Afghanistan Killer: Touched or Terrorist?

Over at Religion News Service, Omid Safi writes about how the recent horrific slaughter in Afghanistan by an American soldier reveals a journalistic double standard.

This individual is described as deranged, he notes, but Nidal Hassan, the Ft. Hood Shooter, was considered part of an Islamic conspiracy. While I concur with Safi in his analysis, I want to push the argument farther to discuss how journalists see themselves as part of a mainstream, which yields less nuanced stories.

In the wake of other such attacks we’ve seen debates on the way we label individuals in the American news media. For example, Newsweek famously went public with its debate about whether to call Austin suicide pilot Joe Stack a terrorist. Although many outlets were more willing to call Anders Breivik a terrorist, that sort of development was not universal.

The core issue is that journalists recognize themselves in people like Stack and Breivik. Like most journalists they are white and Christian, and it’s harder to look at someone like yourself and label them with words like “terrorist.” It implies that you could be that person, but for a twist of fate, or luck in who were born to.

If you say that person is deranged, the element of chance is still there, but there is little potential that you will become that person. It’s a more reserved form of reporting because the author recognizes himself in the subject. When it comes to people of color or of minority religions, like Muslims, there is no sense of a shared experience through a common humanity. That inherent difference of race or faith makes it easier for an author to say that it’s something about “those people” that causes them to act in this way.

Think about the way the murders in Afghanistan were discussed. We probably know the name of the suspect (I am purposefully not using it), but not one of his victims’ names. They have names too. We see this every summer: we know the name of every blonde, white girl who goes missing, but not one of any young girl of color. In this type of reporting, not only is the assailant excused, but the victim is forgotten. So the double standard that Safi mentions is part of human nature. There are two solutions. We need to see the humanity in each other as part of our being, certainly, but we also need more diverse and knowledgeable reporters.