I am struck — if not particularly surprised — by the skewed use of language surrounding the attacks yesterday in Norway. The Western press is largely avoiding the term “terrorist” when speaking of the blond, blue-eyed, Christian attacker, Anders Behring Breivik, who is now in custody after being picked up by the police. The term “terrorist attack” is also absent from the headlines of our country’s major media outlets. (See the lead articles on The Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.)* Does anyone have a shred of doubt that these attacks — politically-motivated acts of violence against unarmed civilians — would be trumpeted as an “act of terrorism,” and its perpetrator as a “terrorist,” if Breivik was a Muslim?
As Glenn Greenwald writes, the reason for this glaring inconsistency is apparent: in the American press and in mainstream political discourse, “terrorism” simply means “violence committed by Muslims whom the West dislikes, no matter the cause or the target.” That someone who “looks like us” and who “believes in our god” (sarcasm) could commit an act of terrorism is, of course, to misuse the term. Christians do not engage in terrorism. It is a term reserved exclusively for Muslims, or at least that is the conclusion that one is forced to draw if one pays even a whit of attention to what our political and media elites are saying these days. Christians who engage in these types of acts are generally labeled “extremists,” not terrorists. And, indeed, that is the term that is now being deployed.
The way that our media and our political elites selectively use the label of “terrorist” — to galvanize fear of Muslim radicalism and build reliable support for our endless war on terrorism — is deplorable. The term has become so politicized and manipulated these days that it is now virtually meaningless in its present usage. Is it fair, for instance, to label (as is often done) Muslim militants launching attacks on an occupying military force as “terrorists?” Conversely, does it make sense to eschew the term “terrorist” when a blue-eyed, white-skinned, non-Muslim attacker with clear political grievances uses wanton violence to gun down nearly a hundred civilians, many of them children? I’m not sure that question really needs to be answered.
NOTE: In its lead article, the NYT does refer to the incident as an act of “homegrown terrorism.” However, as of 7/23 (UPDATE, 7/24: the headline has since been edited slightly) its headline reads, “Right-Wing Extremist Charged in Norway,” and the three-page article fails to refer to Breivik as a “terrorist” at any point.