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Column: Use ‘terrorist’ label carefully

11 June 2012 General 70 Comments Email This Post Email This Post
Analyzing the t-word: A law professor asks in a new research paper, "Were Timothy McVeigh and the Unabomber the Only White Terrorists?"

Analyzing the t-word: A law professor asks in a new research paper, "Were Timothy McVeigh and the Unabomber the Only White Terrorists?"

By Tom Krattenmaker, USATODAY.COM

Real-life scenario No. 1: A man with a weapon strides into a military medical office in Texas and opens fire, killing 13 people and wounding 29 before he is stopped and taken into custody. In the ensuing news media coverage and public discussion, the incident is widely viewed as an act of terrorism.

Real-life scenario No. 2: A man with a weapon shows up at a public gathering inside a supermarket in Arizona and opens fire, killing six (including a U.S. district judge) and wounding 13 (including a member of the U.S. House of Representatives) before he is stopped and arrested. In the ensuing media coverage and public discussion, the incident is generally not characterized as terrorism.

The difference? In the first scenario — the 2009 Fort Hood shootings — the perpetrator, Nidal Hasan, was a Muslim of Palestinian ancestry. In the second — the 2011 Tucson shootings that left Rep. Gabrielle Giffords gravely wounded — the perpetrator, Jared Loughner, was non-Muslim and white.

So it goes, according to new research by a terrorism prosecutions expert in Portland, Ore., when it comes to public perception of what constitutes terrorism. An analysis by law school professor Tung Yin of Lewis & Clark (the college where I work) reveals that race and religion strongly color portrayals of terrorism, to the point where crimes of a similar pattern — political motivation, mass destruction, indiscriminate killing, etc. — tend to be characterized differently in this country when the perpetrators are Muslim or of Arab descent.

This matters. “Terrorist,” after all, is the mother of all damning labels in this post-9/11 age. And beyond politics and public relations, ideas about what constitutes terrorism and who commits it can have a significant effect on law enforcement and court outcomes. It’s a term that needs to be used with care — and consistency.

Listening to Yin review cases of actual and intended violence, one is struck by how the term “terrorist” has been conspicuously absent from public discourse about some high-profile incidents of recent years.

No white terrorists?

Here in Oregon, a father-son team, Bruce and Joshua Turnidge, are on death row for planting a bomb that killed two police officers in a bank in 2008. Prosecutors portrayed the pair as bigots who hated the government. Terrorists? Not if most news media accounts are to serve as our guide. Yin finds the same dynamic in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal coverage of the arrests of five men (all Caucasian and non-Muslim) in Cleveland this spring in a plot to bomb a bridge. Are the alleged Cleveland plotters terrorists? Not if the words of most investigators and reporters are any indication.

Not to say that non-Muslim whites never get tagged as terrorists. Yin notes that two notorious bombers in recent (but pre-9/11) U.S. history have worn the label —Timothy McVeigh and the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski. You would search in vain, however, for other non-Muslim perpetrators of mass violence in this country who have been similarly branded.

As Yin asks (rhetorically) in the title of his study, “Were Timothy McVeigh and the Unabomber the Only White Terrorists?” (The study has been accepted for publication in a juried law review and is available online at the Social Science Research Network.) Clearly, McVeigh and Kaczynski are not the only white terrorists — not if that loaded term is to be used precisely and responsibly.

Get it right

Getting this right is important for a host of reasons. As many have argued (present company included), subjecting all American Muslims to terrorism-related stereotypes and suspicions is unfair and unwise. Bear in mind that the term “terrorist” is legally significant, too. If perpetrators of violence and their abettors are proved to operate out of terrorist intentions, sentences can go up in federal cases and in some state courts.

As Yin argues, “There are real costs imposed on society when terrorism becomes branded with Islam: Cognitive biases against Muslims become more potent; investigators risk losing the trail of non-Muslim perpetrators when they fixate reflexively on Muslims; and worst of all, some government officials, aware of the biases and concerned about appearing anti-Muslim, may overcompensate by deliberately ignoring specific ‘red flags’ about Muslim individuals.”

Yes, the overcompensation problem. Those who defend American Muslims are tempted at times to obscure the religious and terrorist angles when Muslims do perpetrate violence; this, to protect Muslims from reprisals and reduce the potency of such incidents as fodder for anti-Muslim politics. Such a dynamic was evident in the way some tried to downplay the fact that Nidal Hasan, the man charged in the Fort Hood shooting, is a Muslim and did spew violent jihadist rhetoric on the Internet.

If the religion dimension helps identify a suspect, and if the t-word helps law enforcement and the public understand the nature of an act of mass violence, its use is justified. If the label fits, apply it. But fairly, please.

Tom Krattenmaker is a writer specializing in religion in public life and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.

Original post: Column: Use ‘terrorist’ label carefully


  1. If the violent persons express a philosophy they should be called terrorist. if like Jared they express mostly insanity, then not.

  2. i dont like white people

  3. We established long ago that there are and have always been white terrorists. (in fact the american patriots were considered terroroists during the revolutionary war). My concern is, who the hell was he able to get into a MILITARY medical office and with a weapon and cause injury or death to 42 people before being stopped.
    My summary: Military fail.

  4. white terrorists founded this country after all and tried to exterminate its inhabitants

  5. Peter-why you dont like white people? well, some white people are nice and very cool.

  6. Why are we distinguishing the difference between Whites and Blacks? This very act is considered racism.

  7. I saw this a while ago and was wondering when it would be posted. lol
    Seriously though, anyone trying to inspire fear or terror is a ‘terrorist’ in my opinion, like with those flashlight bombs in AZ.

  8. Prophet Muhammad peace be on him said in his last speech: “Don’t perfer a white man over a black man, and don’t perfer a black man over a white man.” Problem solved.

  9. the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes.
    the state of fear and submission produced by terrorism or terrorization.

  10. Anyone who uses violence and threats to intimidate or ocoerce is, by definition employing terrorism – religion or race have nothing to do with it.

  11. The first ‘terrorist’ on record, was a Frenchman, but if you want to know about white American terrorists, look no further than Cuba: apparently the CIA was behind most of the 600+ assassination attempts on Fidel Castro alone, let alone the numerous bombings of hotels harbors and The 1976 bombing of Cubana flight 455!

  12. White People are the ORIGINAL TERRORIST!! The Murder, Rape and Displacement of the NATIVE AMERICANS (And they called them SAVAGES). Murders and Rapes and Enslavement of AFRICANS. They are THE MOST VILE of Ethnicities EVER!

  13. The first terrorists were the Jews king david hotel bombing killing innocent British citizens.

  14. The first terrorists were the Jews king david hotel bombing killing innocent British citizens.

  15. Timothy McVeigh reminds me that there are a large number of my fellow white people that disgust me!

  16. Ahmed Mohamed,

    the god of abraham is clearly the first terrorist. you know being the alpha and omega and all. and killing the poor eqyptian baby boys as they slept to effectuate a change in the political stance of the pharaoh.

    Book 019, Number 4321:

    It is reported on the authority of Sa’b b. Jaththama that the Prophet of Allah (may peace be upon him), when asked about the women and children of the polytheists being killed during the night raid, said: They are from them.

  17. The problem is not solved if the words aren’t followed. That is part of the problem – waving scripture and announcing that all problems are thus solved.

    The fort hood debacle was like many another: crowds of people saying there is something going wrong with that person and nobody doing anything. Not sure, but official complaining in the military might be a sticky undertaking. Also, rampant PC going on, and the US tradition that everyone can have their say, no matter what it is.

  18. peace,

    “problem solved”. so muhammad solved racism but chose not to address slavery. or rather allah chose not to end slavery.

    Volume 3, Book 46, Number 711:

    Narrated Jabir bin ‘Abdullah:

    A man amongst us declared that his slave would be freed after his death. The Prophet called for that slave and sold him. The slave died the same year.

  19. Colin Wan Strivelli,

    “My concern is, who the hell was he able to get into a MILITARY medical office and with a weapon and cause injury or death to 42 people before being stopped.
    My summary: Military fail.”

    he worked there. are you living under a rock?. or are YOU a fucking moron.

    “Army reserve Captain John Gaffaney attempted to stop Hasan by charging him, but was mortally wounded before he could reach him.[22] Civilian physician assistant Michael Cahill also tried to charge Hasan with a chair, but was shot and killed.”
    Military fail. really, we live in an open society and appearently despite this website’s assertion that every american views every muslim as a terrorist. it looks like his fellow soldiers let their guard down.

  20. Anyone can be a terrorist, irrespective of race.

  21. Just look at the sitting members of Congress..Terrorist are gaining more power and will destroy the country to get their twisted ways.

  22. two words- Oklahoma City.

  23. Whites are not vile. Blacks are not vile. No race is vile. Every race just has vile people. By tagging terrorist on to any race or ethnicity you are doing exactly what you hate to see happen. Realize that no entire religion or culture is bad. Generalization is the bane of cultural diffusion and equality.

  24. Very well stated Roman. Thanks for putting it so clearly!

  25. Terrorism was started by the Christian crusaders in the middle ages.

  26. Mcveigh : Militant Christian.

  27. mohamed abu the crusaders were Catholics NOT Christians. these are 2 different belief systems although no muslim seems to grasp that fact. Time to delete this page its just another forum for hate mongers to spew their racism and rhetorical venom. really it is so childish.

  28. Excuse me Roman your comment is not the normal hate speech I read here. Well stated and very true.

  29. McVeigh was not a Christian he was an atheist.

    I’m pretty sure the all-white KKK could be considered a terrorist group. Though they have been out of the lynching and bombing business for the most part since the 1960s.

  30. Ameena-Catholics are Christian. Why do you say they are not? Never understood that(fyi, I am not Catholic.)

    At the time of the Cursades, they, and the Orthodox churches, were the Christians, there were no Protestants. Most mainline Protestant churches can trace their heritage back to the Catholic church.

  31. Ameena-Catholics are Christian. Why do you say they are not? Never understood that(fyi, I am not Catholic.)

    At the time of the Cursades, they, and the Orthodox churches, were the Christians, there were no Protestants. Most mainline Protestant churches can trace their heritage back to the Catholic church.

  32. The use of violence against civilians to achieve political goals, or to intimidate, has existed as long as there have been humans on earth. One only needs to look at the pictures of mass crucifiction and heads impaled on poles (in any ancient history book) to see that.
    Race, religion, and ethnicity needs to be left out of it.

  33. A religion is only for you alone not for your society… Does Muslim do that ? No!!
    Do you think they are peaceful “Not All” because their religion tells them that ?
    They are peaceful because they are week. Like Muhammad said only make truth with your enemies when you are weaker…

  34. McVeigh was linked to Islam

  35. Terrorism is a tactic. Islam is very fond of this tactic, and uses it daily! And why not? – Muslims who terrorize are following the example of the prophet Mohammad – a man who incorporated terror tactics into his daily life. So, sure terrorism does not HAVE a religion , but Islam sure does use terrorism religiously.

  36. Ain’t it great how McVeigh is always paraded as PROOF that not all terrorists are Muslim. Yep that one guy pretty much evens out the playing field against over 19,000 + attacks made in the name of Islam since 9/11. Get a clue! Oh and Mc Veigh has Islamic ties so there goes your ONE lame example.

  37. Yes, It has been proven Tim McVeigh was involved with and visited Islamic terrorist cells in Indonesia prior to OKC bombing // .

  38. Islam’s sharia calls for the extermination of all Jews. One wonders if all you people who scream “Islamaphobia” would be just as understanding if the Muslims started wearing swastikas. Mohammad raped a 9 year old girl. In today’s society, he wouldn’t be a prophet, he’d be a level 3 sex offender.

  39. I posted a comment on that site as well Susan. Funny how it said it will be moderated before being published. I asked if they would be as politically correct if the Muslims wore swastikas and said that after raping a 9 year old, Mohammad today would not be a prophet but a level 3 sex offender. Let’s see if they publish that one.

  40. Fuck yourself wael,Your head is up your indian curry powder ass

  41. loooool @ McVeigh having “islamic ties” LOLLLL you are delusional. The dude allegedly refused to accept Islam while incarcerated. Quit trolling, please.

  42. Frank Janosko – interesting you say this, because in actuality, Muhammad was a man who married. Not sure if you know the meaning of this word or its implications, but you clearly have no regard for cultural or societal contexts when understanding Islamic history, or better yet, anything historical!. Your attempts to discredit the authority of Muhammad and/or his message are invalid, and it’s quite clear that you’re simply out on a mission of character assassination. Quit babbling your garbage, and find a better hobby.

  43. clearly there are plenty of examples of non-muslim terrorist. eta, ira, elf/alf, shining path, farc, tamil tigers, the list goes on and on. the question is, why is it so prevalent within islam? especially if islam is “the religion of peace”? even if you exclude iraq, afghanistan and the palestinian territories. there are bombings, some suicide bombings across the islamic world on a monthly basis. maybe even weekly.

  44. James why you are so offensive ?
    Doesn’t Islam tells you to respect others ?

  45. Ohh I forgot Islam doesn’t respect other XD no problem bro my bad 🙂

  46. Oh yes, trolls, because white people can do no wrong unless they worship brown people, right?

    fuck. off. racists.

  47. James, unfortunately Wael happens to be Arab. A self-hating Arab. There’s plenty that came before him, Walid Shoebat, Brigitte Gabrial, Nonie Darwish, those Phalangists, Benny Hinn, and many, many others.

    I keep telling these wankers that acting white will not affect their skin color but they don’t listen. They just keep on shoveling the stupid.

  48. Hey Frank thats right, the prophet didn’t rape Aisha because they were married. He married her when she was six. He waited till she was 9 to have sex. It’s not really rape BUT because oif his example, little girls are robbed of their childhoods to this day and married off to older men. In modern times, this is pretty sick.

  49. The Crusades were retaliation for years of living in Islamic Dhimmitude.

  50. Walid Shoebat, Brigitte Gabrial, Nonie Darwish do not want to be white. They just want to be free. Benny Hinn is an ass hat. We can agree on that.

  51. Just wondering – what is “Islamophobia”? And also wondering if the people behind the “Americans Against Islamophobia” site are also prepared to speak out against the widespread and violent global phenomenon of “kaffirphobia”? More people, including many Muslims, are killed by kaffirphobia than by Islamophobia….

  52. Peter Saraceno i dont like white people – what a dumb and racist comment.

  53. Benny Hinn is an ass hat. Yes. But what of his wife, who declared people needed a “Holy Ghost enema”? She is worse than Hinn.

  54. OHHH, he was MARRIED to the 9 year old. That’s a different story. Here I was thinking he was just your run-of-the-mill pedophile when in fact he was just a kidnapping, child molesting kook who heard voices. We had one of those here in America named David Koresh.

  55. Another one of those kooks kidnapped Elizabeth Smart. I’m sure there are a lot of pedophiles that worship him as well and would like to follow his example, but unfortunately for him, his only preaching will be done from a jail cell.

  56. Mohammad was the biggest bigot in history. Mohammad was a vile, misogynist, greedy, violent, madman. His “religion” is a sham but yet so many weak minded people follow it, resulting in a huge population of ignorant racist, bigots. Insanity at its best

  57. You have that pedophile look, too Frank. I mean it, you really do.

  58. Ignorant racist bigots? Really Andrea? Three words: Pot. Kettle. Black.

  59. Damn…all the trolls come out at once!!! Did you guys all break out of the looney bin and take over the library?

  60. Funny how the trolls’ comments are “liked” only by the other trolls. You guys suck and you know it.

  61. Adrian, Islamophobia is a word the Muslim Brotherhood invented to silence honest or critical discussion of Islam. There’s really more Islamophelia going on in America.

  62. Zainab, this is just too easy and I feel like a bully. You clearly know nothing about the ideology that you defend. I recommend that you learn. Read the Hadiths, they are easier to make sense of, Bukhari is good. When you learn about Islam you may feel ashamed of yourself for defending such cruel insanity but don’t. Just make sure you teach the next young thing who thinks it’s really kewl to deride “Islamophobes”. The first victims of Islam are Muslims, particularly muslim women. Try to help them. Don’t defend the sickness that keeps them imprisoned.

  63. Go trolls! Such a crappy notion to call a collection of one-sided propagandist opinion pieces – – an “enewspaper”. Newspapers should be about news…. not trying to equate, as in this case, the actions of one looney tune against the THOUSANDS of terrorist actions annually carried out in the name of Islam. Globally Islam has the problem in relation to its treatment of non-Muslims (see Sura 9:29), and anyone who is concerned enough to question the term “Islamophobia” can be called a “troll”? The fact that you have to bolster up your damaged egos with such rubbish shows that you CANNOT HANDLE THE TRUTH. Islam is being used as an excuse for terrorism globally. If you have to bring up Timothy McVeigh as a counterargument to the terrorism carried out in the name of Islam, then in the grand scheme of life, teh promoters of “Islamophobiatoday” are the REAL TROLLS.

  64. Talking of trolls – Zainab – do you live under a bridge and frighten goats?

  65. Oh Zainab – your ad hominems are pathetic, and no substitute for a proper argument….

  66. And really, if you want to attack Frank because of his looks…. a touch of living in glass houses, I think…..

  67. why do these trolls come by the hoards? and fyi susan muslims believe the Quran to be the divine book not the hadiths. the hadits r comparable to the bible. which has changed and contradicts itself many times. so in layman’s terms not all hadits r authentic. only the quran is.

  68. oh and the muslim women Gallup polls is talking about don’t seem helpless or imprisoned.

    “The report also reveals that Muslim American women are one of the most highly educated female religious groups in the United States, second only to Jewish American women.”

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