Terrorism or Trauma?

Picture 3Alyssa MacDougall, who earned an undergraduate degree in the study of religion and philosophy at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick, is now a master’s student in media studies at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario. Her thesis research is focused on the effects of framing of Muslims in the western media. If you’re interested in her musings about her two cats, religion, media and graduate life, you can find her on twitter under the handle @alyssamacd.

On February 10th, 2015, three generous, intelligent people were murdered in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. They were students and avid volunteers. The man charged with their murder is their 46-year-old neighbor, reportedly upset over a parking dispute with the victims.

It should be entirely irrelevant that the victims were Muslim, given that their deaths were violent and unnecessary no matter their religion. Unfortunately, to the media, it isn’t; their religion will entirely change how their murder is memorialized in the news.

Consider these headlines following the recent murders of 12 cartoonists at French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo by Muslim extremists:

  • Charlie Hebdo Shootings Europe’s Latest Deadly Terror Attack (AP, 07-Jan-2015)
  • At least 12 dead in Islamist terror attack at satirical French publication (Fox News, 07-Jan-2015)

Now consider the initial headlines covering the shootings of three Muslim students in the US:

  • Man arrested after 3 people found shot to death in condominium in North Carolina (Fox News, 11-Feb-2015)
  • Shooting deaths of young Muslims leave North Carolina community reeling (Reuters, 11-Feb-2015)

Notice the dramatic language used in coverage of the Charlie Hebdo incident. Muslims are the perpetrators and the attack is immediately labelled “terrorism.” The content of the AP article actually juxtaposes the Charlie Hebdo murders with nine other European incidents since 1995, seven of which involve Muslim perpetrators. However, in the last five years only 2% of attacks in Europe characterized as terrorism by Europol were religiously motivated.

Now look at the coverage immediately after the shooting of three Muslims in Chapel Hill: the headlines describe the attack as “shootings,” not as “terrorism” or even as “attacks.” The content of the aforementioned articles is very simple, short prose that merely states that the shootings had occurred. Other articles eventually questioned whether the murders should be considered hate crimes or terrorism at all (for example, here and here.

But what actually makes the Charlie Hebdo murders more of a “terrorist” act than the murders of three Muslims? What makes the Chapel Hill murders less of an “attack” than the Charlie Hebdo murders? Both could be argued to be violence against a specific group of people with the intention of inciting fear. The difference, of course, is the religious identity of one set of victims and one set of perpetrators, the relevance of which is situated in larger cultural understandings of the “other.”

The basic content in the coverage of these two events is, of course, very similar: a shooting incident in which numerous people were killed. The only difference is the category under which these writers suggest you, as a reader, file the attacks in your memory: “terrorism” versus “shootings.” The result is the association of “Muslim murderer” with “terrorism,” and “white, American killer” with something less dramatic, like “shootings.” In one case an entire group of people are implicated while, in the other, it is one, anomalous bad apple with a grip over a parking space.

These suggestions for organizing news don’t fall out of the sky. Someone chooses the words that describe these events, make them understandable to readers by allowing them to relate them to yet other things they already know something about. That isn’t to say that journalists deliberately deceive their readers; on the contrary, they are mandated by professional standards and practices to do quite the opposite. Nonetheless, in order to help their readers quickly organize and digest the new information, they have to use specific words to place that information into that already established frame that makes the reader feel comfortable.

In the case of the Chapel Hill murders, the frame is not terrorism. Even more recent coverage has suggested the perpetrator was “obsessed” with a film about a disgruntled man who goes on a shooting rampage. His wife has suggested mental illness may have precipitated the attack. In cases where the perpetrator is white and the dead are not, mental illness is a commonly used frame. Of course the shooter, who could have been your neighbour, wasn’t a terrorist. He was just sick, mentally ill, unstable!

The message here is that the terrorists can’t be one of “us,” you see. Otherwise the holistic nature of “us” falls apart at the seams and the seemingly bright lines between “us” and “them” become blurred. Suddenly you don’t know who the terrorists really are: us, or them? Ignorance to the fact that “normal” people are terrorists too is, apparently, preferable; it’s safer. Words like “shooting” juxtaposed in strategic ways with words like “terrorism” allow us to remain in that ignorance. This is why words matter; this is how they are used to influence public perception of events and people. Furthermore, it’s words like “terrorist,” applied to people – average people – whose complexions are darker and who look like they might be Muslim, that facilitate the ignorance that some people in some situations need to justify defining all Muslims as something different than “us,” something evil that needs to be eradicated.

So what do we take away from this coverage?, Forget that the accused killer, who could very well have been your neighbour, posted anti-religion rants on Facebook; forget that he was an atheist with a grudge against the faithful; forget that the victims were the faithful. He simply lost his mind over a parking dispute. Of course that isn’t terrorism. Because “we” aren’t terrorists. “They” are.