Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Politics of "Terror."

Interesting column today from The New York Times' public editor, Clark Hoyt. Hoyt writes about an issue that's been a sore spot for me for a long time, so I gobbled this up eagerly.

When should journalists describe purveyors of violence as "terrorists" and when should they use the less polarizing "militants?" What attacks on civilians are "terrorism?" What are "terrorist groups" and what are "militant groups" or "extremist groups?"

Those questions have bedeviled reporters for years, specifically as it regards the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts. Hoyt spends the first half of his column on the Mumbai attacks, but it becomes clear pretty quickly that most reporters had no problems affixing the terrorism label there. The real controversy in the piece is in Hoyt's description of The Times' attitude toward the Middle East.

"Terrorism" is a tricky word for journalists because there's a moral judgment inherent in its use, and reporters aren't comfortable making moral judgments in complex situations. It puts the writer on a ledge, clearly labeling one side as wrong and the other as right. That cuts against the grain of years of training.

Some organizations have solved that dilemma by deciding that they will not use any form of the word "terror" to describe Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians. The BBC is the biggest offender here, but Reuters acts similarly. This isn't objectivity; it's gutless, spineless, soulless "journalism" of the worst kind, sapping the humanity out of reporters and draining the outrage from stories that frankly demand a little righteous indignation.

Yes, "terrorist" has strong implications, but blowing yourself up on a school bus or shooting rockets into a major city is a strong act. It seems inconceivable to use the polite word choice in describing those who would commit such crimes.

The Times' approach is more nuanced than the BBC's; they (accurately) described Samir Kuntar as a terrorist. The usage is not universal: Hoyt quotes a memo on the subject written by James Bennet, the editor of The Atlantic and formerly The Times' Jerusalem bureau chief. Bennet wrote that he initially refused to use the word "terrorism," instead relying on a vivid description of the act in question to get the point across. Bennet eventually changed his mind, saying that "felt so morally neutral as to be a little sickening."

So far so good. But Bennet's memo goes off the rails when he settles on the following rough rule:

He would use the words, when they fit, to describe attacks within Israel’s 1948 borders but not in the occupied West Bank or Gaza, which Israel and the Palestinians have been contending over since Israel took them in 1967. When a gunman infiltrated a settlement and killed a 5-year-old girl in her bed, Bennet did not call it terrorism. “All I could do was default to my first approach and describe the attack and the victims as vividly as I could.”
Hoyt disagrees, and I'm with him. However, I'll go even further than Hoyt: Bennet's attitude here is, frankly, disgusting and more than a little horrific.

Every reporter, every writer, knows that his words have deep implications. I talked about that already; many journalists refuse to use the word "terrorism" because the implication is that the so-described act is morally unjustifiable and that those hurt by the attack are innocents undeserving of the violence.

Describing an attacker as a "militant" or...well, as an "attacker" and refusing to use the word "terrorism" sends a different kind of message. No one would be so harsh as to claim that Bennet thinks the five-year-old girl deserved her fate.

But in some small, perhaps even miniscule, way, Bennet, by refusing to describe brutal acts of terrorism in the West Bank as terrorism, is saying that little girl was less a victim than an individual in Tel Aviv or a Manhattan office worker on September 11. In that small, perhaps miniscule way, he's saying that acts of violence directed at civilians in the West Bank are more justifiable than the attacks in Mumbai.

It might be small or even miniscule, but linguistic wars are usually fought over inches, not miles. Language is the only weapon a reporter has, and those small distinctions between words make all the difference in the moral tone of a piece.

I'm not ignorant of the complexities in this conflict. I don't think every Israeli wears a white hat and every Palestinian a black hat. But for all the gray in the region, there has to be at least a little good and a little evil. And it seems that everyone in a civilized world should look with disgust at the murder of a five-year-old girl in her bed, no matter if she lives in a West Bank settlement. If we can't condemn that, if we can't unequivocally call that unjustifiable slaughter "terrorism," then we've fallen so far into soulless moral relativism as to eviscerate any moral fabric that still remains in this world.

I don't agree with everything Hoyt says in the column. The Times refuses to call Hamas a terrorist organization, and Hoyt agrees with that decision. It's worth noting that Israel and the US aren't the only countries to call Hamas a terrorist organization. The European Union, frequently hostile to Israel, uses that label, as does Canada. So Hamas as a terrorist group is not a fringe view held by a paranoid Likud government and a US State Department in the thrall of the Elders of Zion.

To the consternation of many, the Times does not call Hamas a terrorist organization, though it does sponsor acts of terror against Israel. Hamas was elected to govern Gaza. It provides social services and operates charities, hospitals and clinics. Corbett said: "You get to the question: Somebody works in a Hamas clinic - is that person a terrorist? We don't want to go there." I think that is right.
("Corbett" is Phil Corbett, the deputy to news editor Paul Winfield.)

This argument is staggeringly unpersuasive. Hamas is an organization that repeatedly and unapologetically launched suicide attacks aimed at innocent Israeli civilians. (James Bennet will be satisfied to hear that many of those civilians live in Israel proper, so they truly are innocent civilians, instead of slightly-less-innocent five-year-old girls in the West Bank.) It's an organization that has killed women and children and bragged about it. By Hoyt's admission, it sponsors terrorism. It is a terrorist organization.

Yes, it runs the Gaza government and administers various hospitals and charities. That does not change the fact that Hamas is a terrorist organization, any more than Al Capone's mob protecting downtrodden Italian families in Chicago and handing out Christmas geese made it less of a mob engaged in organized crime.

Corbett's logic doesn't follow. Is the doctor working at a Hamas-run clinic a terrorist? No, because he doesn't engage in terroristic acts. He doesn't try to kill Israeli civilians and terrorize the government into enacting policies he wants. You can construct an argument where everyone who helps Hamas gain the approval of the Gaza citizenry is a terrorist, but no one makes that claim, and to use that extreme distortion of logic to justify a morally neutral label for Hamas is, again, spineless.

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