one article’s terrorist is another’s patriot

Last night I tweeted the following about the New York Times article, “Militia Charged With Plotting to Murder Officers“:

Militia Charged With Plotting to Murder Officers  <-- No use of the word "terrorist" for all white group. Terrible.

The tweet resulted in a few responses (the second of which, from @kichigai,  made the strong case that “I can’t help but think their being Christian helped kill off the label. IE: Terrorists can be white (Jihad Jane) but only Muslim.”) and then this morning @christateston pointed me to a blog post, “What’s Wrong With This Picture?” that made a very similar argument:

The folks at The Times tie themselves into knots denying that this is political extremism: although the terrorists “were plotting to kill law enforcement officers in hopes of inciting an antigovernment uprising” they were “motivated by apocalyptic religious scenarios more than any secular political fears.” Right. If Islamist fundamentalists were indicted for exactly the same activities the press would be having a field-day. But these salt-of-the-earth white Americans surely couldn’t be terrorists could they?

When I first read the piece my first thought was the same: if this had been about non-Christian, non-white group any derivative of the word terrorist would be used throughout. So, I decided to check it out.

I went back to the last terrorist group to be apprehended in the US that I could remember: the group that came to be known in the media as the Fort Dix Six. This group of 6 Muslim men in southern NJ were arrested for and later convicted of plotting to attack military personnel stationed at Fort Dix, which spans several townships in Burlington County, NJ. I went to to read their report of the group’s arrest. The article title, “6 Arrested in Plot to Attack Fort Dix,” is similar to “Militia Charged With Plotting to Murder Officers,” because they both involve a form of the verb, “plot.” That is where the similarities end. The latter title, by starting with the word “militia,” clearly locates the group within a particular socio-cultural freedom group that has a rich (and mostly positive) history in the United States dating back to the Revolutionary War. The lack of a group definition in the former article title locates the emphasis on the object of the attack—a military fort—and allows the reader to assume that the article is about a terrorist group.

The subjectivities of the titles are followed through in the text of the articles. The article about the all-white Christian militia uses the word “terrorism” only once, in a one-sentence paragraph that passively (and barely) equates the group’s desired actions with terrorism: “In April 2009, the Department of Homeland Security produced a report warning of a rising threat of right-wing terrorism, citing factors like economic troubles, the election of a black president and perceived threats to United States sovereignty.” Conversely, the article about the Muslim group uses a version of the word terrorism seven times. Here we see the articles represented visually (200 words, Coolvetica font, rounded edges, all words lower-case; I have modified the color in the latter):

Wordle of Militia Charged With Plotting to Murder Officers
Wordle of Militia Charged With Plotting to Murder Officers
Wordle of 6 Arrested in Plot to Attack Fort Dix
Wordle of 6 Arrested in Plot to Attack Fort Dix

A closer look at the text shows that the majority of uses of the words “terror” or “terrorist” are much more active in their implications, including this statement from former DA Chris Christie:

“Terrorist attacks are not always going to be on the grand scale of September 11th,” Mr. Christie said. “But keep in mind that terrorist attacks are about creating terror, and an attack on an American military institution in our country clearly would have created the type of terror that people like these who believe in Jihad want to perpetrate on American citizens.” He added, “We believe this attack has now been completely defused.”

Here, we have the obligatory invoking of September 11 which in the media must accompany any discussion of terrorism. That rhetorical move locates all acts within the history of the United States being attacked and the resulting War on Terror. The militia article locates the actions of ring-wing groups within the recent downturn of the economy, the election of a black president, and other groups:

Mark Potok, who leads a program that tracks right-wing groups for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said it first took note of the Hutaree last year amid a surge in new “Patriot” movement groups, race-based hate groups, extremist anti-immigrant groups, Christian militants and other variations.

The implications of this sentence are that racism, anti-immigrationism, Christian fundamentalism, and “other variations” (which one can only assume are sexism, homophobia, and antisemitism), are, in fact, patriotic. The label, “Patriot,” just like the label, “militia,” locates the discussion within a rhetorical and visual field that dates back to the writing of the Declaration of Independence and extends through the creation of the Patriot Missile. Regardless of if there are quotation marks around the word Patriot, the label succeeds in removing us several steps further from an indictment of the group’s actions as terrorist—which they certainly are.

This article is, of course, indicative of a larger problem in the news media: the inability to call something what it is when it involves white Americans. We saw this in NPR’s refusal to call water-boarding torture and the overall inability of the mainstream media to call racism at (mostly white) Tea Party rallies and anti-health care protests racism (see Joan Walsh for a good reporting of the racism).

What we label things is important rhetorically and pragmatically; classifications structure realities.

Update 3/31/10 9:10 am: Another article, this one from CNN, similarly opts to favor terms other than terrorist, which only appears once.

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