"I know it when I see it" was the famous response by a U.S. Supreme Court justice to the vexed problem of defining pornography. Terrorism may be no less difficult to define, but the wanton killing of schoolchildren, of mourners at a funeral, or workers at their desks in skyscrapers surely fits the know-it-when-I-see-it definition.
The press, however, generally shies away from the word terrorist, preferring euphemisms. Take the assault that led to the deaths of some 400 people, many of them children, in Beslan, Russia, on September 3. Journalists have delved deep into their thesauruses, finding at least twenty euphemisms for terrorists:
- Assailants - National Public Radio.
- Attackers – the Economist.
- Bombers – the Guardian.
- Captors – the Associated Press.
- Commandos – Agence France-Presse refers to the terrorists both as "membres du commando" and "commando."
- Criminals - the Times (London).
- Extremists – United Press International.
- Fighters – the Washington Post.
- Group – the Australian.
- Guerrillas - in a New York Post editorial.
- Gunmen – Reuters.
- Hostage-takers - the Los Angeles Times.
- Insurgents – in a New York Times headline.
- Kidnappers – the Observer (London).
- Militants – the Chicago Tribune.
- Perpetrators – the New York Times.
- Radicals – the BBC.
- Rebels – in a Sydney Morning Herald headline.
- Separatists – the Christian Science Monitor.
And my favorite:
- Activists – the Pakistan Times.
The origins of this unwillingness to name terrorists seems to lie in the Arab-Israeli conflict, prompted by an odd combination of sympathy in the press for the Palestinian Arabs and intimidation by them. The sympathy is well known; the intimidation less so. Reuters' Nidal al-Mughrabi made the latter explicit in advice for fellow reporters in Gaza to avoid trouble on the Web site www.newssafety.com, where one tip reads: "Never use the word terrorist or terrorism in describing Palestinian gunmen and militants; people consider them heroes of the conflict."
The reluctance to call terrorists by their rightful name can reach absurd lengths of inaccuracy and apologetics. For example, National Public Radio's Morning Edition announced on April 1, 2004, that "Israeli troops have arrested 12 men they say were wanted militants." But CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, pointed out the inaccuracy here and NPR issued an on-air correction on April 26: "Israeli military officials were quoted as saying they had arrested 12 men who were 'wanted militants.' But the actual phrase used by the Israeli military was 'wanted terrorists.'"
(At least NPR corrected itself. When the Los Angeles Times made the same error, writing that "Israel staged a series of raids in the West Bank that the army described as hunts for wanted Palestinian militants," its editors refused CAMERA's request for a correction on the grounds that its change in terminology did not occur in a direct quotation.)
Metro, a Dutch paper, ran a picture on May 3, 2004, of two gloved hands belonging to a person taking fingerprints off a dead terrorist. The caption read: "An Israeli police officer takes fingerprints of a dead Palestinian. He is one of the victims (slachtoffers) who fell in the Gaza strip yesterday." One of the victims!
Euphemistic usage then spread from the Arab-Israeli conflict to other theaters. As terrorism picked up in Saudi Arabia such press outlets as The Times (London) and the Associated Press began routinely using militants in reference to Saudi terrorists. Reuters uses it with reference to Kashmir and Algeria.
Thus has militants become the press's default term for terrorists.
These self-imposed language limitations sometimes cause journalists to tie themselves into knots. In reporting the murder of one of its own cameraman, the BBC, which normally avoids the word terrorist, found itself using that term. In another instance, the search engine on the BBC website includes the word terrorist but the page linked to has had that word expurgated.
Politically-correct news organizations undermine their credibility with such subterfuges. How can one trust what one reads, hears, or sees when the self-evident fact of terrorism is being semi-denied?
Worse, the multiple euphemisms for terrorist obstruct a clear understanding of the violent threats confronting the civilized world. It is bad enough that only one of five articles discussing the Beslan atrocity mentions its Islamist origins; worse is the miasma of words that insulates the public from the evil of terrorism.
The story, of course, did not end here: I provide many updates and other examples at "More on "They're Terrorists – Not Activists."
Dec. 13, 2007 update: A father in the Toronto area allegedly murders his daughter because she refused to wear a hijab - rather different from the Beslan massacre, but a similar inhibition overtakes the press, as Michelle Malkin and Mark Steyn point out. My impressionistic impression is that this sort of evasive reporting is on the increase.