From Boston To Bundy: Mainstream Media's Struggle To Define Modern Terrorism

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This past week in Kansas, a man shot and killed a teenager and his grandfather coming out of their house of worship.  Three states over in Las Vegas, Nevada, a woman attempted to attack the former American Secretary of State during her speech by throwing a shoe at her.  And down the road from the footwear fiasco, a man in Clark County, Nevada and an armed renegade militia engaged in a standoff with federal land managers for misusing government land and refusing to pay taxes.  

Let's recap:  A vicious murder of two unarmed people after a religious service.  An attack of an American diplomat and potential 2016 presidential candidate.  An armed rebellion by a rancher who threatened federal employees who were just trying to do their job.  Three separate events that put Americans' safety and security at risk.  Three deranged individuals who openly took up violence against their fellow citizens.  There was media coverage of these events and yet not a single mention of a word that describes the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political means.  Nowhere in any mainstream media coverage did any of the networks refer to any of these events as what they were:  Terrorism.  

Which brings us to an interesting question:  How does the mainstream media in the year 2014 determine who is and who isn't a terrorist?

To analyze this question, I decided to to a fun little experiment.  Since the Big Six corporations are the ones driving news coverage, I figured that the majority of news related to terrorism and terrorist acts would be filtered through them onto the worldwide web for people to see and read.  Once people had seen and read the news it would then appear on other sites, whether it be alternative news media, blogs, reference web sites, etc.  When everything was said and done, there should theoretically be a large amount of content on the web related to the news stories generated by mainstream news media.  So, theoretically, all we need to do is do a Google search and we should have an idea about how and why this information is being disseminated the way it is.  All it takes to test this idea would be a simple Google search experiment.  

With that idea in mind, I decided to engage in an experiment relating to certain people and whether or not the internet views them as "terrorists".  To do this, I decided to search for the people in the news last week to see how many times the word "terrorist" plus their name appeared together.  I put the words together in quotes to guarantee that the search would be accurate (for example "terrorist Cliven Bundy").  The first round of results are as follows:  

Frazier Glenn Miller (alleged Jewish Center shooter)  - 8 results

Allison Ernst (Las Vegas shoe thrower) - 0 results

Cliven Bundy (Nevada rancher) - 96 results 

For this first search, the results were not surprising.  Of the three people involved in the news last week, Bundy has drawn the most public ire and he has come under fire from both sides of the political spectrum.  In fact, even Glenn Beck's The Blaze has criticized Bundy's crusade making it a hard sell for even the most rapid anti-government Tea Partiers out there.  Notice how the likes of Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Sarah Palin have stayed unusually quiet during this last week regarding the Bundy conflict.  Even staunch Republican and gun-toting folk hero Ted Nugent has been wise enough not to public get involved with the issue, at least not yet.

So what do we make of our other two results?  The internet does not yet think that Allison Ernst is a terrorist and only a handful of people think that Frazier Glenn Miller is a terrorist.  Does this mean that you are only a terrorist if you incite rebellion?  Are you a terrorist if you have a stockpile of weapons and a posse of Tea Partiers ready to use women as human shields if gunfire breaks out between your side and the Nevada Bureau of Land Management?  Is the definition of terrorist dependent upon the abundance of weapons you own?  

To test these new questions, I chose to do a second search for a variety of other potential "terrorists" who had used various weapons to try and advance their cause.  The results were as follows:  

Alex Hribal (alleged Pennsylvania high school knife attacker) - 0 results 

Ivan Antonio Lopez (2014 Fort Hood shooter) - 0 results 

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (alleged Boston Marathon bomber) - 48,600 results

These new results threw a little bit of a wrench into my theory.  Apparently, the use of knives in an attack against high school students does not make it an act of terrorism.  However, I was surprised that the murder of three soldiers on an American military base by a man with a .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol was not considered terrorism.  Maybe if Lopez had multiple weapons, then that would have been terrorism?  Lastly, the alleged Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had nearly 50,000 results making him the "most terrorist-y" of the group.  Was that because him and his brother brazenly chose to commit their act out in public?  Or was it because of the ensuing manhunt that closed down Massachusetts' largest city for an entire day?  

For my third and final experiment, I decided to go with this idea of national exposure.  I opted to choose three people who received varying levels of media exposure as a result of their actions.  The results for these three people are as follows:

Adam Lanza (Newton, Connecticut shooter) - 3,480 results 

James Holmes (alleged Aurora, CO theater shooter) - 14,200 results 

Timothy McVeigh (Oklahoma City bomber) - 117,000 results 

These last results lead us to some interesting conclusions.  First off is that with time, people begin to recognize terrorists, even if they are American.  Hence Timothy McVeigh now receiving that designation nearly twenty years after his initial attack.  Secondly, the internet doesn't seem to view Adam Lanza as "terrorist-y" as James Holmes even though Lanza chose to murder teachers and children while Holmes targeted a movie theater.  Lastly, the fact that McVeigh was the subject of a book titled American Terrorist:  Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing by Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck more than likely helped him become the most "terroist-y" of all the people searched for.  

My conclusion from this experiment is simple:  Our mainstream media today refuses to recognize American terrorism.  Just look at these events:  A religious shooting, a hurling of an object at an American diplomat, an armed rebellion against the government, a military base shooting, and a high school knife attack.  All of these events fit the definition of terrorism and yet none of them are seen as such.  Today's mainstream news outlets seem perfectly content to broadcast these events, and yet does not seem willing to call them out for what they are.  Why is that?

You see, today's mainstream media knows that the typical American news viewer has a short attention span.  The media knows that there are certain buzzwords that make the typical American news viewer stand up and take notice.  One of those words is "terrorism."  The word itself conjures up powerful and dramatic images on the world stage and is thus reserved for only the most "terrorist-y" stories.  Feel free to turn on any news network this week to hear about tributes to last year's Boston Marathon victims and survivors.  My guess is that the major networks will be sure to sprinkle in stories about "suspected terrorist" Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his role in the event.  It has been a year, and the networks are ready to throw out the terrorist buzzword once again.  

The problem with this news coverage is that it discourages dialogue that may lead to future legislation.  At this point in time, the American public is no longer affected by a high school shooting.  However, if we have another "high school terrorist attack" our ears collectively perk up.  That word, terrorism, denotes strong feeling and emotion and can be a powerful term if used to bring about social change.  Imagine how quickly Congress would deal with security on military bases if the phrase "another domestic terrorist attack" was used.  Imagine how unlikely the American public (minus the Tea Party) would support "domestic terrorist" Cliven Bundy.  

We as American citizens deserve better from our news media.  We deserve to have these types of discussions.  What makes a terrorist?  Why are some events considered terrorism while others are not?  Is American terrorism a problem in this country?  What are some of the underlying causes of American terrorism?  Is widening inequality in this county leading to potential terrorist breeding grounds?  These questions are not east to answer and they require some difficult discussion.  Today's news media refuses to ask them as there is no simple answer you can put on a bumper sticker.  However, isn't it the media's job to raise these issues and have these discussions in the first place?  If we're not evening having the discussion, then we'll never be able to find the solutions to the problems and we'll be stuck in an endless cycle of more and more dramatic violence shown on the nightly news. 

Unfortunately for us, that's exactly what the media wants.

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