When violence becomes terrorism: the United States media By Maxwell Campfield
Terrorism is defined as ‘the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.’ In a sense, terrorism is a relatively new term, becoming the norm after George W. Bush’s ‘war on terror’ speech following the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States. One of the most recent attacks in the USA that was reported as terrorism was the September 17th 2016 bombing of a Manhattan street which left 29 people injured. An attack that was accompanied by two additional bombs that failed to detonate. Immediate reports of the attack assumed Islamic fundamentalism was linked to the attack, but these initial suspicions proved incorrect when Mayor Bill de Blasio confirmed there was no linkto any terror organisations. The hastiness of the United States media to present acts of violence as terrorism when Islamic State is suspected establishes the premise of this article; that religion is what inspires American media to portray acts of violence as terrorism. Since its independence many actors have posed a threat to the United States, ranging from the unions fighting the civil war, the Soviet Union and 21st century terrorism. The term terrorism was never used in reference to the opposing unions of the Civil War, nor the Soviet Union, yet it is frequently used to describe acts of violence by Islamic fundamentalist groups both against the USA and across the world. The discourse has only surfaced when America has been threatened by Islamic actors, be these fundamentalist groups, or states. Saudi Arabia was the first country to be labeled a terrorist sponsor by American media. Whether this is simply a result of the evolution of the word, or a direct result of the fact that Saudi Arabia is an Islamic majority state is up for debate. However, It cannot be denied that no non-muslim state has ever been described as a terrorist sponsor by Western media, despite the Soviet Union’s activities mirroring that of Saudi Arabia in its funding of groups opposed to the USA.
The December 3rd 2015 attack in San Bernardino was carried out by a Muslim husband and wife. The attack led to 14 innocent deaths, as well as 23 injuries. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack many hours after media had already reported it as terrorism. The assumption by American media that an attack by people of Islamic faith is politically motivated, highlights the importance of religion in defining acts of violence. This is of even greater significance considering there have been 1000 mass shootings in 1260 days as of June 14th 2016. Less than half a dozen of these mass shootings have been reported as terrorism. Shootings carried out by white or African-American citizens have not received the same level of media coverage and scrutiny as shootings by people of the Islamic faith. Thus, the instinctive nature of the United States media to present an attack by people of the Islamic faith as terrorism, even prior to confirmation, highlights that any political violence carried out by Muslims is automatically referred to as terrorism. This is primarily a consequence of the terms association with the 9/11 terror attacks that were carried out by the Islamic fundamentalist group Al-Qaeda.
On January 2nd 2016 armed militants seized the headquarters of Malheur National Wildlife Park in Oregon. The attack was carried out with multiple firearms and the illegal occupation lasted for over a month. The attack was politically motivated with the perpetrators arguing that the federal government lacked the constitutional authority to own and manage public lands. Throughout the standoff, mainstream American media referred to the occupiers as ‘militants’ as opposed to ‘terrorists,’ furthering the idea that the word ‘terrorist’ only applies to people of Islamic faith.
Furthermore, in October 2016 the leaders of the attack were acquitted. Arguably, had the media presented these ‘militants’ as ‘terrorists’ the verdict may have been different. This is because the discourse used to describe acts of political violence has a substantial effect on the emotions people feel towards it; people will inherently fear the word terrorist more than they will fear the word militant. Thus, the media’s association of terrorism with Islam has allowed acts of political violence not linked to Islam to go unpunished because of their failure to give them the same levels of coverage and scrutiny.
Since 2012 there have been 5 heavily reported attacks that have led to 12 or more fatalities. These include, the July 2012 shooting at a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado, leading to 12 fatalities; a December 2012 shooting of 20 children and 7 adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut; a September 2013 shooting at a Washington, DC Navy yard; the December 2015 attack in San Bernardino, California, where 14 people were killed; and a June 2016 shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in which 49 innocent people were murdered. Robert Johnston categorised the attacks in Aurora, Newtown and Washington as criminal incidents, despite the attack in Washington having clear anti navy sentiment. Whereas, Johnston categorised the attacks in San Bernardino and Orlando as terrorist attacks. Although ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack in San Bernardino, the CIA found that the perpetrator in the Orlando shootings had no terrorist links. Despite this, American media continue to report it as a terror attack. This delivery could be linked to the shooters faith, he was Muslim. It is not a coincidence that the two attacks since 2012 that have been reported as terrorism have had Muslim perpetrators. This further demonstrates that religion is the determining factor in concluding whether violence is terrorism. By definition, any acts of political violence should be presented as terrorism. In conclusion, however, it is clear that the media’s perception of who is a terrorist is heavily influenced by religion; the Malheur National Wildlife Park attack proves this. Until the media disassociates the term ‘terrorist’ with people of Islamic faith, this reporting will continue as long as Islamic fundamentalist groups continue to fight their holy war against America and the west.