commentary

the words we use: terrorist

By now, it’s all over the news: a group of Michigan-ites calling themselves “The Hutaree” was recently arrested on charges to use IEDs against local police officials in hopes of inciting an anti-government “uprising.”  In an article entitled “Militia Charged With Plotting to Murder Officers,” the New York Times reports:

CLAYTON, Mich. — David B. Stone Sr. and his wife, Tina, made no secret about the fact that they were part of a militia, neighbors say. The couple frequently let visitors in military fatigues erect tents in front of their trailer home at the intersection of rural dirt roads, and the sound of gunfire was routine…

In an indictment against the nine unsealed on Monday, the Justice Department said they were part of a group of apocalyptic Christian militants who were plotting to kill law enforcement officers in hopes of inciting an antigovernment uprising, the latest in a recent surge in right-wing militia activity.

Throughout the New York Times article, the Hutaree are referred to as right-wing militantsnot terrorists.  While there is one mention of terrorism in the article, in a reference to “the Department of Homeland Security produced a report warning of a rising threat of right-wing terrorism,” the individuals themselves are never referred to as terrorists.

Now, this wouldn’t be much news.  Except that the same exact thing happened in January, when a Texan man flew his plane into an IRS building in the lone state.  The February 18 headline read “Man Crashes Plane Into Texas I.R.S. Office,” and the article opened with:

Leaving behind a rant against the government, big business and particularly the tax system, a computer engineer smashed a small aircraft into an office building where nearly 200 employees of the Internal Revenue Service were starting their workday Thursday morning, the authorities said.

Again, throughout the article the assailant, Mr. Stack, is referred to as various things: an amateur musician, a husband, a software engineer.  But never a terrorist.  The article even explicitly states:

Within hours of the crash, before the death or even the identity of the pilot had been confirmed, officials ruled out any connection to terrorist groups or causes…As the Department of Homeland Security opened an investigation and President Obama received a briefing from his counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, federal officials emphasized the same message, describing the case as a criminal inquiry.

It was indeed a miracle that in a building where 190 federal employees worked, no one died.  But no was injured when a man tried to ignite chemicals hidden in his pants while on an American flight in December.  This story, which made news only a few weeks before, was reported on quite differently.  A December 26 article, “Terror Attempt Seen as Man Tries to Ignite Device on Jet,”  reads:

A Nigerian man tried to ignite an explosive device aboard a trans-Atlantic Northwest Airlines flight as the plane prepared to land in Detroit on Friday, in an incident the United States believes was ”an attempted act of terrorism,” according to a White House official who declined to be identified.

The device, described by officials as a mixture of powder and liquid, failed to fully detonate. Passengers on the plane described a series of pops that sounded like firecrackers.

Federal officials said the man wanted to bring the plane down.

”This was the real deal,” said Representative Peter T. King of New York, the ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, who was briefed on the incident and said something had gone wrong with the explosive device, which he described as somewhat sophisticated. ”This could have been devastating,” Mr. King said.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the suspect, now has an entire NY Times Topics page devoted to him.  The anti-IRS guy?  No such page.  Even though he caused significant damage to a government building.  Abdulmutallab did little more damage than to himself.

Undoubtably, if Abdulmutallab’s plan had gone as he might have liked it to, it could have indeed been devastating.   But such is the case with the Hutarees’s plot.

Of course, we’re only in the first few days of watching this story unfold, and it’ll be interesting to see the words chosen to describe it as it does.  It’s my own belief that we shouldn’t use words like terrorist or terrorism at all – they do little more than incite fear and lead to broad generalizations.  But if such a word is going to be used, it needs to be applied consistently – across the board – to all those who use or threaten to use violence or terror to achieve political ends.  As Mr. Abdulmutallab did.  As Mr. Stone did.  As the Hutaree threatened to do.

A quick note – I specifically choose the New York Times over another news source for this analysis, as the NYTimes is often deemed as a highly legitimate and reliable source to turn to.  Yet, the language bias that one might expect to see in the other agency appears quite strongly, as I tried to illustrate above, in the NYTimes.  But just in case you’re curious as to how that other site detailed the three incidents?  The Hutaree’s plan is described as an alleged militia plot to kill cops.  The disgruntled Texan’s deliberate plane crash is an apparent anti-IRS suicide. The attempted airline bomber?  The Christmas Day Terror Suspect.

Big deadline tomorrow, so this one was a little shorter than I’d have liked it to be.  These are thoughts that are just forming, and I welcome feedback and criticisms.  Things that you think I should restate.  That is, afterall, what this is all about!

Also – there are many others who have thought and written on this issue, too – a few links below.

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