was warm, welcoming, and wonderful. The highlight of our visit was a lesson about Acholi life given by Gloria’s effervescent uncle, Lapwony Latim. He is a retired teacher, a fact about which one has no doubt upon hearing his informative, energetic presentation. We went to a large, expertly crafted mud brick, thatched-roof hut for our sociology lesson. Acholi artifacts adorned the walls. Uncle Latim showed us elegant yet functional hand make baskets, bowls, and clay pots and told us stories about how they’re made and used. During this lesson, Alex was transfixed, and again, uncharacteristically quiet. I sensed he had a million questions, but was too shy to ask. 

The most important lesson of all that we learned yesterday was the value of family in Acholi society. Both compounds we visited (and others I’ve seen during the last eight months) featured a large clearing ringed by four or five small huts. These are family compounds, and each hut contains a husband and wife (or several wives) and children. Imagine your siblings, parents, and grandparents all having houses on one cul-de-sac, and you get the idea. Living further apart would be unthinkable for the Acholi. There are no nursing homes here, and if there were, Gloria’s family would never think of sending Claudia to such a place. 

So, even though Alex isn’t seated next to his classmates at Lakeview Middle School, I am satisfied with the education he’s getting this semester in Uganda. Our overall educational goal for Alex is to produce a smart, compassionate, adaptable, and curious young man. Based on these criteria, yesterday’s lesson in rural Gulu, Uganda was a resounding success.