Monday, March 07, 2005

Calling Terrorism Terrorism When It Clearly Is Terrorism

Daniel Okrent, the outstanding public representative at the New York Times, on Sunday, March 6, made some much-needed observations on the importance of calling terrorism terrorism and terrorists terrorists when terrorism is involved.

Many newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, have fallen into the all too-easy politically-correct habit of labeling all such deeds as having been committed by "militants."

But Okrent makes the point there is a time to call things for what they are.

"In some instances," Okrent writes, "The (NY) Times earnest effort to avoid bias can dessicate language and dilute meaning. In a January memo to the foreign desk, former Jerusalem bureau chief James Bennet addressed the paper's gingerly use of the word 'terrorism.'

"'The calculated bombing of students in a university cafeteria or of families gathering in an ice cream parlor, cries out to be called what it is,' he wrote. 'I wanted to avoid the political meaning that comes with "terrorism," but I couldn't pretend that the word had no usage at all in plain English.' Bennet came to believe that 'not to use the term began to seem like a political act in itself.'"

"I agree," Okrent wrote. "While some Israelis and their supporters assert that any Palestinian holding a gun is a terrorist, there can be neither factual nor moral certainty that he is. But if the same man fires into a crowd of civilians, he has committed an act of terror, and he is a terrorist. My own definition is simple: an act of political violence committed against purely civilian targets is terrorism, attacks on military targets are not...

"Given the word's history as a virtual battle flag over the past several years, it would be tendentious for The Times to require constant use of it, as some of the paper's critics are insisting. But there's something uncomfortably fearful, and inevitably self-defeating about struggling so hard to avoid it."

Amen. It all recalls something that happened at the Los Angeles Times shortly before I retired there last June.

I had written to the paper's foreign editor, Marjorie Miller, with a copy to editor John Carroll, making the point that The Times frequently called attacks against Israelis the work of "militants," while attacks elsewhere in the world were frequently called the work of "terrorists." The Times, I contended in the note, should avoid making such "odious distinctions" based on who was being attacked.

Within days, the paper dropped most use of the word "terrorist" and started referring to everything as the work of "militants," regardless where they happened, Israel or elsewhere, and regardless of the exact nature of the act.

I was somewhat pleased at the time, thinking my point had been made, even though neither Miller nor Carroll ever responded to my note.

Now, however, I think Okrent has made the right point. The LA Times should start, when it is appropriate, using the words "terrorist" and "terrorism" more frequently, as should others in the mainstream press..



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