From the Archives: Boston Globe Ombudsman on “Who is a Terrorist?”

In the days  before I knew either what a blog was, or fisking was, at the height of the second intifada (aka. the Oslo War), I fisked a piece by the Boston Globe’s ombudsman, Christine Chinlund. The article came to mind recently because a colleague here at the IKGF in Erlangen mentioned that some “experts” were claiming that the serial murders of immigrants to Germany by a neo-Nazi group should not be labeled “terrorism” because they didn’t seek to publicize their deeds (i.e., to spread the terror) or recruit.

He noted: “such narrow minded discussions must be a slap in the face of the bereaved.” Chinlund alludes to the feelings of the Jewish community in 2002 when she calls their policy of not calling Hamas a “terrorist organization” a policy that “infuriates some.”

This reminded by of Chinlund’s piece, and I realized I had never posted my fisking at my blog. So here it is, as preparation for a posting on the issue of using the term terrorism for the Daily Telegraph. I welcome contributions from anyone who has examples of the problem here delineated (e.g., what happened to the BBC after the terror attacks of 7-7, 2005).

The ombudsperson of the Globe yesterday produced what must be the single clearest statement of what is wrong with our media’s approach to the middle east.


Author(s): CHRISTINE CHINLUND Date: September 8, 2003 Page: A15 Section: Op-Ed


Who should wear the `terrorist’ label?

By Christine Chinlund, 9/8/2003

WITH THIS WEEK’S 9/11 anniversary comes reflection on all that has changed these past two years. Even our language has shifted; the word terrorism itself casts a different shadow. It has always, of course, been a powerfully negative label. But post-9/11 the word’s potency has multiplied. In the current climate, the terrorist tag effectively banishes its holder from the political arena. More than ever, it condemns rather than describes.

Actually, it describes and condemns. Not to use terror in the case of a terrorist group – i.e., one that deliberately targets civilians as a basic tactic – is actually mis-describing. The value judgments are up to the public readership: it is not for the papers to “manage” the public’s perceptions.

Indeed, newspapers must be doubly careful about how they apply the word. Sparing use is the norm. For example, the Palestinian organization Hamas, whose suicide bombers maim and kill Israeli citizens, is routinely described in the Globe and other papers as a “militant,” not terrorist, group.

Given that Hamas has introduced the “suicide bombing” as a religious duty, a practice that specifically targets civilians, including women and children, such a “sparing” norm is actually disinformation.

Such restraint infuriates some Middle East partisans (most often, but not exclusively, supporters of Israel) who say it sugarcoats reality and that any group targeting civilians is terrorist. I receive regular demands to, as a Chelmsford reader put it, “stop misleading readers with terminology that affords terrorists a false degree of legitimacy.”

What possible reason is there for not unflinchingly applying the word terrorist to any organization or person who targets civilians? It may seem like hair-splitting, but there’s a reason to reserve the terrorist label for specific acts of violence, and not apply it broadly to groups.

To tag Hamas, for example, as a terrorist organization is to ignore its far more complex role in the Middle East drama. The word reflects not only a simplification, but a bias that runs counter to good journalism. To label any group in the Middle East as terrorist is to take sides, or at least appear to, and that is not acceptable. The same holds true in covering other far-flung conflicts. One person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter; it’s not for journalists to judge.

Such statements reflect, apparently, the author’s belief that she speaks for many (her job), and that those many all share certain self-evident assertions, assertions like, a) to label a group terrorist is to “take sides” and b) even to appear to take sides is “not acceptable.”  Both of these assumptions should be examined precisely in the context of terrorism.  Is it somehow anti-Palestinian to denounce the presence among them of terrible groups who teach hatred and plot the destruction of another people?  Is it working against the Palestinians to point out to the readers that Palestinians have to live with some profoundly violent and fascist forces in their midst?  And on what basis do we wish to avoid even “seeming” to “take sides”?

That said, journalists can not, and should not, be blind to reality. When we see terrorism, we should say so. A suicide bombing on a crowded bus is clearly an act of terrorism and should be so labeled. And it should also be described in all its painful detail. Such reporting is more powerful in its specificity than any broad label.

Nice try. Actually, by cleaning up Hamas’ reputation by referring to it as “militant” (when all its militance is terror), and only using it in the (obvious) case of a terror attack, your reporting is considerably less powerful, one might even say, “watered down.”

This approach — call the act terrorist, but not the organization — is used in many newsrooms, including the Globe’s. It allows for variations: The terrorist label can appear in a quote or when detailing Washington’s official list of terrorist groups. But not in the reporter’s own voice.

The wisdom of this approach is, understandably, the subject of renewed debate in the wake of the recent, horrible bus bombing in Jerusalem that killed 21 people. There are good arguments on both sides. But I cast my lot with those who believe the current approach — perhaps imperfect and a bit contrived — best serves accuracy and impartiality, at least for now. It is a necessary accommodation in a complicated world.

Perhaps if the Globe had a major feature on the teaching of genocidal hate in Hamas and the bombing as a natural, desired result of that preaching, then they could use whatever adjectives they want to describe the organization. Instead the Globe, like NPR, like so many new outlets, prefers to put the suicide bombing (long in the planning) in the context of the “recent crackdown” of Israeli forces on Palestinians in the territories.

“The overall approach here is to describe events and present facts rather than to attach labels to individuals or groups,” notes Globe editor Martin Baron. “We particularly seek to avoid hot-button language that has become associated with a point of view . . .”

This of course is impossible in journalism which must communicate the most information possible with the terms it uses.  If the language with which journalists were so deliberately bland as to not inform its readers with one word that they were speaking about – the words or actions of organizations that preach the targeting of civilians – then we would be (and are) a desperately misinformed public.

Baron notes that Middle East coverage is a special concern for many readers. He acknowledges the view of supporters of Israel who “believe we should use the term `terrorist’ to describe militant Palestinian groups that encourage or carry out horrific suicide bombings against civilians” — and of Palestinians and their backers who “argue that theirs is a legitimate struggle over land and freedom . . . (and) that Israeli military killings of Palestinian civilians should be properly portrayed as `state terrorism.’ ”

Palestinians have every right to argue “that theirs is a legitimate struggle over land and freedom . . .”  And we have every right to respond: terrorism and freedom fighting are not mutually exclusive categories. You can be both, and the Palestinian groups who commit terror are precisely that.”

It also seems appropriate to say that no cause that targets civilians as a central tactic can claim to be a legitimate struggle over land and freedom. No freedom will result from such illegitimate means. Indeed the history of freedom tells us that groups that use terrorism liberally rarely if ever bring freedom when they take power: on the contrary, like the Soviets, they are much more likely to institute totalitarianism.  If we don’t owe it to the Israelis to make these points, at least we owe it to the Palestinians, who must live under the thumb of such violent hatemongers.

The debate, he says, is complicated by the fact that some militant Palestinian groups also perform some social service functions.

This breathtaking.  Hamas’ “more complex” role in the Middle East drama?!  What about this organization makes it particularly complex from this point of view?  That it invokes the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as a warrant for destroying Israel completely and a hadith about “the rocks and trees” to call for genocide against the Jews?  That it uses its schools and mosques (its social functions) to teach hate and spread anti-semitic lies that would make the Nazis stand up and take notice? That its political and religious ideology demand terrorism as a response to not getting everything they want?   That until it has been either transformed or eliminated and certainly disarmed, there will be no peace in the middle east?  What runs counter to good journalism in reporting on a terrorist group in all its aspects, and cutting through the PR that tries to hide terrorism behind community work?  On the contrary, no group more deserves the title terrorist than Hamas.

This brings us back to ombudsman Chinlund, who argues that we all understand that we must avoid even seeming to take sides.  Behind such concerns apparently lies a world of “hot-button” issues that “we’d rather avoid.”  The trump argument here seems to be, “Who are we to decide?”

I would argue the opposite.  Who are we not to decide.  Neutrality might be appropriate if we were talking about a really difficult aspect of the problem, some subtle issue of great complexity.  But we’re not.  We’re dealing with the simplest most basic issues of respect for human life.  Targeting civilians is just unacceptable to the civilized world. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to realize that.  And if an organization does target civilians (in a particularly sadistic way, a journalist might note), takes credit for it, defends it, why on earth would it matter if such organizations “also perform some social service functions”?  Is that not all the more horrific and illegitimate?  That people capable of such depravity would be able to teach young children to hate under the guise of social services?  And doesn’t your readership deserve the decency of access to such information?

Certainly, as the Palestinian advocates claim, there is such a thing as “state terrorism,” and totalitarian states like the Khmer Rouge and the Baath party are guilty of it. But why would we want to dilute the meaning of terrorism by applying it to the Israelis when no army extant — and certainly no Arab army — has sacrificed as many of its own men to save the lives of enemy civilians?  Do we accede to such a facetious argument about Israeli terrorism in order not to seem like we’re taking sides? How craven, or rather, how limply imbecilic do our journalists have to be before they can feel they’re “even-handed”?

Best, he says, to avoid attaching labels to either side, instead providing “accurate, fair and honest accounts of specific news events.” That includes calling suicide bombings “acts of terror” and “terror attacks.” (The Globe also routinely points out the State Department designation of Palestinian groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad as terrorist organizations.)

The Globe practice, says Baron, is to evaluate each story individually. In the “relatively rare” instances where the terrorism label is used broadly, he says, “it has been applied to groups that have no clearly identifiable or explicitly articulated political objective.”

Huh? That’s one of the key elements in defining terrorism.

Count Al Qaeda as one of those exceptions. In the Globe and elsewhere, it’s called a “terrorist network” — which prompts critics to argue, anew, that if Al Qaeda is a terrorist organization so is (fill the blank).

It’s difficult, given that the definition of Al Qaeda in the United States is almost solely based on the 9/11 attacks, to imagine seeing it as anything else. A more precise definition — “a radical Islamist network that employs violence against innocents” — trumps “terrorist” on grounds of specificity, but it ignores one of our most profound national experiences, 9/11. Given Al Qaeda’s self-definition and its large-scale embrace of terrorism, it has proven itself an allowable exception.

How pathetically Americano-centric. You don’t think Israelis have had a profound national experience since the outbreak of the Oslo War in September 2000? What ever happened to one man’s terrorist…? Or is that only good for other people’s enemies? (as if Hamas were not an American enemy).

Is stupidity a lesser sin than being accused of taking sides?  Whose side can we be on if we can’t call a terrorist a terrorist?  What have we understood about the nature of civil society if we get paralyzed by the polemical demands of people who defend terrorism.


4 Responses to From the Archives: Boston Globe Ombudsman on “Who is a Terrorist?”

  1. Cynic says:

    takes credit for it, defends it, why on earth would it matter if such organizations “also perform some social service functions”?

    And what if the social services are to keep the general population subservient after its recourse to other resources was destroyed: as in the industrial areas on the Gaza/Israel border bombed and shot up forcing their closure and removing independent services from the population’s midst?

  2. Cynic says:

    You don’t think Israelis have had a profound national experience since the outbreak of the Oslo War in September 2000?

    It started well before with the car bombing of school children waiting at a bus stop after school, in Afula 1994. Less than a year after the Whitehouse Tea Party

    The driving into the main street between the central bus station and the market in Afula to gun down pedestrians and shoppers with AK47s in the 1990s. This happened on several occasions.
    Only when residents of the Gilboa region took matters into their own hands and started building the fence, contrary to the government’s wishes, did things improve a bit.

  3. Eliyahu says:

    actually, there were terrorist acts all along in 1993 –before the signing, although after the Oslo accord was announced, as well as after the signing. As I recall there was an incident in Ashdod or Ashqelon on the very day of signing the accord in DC on the White House lawn on 9-13-1993. A number of terrorist murders followed, including the murder of Mordekhai Lapid and one of his sons in Hebron in January 1994. Now Lapid was a friend of Dr Barukh Goldstein. Hence, we may consider Goldstein’s massacre of Arabs in the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron on Purim 1994 to have been an act of revenge for the murder of the Lapids, as well as of course, a delayed revenge for the 1929 massacre of 68 Jews by Arabs in Hebron.

    I don’t mean to suggest that there no terrorist murders before announcement of the Oslo accord in August 1993. But it seems to me that attacks accelerated after that announcement, and especially after the signing.

  4. Howie Elkill says:

    One must certainly not forget the sacrifices of those noble Israeli warriors like Sharon who rolled out the carpet for the Phalangists on their way in to shower their mercy on those suffering Palestinian refugees. Terrorists! What tosh! Does no-one consider the miserable existences they were spared.

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