The recent shooting in Arizona has sparked a media maelstrom and a cacophonic debate. Accusations of hyperbolic political rhetoric are being tossed around. Gun laws are being reconsidered. The role of violent video games is receiving attention yet again. Gunman Jared Loughner’s use of marijuana has raised eyebrows. Even the hateful members of the Westboro Baptist Church are threatening to protest the victims’ funerals.
But amidst the yammering of the political pundits, what seems to be less of a topic of debate is the use of the word “terrorism.” When a mentally ill, white male targets a politician and commits mass murder, terrorism is not a word the media chooses to use.
When Joe Stack, a white male, wrote a manifesto denouncing the US government and crashed his private plane into a federal building in Feb. 2010, he was not a terrorist. He was just an unstable guy, angry with the IRS.
When Clay Duke, a white male, brought a gun to a Florida school board meeting in Dec. 2010 and shot at board members before turning the gun on himself, he was a relatively normal man that just cracked one day.
When Michael Enright, a white male, slashed the throat of a Muslim New York City cab driver in Aug. 2010, he was by no means a terrorist. According to his friends, Enright had a terrible drinking problem.
When Byron Williams, a white male, opened fire on police officers in California during a July day in 2010, he was depicted as a disgruntled, unemployed, right wing felon, not a terrorist. Never mind that after he was arrested he admitted he was on his way to the offices of a liberal foundation and a civil liberties organization with the intent to kill people.
When James von Brunn, a white male, entered the Holocaust museum, shooting and killing a guard in June of 2009, he was not recognized as a terrorist either. He was just some anti-Semitic nutcase.
Yet if any one of these white males had been Arabic or Muslim, there is no question as to how the media would have labeled them. The news channels would practically be chanting the word “terrorist.”
Are the actions of the white men mentioned any different than those of some bitter, darker-skinned males who hatched unexecuted plans to knock down the former Sears Tower, or blow up an airport, or buy missiles?
Perhaps the dominant group within American society, white males, is too big to define using only one term. We can’t just lump neo-Nazis with unstable alcoholics and crazy loners with anti-abortion extremists. To do so would be useless, right? There are just too many types of white male terrorists. I mean mentally unstable white males.
It is easier for Americans to reduce Muslim extremists to a single, imaginary group. Sunnis, Shiites, Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, Taliban, Saudi Arabian, Pakistani, Saddam, Bin Laden — it’s all the same. No?
No; there are different sects of Islam, many Arab nationalities have various lists of grievances — not to mention the fact that many of these people falsely lumped together actually despise each other.
Of course, the use of the term “terrorism” boils down to semantics. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines terrorism as “the use of violence or intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.” It is an “ism” that hints at something almost pandemic.
The word conjures up the image of an elusive, dangerous threat lurking somewhere unknown. Terrorism could happen anywhere, at anytime. The use of this term magnifies the most pathetic threat, making minuscule plots become bigger and scarier. The word is a self-rationalization.
The white males’ acts of terror, in contrast, are depicted as “hate crimes” or “tragedies.” These terms more so depict isolated events. Those who commit such acts are thereby seen as individuals rather than lumped together as some collaborative, menacing threat.
Some may think squabbling over such a word is unnecessary. However, language informs peoples’ thoughts and actions; and therefore popular terms repeated in the media must be accurate. Everyone would benefit if we started choosing our words more carefully and articulating ideas more precisely.