Sunday, December 14, 2008


Right-wing rabble-rousers responded to the Mumbai massacre by working the refs in the "liberal media," and now the public editor of The New York Times, Clark Hoyt, is responding to the roused:

WHEN 10 young men in an inflatable lifeboat came ashore in Mumbai last month and went on a rampage with machine guns and grenades, taking hostages, setting fires and murdering men, women and children, they were initially described in The Times by many labels.

They were "militants," "gunmen," "attackers" and "assailants." Their actions ... were described as "coordinated terrorist attacks." But the men themselves were not called terrorists.

Many readers could not understand it. "I am so offended as to why the NY Times and a number of other news organizations are calling the perpetrators 'militants,'" wrote "Bill" in a comment posted on The Times's Web site. "Murderers, or terrorists perhaps but militants? Is your PC going to get so absurd that you will refer to them as 'freedom fighters?'" ...

I've said this before and I'll say it again: Why the hell is the word "militant" inadequate in such circumstances?

First of all, the people who complain about the use of the word "militant" are largely the same people who accuse Democrats and liberals of wanting to treat jihadist violence as "a law-enforcement issue" rather than a "war." You'd think they'd prefer the word "militant" -- it's a word derived from the same root as "military."

Of course, I'm old enough to remember the late sixties and early seventies, when "militant" was most frequently heard in America as the second half of a two-word phrase: black militant. For those of you not old enough to remember those times, let me assure you that much of white America was scared to death of "black militants"; in fact, the notion of the "black militant" was so seared into the consciousness of whites at the time that it showed up nearly forty years later in preposterous portrayals of Michelle Obama as a latter-day "whitey"-baiting Angela Davis.

But here's an irony: Modern right-wing frothers grumble about responding to jihadist violence with "law enforcement"; in the Nixon era, many people found "militants" terrifying, but what was the favorite phrase used to sum up their preferred response? "Law and order."

Right-wingers are playing absurd word games here. The words "terrorist" and "militant" may not be quite interchangeable, but they strike the same chords in the brain: they're both used to describe a person who uses violence or the threat of violence, usually clandestinely, without having any generally recognized authority to do so. If you're a target, or just someone caught in the crossfire, both "militants" and "terrorists" are scary people.


I'm not objecting to the use of the word "terrorist" -- certainly not in the case of Mumbai. "Terrorism" is violence or threatened violence directed specifically against civilians by non-governmental forces, intended to sow fear. (Yes, I see the usefulness of the term "state terrorism" for governmental acts that are terroristic.)

But I think both the ref-workers on the right and the journalists they've targeted regard the words "terrorist" and "terrorism" as much more special than they actually are. Hoyt describes some of the journalistic thinking:

James Bennet, now the editor of The Atlantic, was The Times's Jerusalem bureau chief from 2001 through 2004. After his return, he wrote a two-page memo to Chira on the use of "terrorism" and "terrorist" that is still cited by editors, though the paper has no formal policy on the terms. His memo said it was easy to call certain egregious acts terrorism "and have the whole world agree with you." The problem, he said, was where to stop before every stone-throwing Palestinian was called a terrorist and the paper was making a political statement.

Bennet wrote that he initially avoided the word terrorism altogether and thought it more useful to describe an attack in as vivid detail as possible so readers could decide their own labels. But he came to believe that never using the word "felt so morally neutral as to be a little sickening. The calculated bombing of students in a university cafeteria, or of families gathered in an ice-cream parlor, cries out to be called what it is," he wrote.

I guess I just don't understand wanting to avoid the term in the latter cases, if it's extragovernmental, aimed at civilians, and intended to terrorize. On the other hand, I don't undertand why right-wingers deem it mandatory.

In the case of Mumbai, I don't think anyone came away from the news imagining that the civilians who were killed, wounded, or under siege failed to feel terror. A conservatively correct use of the word "terrorist" wasn't necessary to get that point across.

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