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Sunday Political Brunch - The Politics of Words—October 8, 2017

Sunday, October 08, 2017

 

The recent mass killings in Las Vegas have left us in a quandary. With no clear-cut motive at hand, and no apparent religious or political bent (at least that we now know), then what do we call this, other than “mass murder”? The question for now is whether the Las Vegas massacre should be called an act of terrorism. Let’s “brunch” on that this week.

“Let’s Go to the Dictionary” – Miriam-Webster offers a number of definitions - some vague, some more precise. M-W.com has a legal definition: “the unlawful use or threat of violence especially against the state or the public as a politically motivated means of attack or coercion.” It also offers a definition for students: “the use of violence as a means of achieving a goal.” Under the first definition, Las Vegas would not rise to terrorism because - as of now - there is no evidence it was politically motivated. On the other hand, it would clearly be terrorism under the student definition, because the violence was a means to the goal of killing people.

“And, There Are More Contradictions” – The picture doesn’t get any clearer when we look at statutes. Nevada state law defines terrorism as "any act that involves the use of violence intended to cause great bodily harm or death to the general population." That makes the Las Vegas massacre sound like a domestic terrorist act to me. But when you look at the FBI definition, it has the added caveat, “to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.” Well, if there is no political objective, then maybe this isn’t terrorism after all. We clearly have contradictions.

“Different Standards” – If there is a mass bombing in the Middle East and if ISIS or Al-Qaeda claims credit, it’s immediately called an act of terrorism. But even back in 1995, when the Oklahoma City Federal Building was blown up killing 168, people were not that quick to call it terrorism. Part of that reluctance, I think, is the discomfort that people have in recognizing an act of “domestic terrorism.” Maybe our national pride includes a kind of denial mechanism which insists that “such things don’t happen on our soil.” Of course, in the Oklahoma City case, the motives and suspects were not clear at the start; but when it became clear that this was attempted revenge for the federal government’s siege at Waco, Texas, exactly two years prior, the bombing was officially labeled “domestic terrorism.”

“So, What Is This?” – For starters, I labeled the Oklahoma City bombing a terrorist attack from day one. Why? Well, the target was a United States District Courthouse; the result was mass-casualties that frightened the immediate community and the entire nation; and a weapon of mass destruction was involved. The same was true for the Olympic Park bombing at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, an event which I covered firsthand. Yes, in Las Vegas, they are still searching for a political motive (and may never find one), but based on the Oklahoma City and Atlanta benchmarks, I’d label Las Vegas as domestic terrorism.

“Stretching the Imagination” – The other night on NPR I was listening to journalist Masha Gessen, who takes the opposing view from mine. She does not believe Las Vegas should yet be described as a terrorist act. I respectfully disagree. Gessen also disputes that the Boston Marathon bombings, (another tragedy I covered), were an act of terrorism. How she can conclude that is beyond my imagination. The Tsarnaev brothers were self-radicalized and certainly had a political bent, with the goal of killing innocent Americans for their cause. They need not have been actual members of ISIS or Al-Qaeda, but their motives lay with the political sympathies and ideology of those organizations. Gessen said calling them terrorists aggrandizes and elevates them beyond being mere criminals. I couldn’t disagree more. They were terrorists, period!

“Illegal; Undocumented; or Unauthorized?” – Words have nuanced meanings. I get that. Sometimes arguing semantics can have profound (and unintended) consequences. A case in point is the debate on how to describe immigrants who are in this country in violation of the law. For many years, they were simply described as “illegal immigrants,” but then came a backlash. Their advocates chastised the press for calling them illegals, when they have been convicted of nothing. The preferred term became “undocumented.” The problem with that is that many people who are in the U.S. unlawfully have plenty of documents - from school report cards to medical insurance cards - all because they have been granted many of the benefits of legal status. I never liked the term “undocumented.” Now, I hear a compromise description, “unauthorized immigrants.” I can live with that, even though I still believe “illegal” is an accurate, non-judgmental description. Look, you are either here by legal authority, or you are not. It can’t be both.

“Why These Debates Matter” – In the world of journalism, accuracy and clarity are among the highest goals. If someone enters this county without going through proper channels, that’s a violation of the law (albeit a civil statute). Is that person a criminal? Not necessarily. (Think of a 6-year-old child brought here by a parent, who is “illegal,” “undocumented,” or “unauthorized.”). But that person is here illegally. Here’s an analogy. I get alerts in my car if I hit 80 miles per hour (as I did the other day) where the speed limit was 70 miles per hour. Did I do something illegal? Yes. Am I a criminal? No, probably not, unless I was caught, convicted of a crime, and sanctioned. But, yes, I was in fact driving illegally.

“Thoughts” – I am in no way trying to equate what happened in Las Vegas with an illegal border crossing or a speeding ticket. What I am trying to illustrate, though, is a daily newsroom battle over what to call and how to describe events, and, yes, how things get labeled. While I sharply disagree with fellow journalist Masha Gessen on how we define terrorism, I appreciate the debate and thoughtful context, as we try to bring clarity, accuracy, and fairness to our audience.

What are your thoughts? Do journalists get caught up in nonsensical hair-splitting word games, or are these debates important? Just click the comment button at www.MarkCurtisMedia.com.

 

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