“Terrorist” is the new “Commie”

At a lunch talk at the Shorenstein Center today, in the midst of a discussion on media influence, someone raised a question they had been asked at an event weeks prior: “Are you more afraid of terrorists or the U.S. government?”  The ensuing discussion centered on the fear mongering of the far-right media (e.g., Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh).  Then, another interesting point was raised: that my generation (in this discussion undefined, but for argument’s sake, let’s say Gen Y) is generally distrusting of the media.

I got to thinking about the intersection of these two points; if it’s true that my generation distrusts media (and I tend to believe it is), then it seeks to reason that we’re equally wary of the overuse of certain terminology, memes and phrases.  Just as “commie” was tossed around in the days of yore, “terrorist” has become grossly overused, applied unquestioningly to criminals of Arab, Muslim, or seemingly Arab or Muslim persuasion.

This morning I was watching a Good Morning America report on the recent assassination of Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh and noticed, with surprise, that Hamas was repeatedly referred to only as “a Palestinian group.” A quick Google of today’s headlines reflects a similar pattern.

I’m not arguing whether or not Hamas deserves the categorization, but let’s assume for a moment that they, and anyone on the U.S. State Department list of foreign terrorist organizations is, in fact, a terrorist group. Is the FARC subjected to the same media treatment as Hamas? A quick Google News search says no – in fact, the only times “FARC” and “terrorist” turn up in the same sentence are in reference to Washington’s designation. FARC is typically referred to in the U.S. media as a paramilitary or guerrilla group, whereas Hamas and Hezbollah are almost always designated terrorists. I’d be interested to discover whether or not “terrorist” is applied to other non-Arab/non-Muslim entities designated by the U.S. as terrorists.

There’s another, perhaps more important set of questions surrounding the use of the word terrorist: How is the term applied to a) Arabs and Muslims who commit crimes not typically considered “terrorist” activities? and b) Are non-Arab, non-Muslim people who partake in actual terrorist activities (such as bomb-making or murdering abortion providers) deemed “terrorists” in the media? (Racialicious has a good post on this)

The former question is one for which I have little to no evidence (which is not to say it doesn’t exist); the latter seems clear: Rarely are white terrorists referred to as such. Consider the 2009 shooting deaths of abortion provider George Tiller and Holocaust Memorial Museum security guard Stephen T. Johns. Tiller was the victim of a shooting by an extreme-right wing, Christian terrorist, who was part of a larger movement. Johns’ murderer was a well-known white supremacist writer. Neither murderer was deemed a terrorist in initial reports (unlike say, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab); and though a few subsequent reports may have used the term, by the time the news is out, it’s out…parroted reports hardly seem to matter in terms of influencing public opinion.

Another open question is whether or not the word “terrorist” (and for that matter, “al Qaeda,” often broadly used to refer to terrorist movements) has lost meaning in the nine years since 9/11. We are inundated with its use on an hourly basis (don’t believe me? Google News it). Once a word is heavily used by one network, it tends to be parroted by others–look at Media Matters’ research into the word “rape” as used by conservative pundits to refer to the actions of the Democratic party. Media Matters also looked into the use, or lack of, the word “terrorist” in Obama’s Cairo address. Obama, addressing a crowd made up almost entirely of Muslims, avoided use of the word “terrorism,” a fact which conservative pundits immediately jumped on. The New York Times noted the fact as well, but commented that it was “a departure from the language used by the Bush administration, but one that some Middle East experts suggested reflected a belief by the new administration that overuse had made the words inflammatory.” I think it’s important to view this in context: Was Obama right to avoid the use of the word entirely? Likely not, but given the overuse of the word and its disproportionate usage when referring to Arabs and Muslims, I can see why he did it. And it’s worth recalling that he didn’t avoid discussion of extremism and the ideologies it feeds on, rather, he simply avoided a word whose use has become so commonplace it’s been rendered virtually meaningless.

So this is what I’m thinking about. I’m sure the impending release of Media Cloud will be great in terms of facilitating such research. In the meantime, do let me know if you come across anyone else who’s thinking about this stuff.

As for the original question, well, I get the point, and I’m certainly more alarmed by terrorism than I am by the actions of my own government, but I also think that the media’s role in how such fears are formed is huge, and that the risks are frequently over-stated, or worse, misstated entirely.

8 replies on ““Terrorist” is the new “Commie””

One thing ahead: Yes, journalists are biased.

But there’s another thing about it. I asked myself, and I must say I don’t know what constitutes a terrorist.

Yes, we have all heard it: Somebody who spreads fear – terror – through violent acts; and who commits his crimes out of this reason.

In some cases, it is very clear. E.g. Osama bin Laden has expressed this goal. Or if we take a group like the Weather Underground: They clearly used violence as a medium for their ideology.

But in other cases, it is much less clear. The murderer of George Tiller: Did he kill Tiller to instill fear into others, or simply because he wanted to see Tiller dead?

It is the same with terror organisation. Isn’t FARC much more of a drug cartel? If FARC is a terror org, so should be the Italian mafia – they act very similarly. Or not?

You write of “actual terrorist activities”. But I don’t see any such thing. Killing a person is simply murder. Only context and intention make it terrorism.

Because “terrorist” is so hard to define, to me it seems the word is simply used for people who share similarities with other “terrorists” we know. In our times, the terrorists we know – we have been told about the most – are Al Qaeda. Thirty years ago, “terrorist” might have had a totally different meaning: A member of the Weather Underground, e.g., or here in Germany the RAF.


Good points–I thought about touching on the definition of terrorism, but I think that’s a completely separate discussion. Of course, we may disagree on whether or not the actions of other groups (or Hamas, or Hizbollah), constitute “terrorism,” but the fact of the matter is that the U.S. media is inconsistent with what the U.S. government designates as terrorism.

And in the case of George Tiller, I do believe that that was terrorism. His murderer, Scott Roeder, was a member of a group that advocated violence against abortion practitioners, and had a history of such behavior. Terrorism has been used against abortion practitioners in the United States for decades now, and has had its desired effect: instilling fear into doctors and abortion-seekers alike.

You raise a good set of questions. Regarding ‘the use of the word terrorist and How the term is applied to a) Arabs and Muslims and b) non-Arabs/Muslims, I think we could find the same pattern as for the use of ‘honor killings’ versus ‘crime of passion’.

reuters has a policy not to use the word unless quoting. one man’s terrorist is another man’s “freedom fighter” and internationally, it’s too semanticky. you’ll see “shooter” “bomber” etc.

Very interesting, and something that fascinates me: this battle for ownership of certain words.

Anyway, you need to check out Arab Media Watch. Sharif Nashashibi does some excellent, and timely, quantitative research into the press/broadcasters’ use of certain words.

Also, the Glasgow Media Group published a landmark book called Bad News from Israel, about the use of language in reports about Israel – and the misperceptions of the viewing public.

And finally, in terms of the overuse of certain words, and the way that they lose all meaning and lose their inability to communicate an idea, George Orwell tells you everything you need to know in his short essay, Politics and the English Language.

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