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 Voices.org; “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." (NPR.org, 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." (NPR.org, 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.
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