Mass Shootings and the Media: What Is Terrorism?

Mass Shootings and the Media: What Is Terrorism?

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Following the shooting that claimed 14 lives in San Bernardino, Calif., reporters asked Police Chief Jarrod Burguan twice about the suspects' "ethnicity" and once about their "nationality."

Burguan did not answer those questions during a press conference Wednesday evening after the alleged assailants were killed in a shoot out with officers. Hours later, law enforcement officials released the supposed shooters' names — Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik.

A variation of Farouk's name had been circling in the conservative blogasphere after it was heard on a police scanner. The "Arabic-sounding" name fueled anti-Arab and Muslim sentiments hours before the actual name was officially released. As of Thursday morning, police said the motive of the attack remains unknown.

Anticipation surrounding the identity of the suspects on Wednesday was directly linked to one question: Is it terrorism?

Five days earlier, Robert L. Dear Jr. killed three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs. Police said he rambled about "baby parts" during the rampage. Dear, described as "deeply religious," seemed to have a political agenda against abortions. But few in the mainstream media described him as a terrorist.

In progressive circles, Dear was called a terrorist. But mainstream media dismissed the "terrorism" charge early on.

Dear's "white privilege" spared him the label, comedian and activist Amer Zahr said.

What is terrorism?


In San Bernardino, the terrorism question surfaced almost immediately after the shooting.

According to a New York Times report, there have been 209 mass shootings that killed or injured four or more people so far this year.

The federal government defines terrorism as violence intended to intimidate a civilian population; or acts aimed at influencing government policies by coercion.

The U.S. Code cites mass destruction, assassination and kidnapping for political motives on American soil as examples of domestic terrorism.

However, in the media and even sometimes in the legal realm, terrorism is perceived exclusively as Islamist jihadism and linked to the assailants' race and religion.

After the Paris terrorist attacks last month, Fox News' Shannon Bream wondered about the attackers' skin color.

On Wednesday, Fox News contributor Rod Wheeler ruled out the possibility of terrorism in the ‎San Bernardino‬ shooting because "typically if it's a terrorist activity, or a terrorist attack, they're going holler out 'Allahu Akbar' or something."

On social media, activists and academics noted the connection between the terrorism label and the attackers' race and religion.

"Hopefully we will find out the color of the suspects' skin soon so we can determine whether the shooting in #SanBernadino is terrorism or not," tweeted Farid Senzai, a political science professor at the University of Santa Clara.

Shortly after the name of the male suspect became public, anti-Muslim social media users started making statements against the faith and its followers.

A Twitter user published a photo of the Quran captioned, "The motive has been found."

Farook is a U.S. citizen. He worked as an environmental health specialist for San Bernardino County. He and his wife, Malik, carried out the shooting at Inland Regional Center, where county employees were having a Christmas party.

"White privilege"

"MUSLIM KILLERS," read the main headline on the New York Post's front page Thursday morning.
Zahr, the comedian, said the "Muslimness" of Muslim criminals is always given as a reason behind their actions, but white criminals are not defined by their "whiteness."

"When an Arab or a Muslim is a criminal, terrorism becomes the buzz word instantly, and the entire community is held responsible," he said.

Zahr said in the white community, the best are seen as representing the community, while the worst are seen as lone actors. The reverse is true for Muslims, he added.

"That's the epitome of white privilege," he said.

Zahr said police also respond differently to attacks depending on the skin color of those involved.

He noted that police bought Dylann Roof a hamburger but shot Laquan McDonald 16 times and tried to cover it up.

Roof is a white supremacist who killed nine African Americans at a church in Charleston, S.C., in April.

McDonald is a black teenager, who was killed by the cops in Chicago last year.

Dawud Walid, executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Michigan, said white criminals who engage in violence have been largely immune to being labeled terrorists, even if their actions fit the legal definition of terrorism.

Walid noted Roof, Dylann and Joe Stack, who flew his small plane into an IRS building in Austin, Texas, as politically motivated attackers, who escaped the charge of terrorism.

"Terrorism has never been framed as a white Christian phenomenon in our country's collective consciousness," he said.

Walid said it is "mind-boggling" that the recent Colorado shooting was not called terrorism by the media.

He said pundits should not jump into conclusions about the San Bernardino shooters' motive based on their faith.

The CAIR-MI director warned of a possible backlash against the Muslim community after the tragedy in San Bernardino.

"We condemn the violence that takes place in our country regardless of who does the shooting and who are the victims," Walid said.

He urged Muslim centers to increase safety precautions during Friday prayers. Walid also asked Muslim women to be careful because of recent increase in verbal and physical assaults against women who wear the hijab.

Brian Stone, a Dearborn candidate for the State House, also encouraged members of the community to report "right wing threats."

He condemned the New York Posts' "MUSLIM KILLERS" headline, saying such reporting "cost human lives."

"Muslim Americans are targeted for hate crimes because of rhetoric like this," Stone said.

Zahr said the word "terrorism" is now a racial slur.

"The media is the biggest enabler of Islamophobia," he added.