We can argue whether Mark Anthony Conditt is a terrorist or not. Certainly his 3 week bombing spree across Austin terrorized the city. But so did Charles Manson’s killing spree and Jack the Ripper’s. Serial murder is not necessarily an act of terrorism, though it obviously can be.
The US Department of Defense defines terrorism as “the calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological.” Conditt had clear religious and political beliefs, but he didn’t proclaim any political, religious or social goals during the time of the murders or on his confession video. Rather he claimed to be a psychopath and is described as a disturbed young man. He probably wasn’t a terrorist, and the media is right not to call him one.
But what would their response have been if he was a disturbed young man named Mahmoud who happened to be a Muslim who had political views critical of our government’s actions in the Middle East? Even if he didn’t proclaim his acts were in support of ISIS, can there be any doubt he’d have been labelled a terrorist simply because of his identity?
This disparity certainly played out with Dylan Roof who killed nine African Americans at the historically black Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. He did have a stated social and political goal — to start a race war. Still he wasn’t labelled a terrorist by the news media, with a few notable exceptions. Imagine if Dylan’s name had been Daoud and he’d killed nine Christians, black or white, to start a jihad in America. There’s no doubt under those circumstances he would have been labelled a terrorist, coverage would have blanketed the news media day and night, and rightly so.
Indeed, Jim Naureckas of FAIR studied news coverage of the Boston Marathon Bombing and the Charleston Church Massacre, and found newspapers were approximately one-fifth as likely to refer to terrorism in their reports on the Charleston massacre as they were in their first-day coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing— even though the racial and political motivation in Charleston was clear, while no one was sure what was happening in Boston or why for days.
Does it Really Matter?
CNN asks if it matters whether we describe someone as a terrorist or not, concluding that, “At the end of the day, does it really matter if something is or isn’t labeled a hate crime or an act of terror? The pain and anguish felt by the survivors of such violence and the victims’ families is just as unbearable — no matter what you call it.”
CNN is right, but they are also completely wrong. When the news media jump to label any act of violence by a Muslim an act of terror, and decline to use the same labels for criminals who happen to be white or christian, they give the false impression that only Muslims are terrorists. In reality, according to a 2016 Center for Investigative Reporting study, there were nearly twice as many domestic terrorist attacks and plots as Al Qaeda or ISIS-inspired incidents between 2008 and 2016. But the media hesitate to call domestic terrorism out, making Muslims out as the only bad guys.
Furthermore, acts of terror by Muslims get huge amounts of coverage compared to similar acts committed by non-Muslims. Take the case of Curtis Allen, Gavin Wright, and Patrick Eugene Stein. Who, you might ask? Three domestic terrorists from Kansas who’s trial for a plot to bomb an apartment complex where Somali refugees lived and prayed began this week. Why, you might wonder, have I never even heard of these people? If three Muslims had conspired to blow up dozens of innocent people in an apartment building in Kansas, it would be national news, and their trial would merit weeks of painstaking discussion. To be fair, the capture of the Austin bomber may have diverted media attention. But, in a similar case, the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev trial got intense media coverage even though it happened just as the Charleston Church Massacre took place.Couple the inaccurate labeling with weeks of analysis and “experts” suggesting more and more extreme responses to the jihadi threat, hidden terrorist cells, lone wolves inspired by ISIS, and the plot to overthrow the American government, and you’ve created the perception that not only are we under far greater threat from Muslim terrorists than domestic terrorists, but also that the threat is present and imminent. When incidents of domestic violence are not followed by days of similar analysis, when we don’t learn about the threat of christian militias or white supremacist groups with the same sense of urgency, and what we as a country need to do to keep ourselves safe from such groups and individuals, and you’ve created an atmosphere where unjustified suspicion, fear and hatred of Muslims grows rampant, and other, just as real threats remain unknown and ignored.
Yeah, But Does it Really Matter?
Put it all together, and, yes, this inequity has real repercussions. It puts American Muslims in danger. Increased hatred of Muslims, leads to more crime against us. In fact, hate crimes against Muslims have surged in recent years, with Muslims experiencing hate crimes at greater rates than other groups. And much of this barely registers in the public awareness. While there are celebrated cases such as the two good Samaritans who were killed when they intervened on behalf of a Muslim girl who was being harassed, many incidents receive only the most cursory of coverage. And, of course, the irony in this well-known case is it wasn’t Muslims killed, but two white guys trying to help the Muslims, pushing deadly crimes against Muslims even further into the shadows.
Hate crimes are not the only problem. Verbal and physical harassment has also soared, with Muslims experiencing more discrimination than any other religious group in America. Some 60% of Muslim Americans saying they have experienced discrimination. Nearly twice as many Muslim school kids report being bullied because of their faith as Jewish and Christian kids.
But can we really lay all that at the foot of the media? Of course, if no Muslim anywhere ever committed a crime, we’d be much better off. Politicians carry a lot of blame, too. Their Islamophobic rhetoric is viewed knowledgeable and more trustworthy, since they have access to classified information.
But Studies have shown that extensive watching of media coverage of traumatic events leads to greater activation of fear responses and levels of stress congruent with PTSD. In fact, people who watch several hours a day of coverage of an event like the Boston Bombing or the Sandy Hook massacre become more stressed out than people who were actually on the scene or who have loved ones directly affected by the incident. In essence, the terror comes more from the media coverage than the actual act of violence, and to boot, people who watch all that coverage are more likely to act out in response.