America was rocked by another outburst of violence last week when a gunman opened fire at a community college in western Oregon, killing nine people before turning the gun on himself and taking his own life. I won’t throw this piece in with the countless arguments for and against stricter gun control policies; there are enough of those articles swirling about on the web as it is, replete with cyber fistfights in the comments section. What I’m concerned with is the language we use to describe and
publicize these accounts of mass destruction because I’ve noticed a disturbing trend.
In this particular incident, along with other recent high-profile shootings such as the Charleston church massacre in June and the 2014 rampage at the University of California, Santa Barbara, the perpetrators have been described as gunmen, shooters, assailants, killers and murderers. Their callousness is well-documented, their sadism beyond doubt. And yet, reporters and journalists have rarely, if ever, called these men terrorists. The word terrorist is reserved for a higher echelon of evil, it seems, than mere murder.
Yet when you read the FBI’s definition of terrorism — “to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping” — you can’t help but wonder why we don’t call them what they are: terrorists.
The shooter in Charleston, who I’ll refrain from referring to by name, openly espoused white supremacist, Neo-Nazi views, sported flags and jackets emblazoned with the insignias of segregationist governments and chose a black church and black churchgoers as the site of his massacre and his victims. In the 2014 UCSB shooting, the perpetrator posted numerous clips of a videotaped manifesto, in which he calmly laid out his deranged, misogynistic ideology. His target was a sorority at the college campus, and his intended victims were women. Perhaps we don’t reserve the designation of “terrorist” for a certain type of evil. Perhaps we only reserve it for a certain type of people.
Calling the shooters — Caucasian in the Charleston case and half-Caucasian in the UCSB and Oregon shootings — terrorists would strike many Americans as odd. In the Western imagination, a terrorist is inextricably swaddled in the imagery of the Middle East: Kalashnikov at the hip, keffiyeh headscarf, shaggy beards. We think of the Sept. 11 attacks, suicide bombers in Iraq and Afghanistan, the death-dealing legions of ISIS. We don’t think of angry kids taking their parents’ guns to school and killing their classmates as terrorists. It’s interesting to note, though, that another recent massacre, the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, was nearly unanimously declared a terrorist attack by most major media outlets. It might be because the perpetrators of the attack, Tamerlan and Dzokhar Tsarnaev, were of Middle Eastern origin and adherents of Islam. It might be because the method of the attack — bombs, rather than guns — fit neater into the Western conception of the word terrorism than a shooting rampage.
But for whatever reason, the American media did not hesitate to brand the bombing, which killed three bystanders, a terrorist attack. By contrast, the Charleston city police chief declared the 2015 shooting to be a hate crime, but refrained from designating it as an instance of terrorism.
Another incident that comes to mind when examining the rhetoric of mass murder in the media is the crash of Germanwings Flight 9525, in which a German pilot flew his plane into the French Alps, killing himself and the other 149 people onboard. The pilot was described as suicidal; news outlets made much of the pilot’s mental health and history of depression. He was not often called a murderer, no matter that he took 149 unsuspecting lives along with his own.
German detectives found no evidence of political or religious motives on the part of the pilot and declared that they were dealing with simply a case of severe illness, rather than an instance of terrorism. Did they imagine that it might be some consolation to the families of the victims — that their loved ones were lost not in a hijacking by Islamist fanatics, but rather by being taken along, unwittingly, in a lonely and depressed man’s fiery adieu to the world he no longer cared for?
And you might say shooter, murderer, perpetrator, terrorist — they’re just terms, just words we use to describe terrible events whose horror remains unchanged, no matter what we decide to call those involved. But that’s not true. As the years pass and these tragedies recede into memory, we remember some more vividly than others. We remember the ones we call “terrorist” attacks. The sad truth is, last week’s shooting at Umpqua Community College will largely be forgotten by those not directly involved or affected, lost in the sea of mass shootings that occur on such a regular and terrible basis in America.
But the Boston bombing has not been forgotten, even if last week’s shooter in Oregon killed more than three times as many people as the Tsarnaev brothers.
Terrorists frighten America far more than rampage shooters, and when we realize this, we realize that it does, after all, make a great deal of difference who we call a terrorist and who we call a shooter.
In his speech following the Umpqua shooting, President Barack Obama said, “I would ask news organizations [to] tally up the number of Americans who’ve been killed through terrorist attacks over the last decade and the number of Americans who’ve been killed by gun violence, and post those side-by-side on your news reports. We spend over a trillion dollars, and pass countless laws, and devote entire agencies to preventing terrorist attacks on our soil . . .and yet we have a Congress that explicitly blocks us from even collecting data on how we could potentially reduce gun deaths. How can that be?”
The answer? While over 10,000 Americans die from firearm-related causes every year within the U.S. border, 3,030 Americans have died on U.S. soil as a result of terrorist attacks from a 12-year period of 2001-13, 2,997 of whom were killed in the Sept. 11 attacks.
While President Obama’s remarks were aimed more at the considerable portion of Congress lodged firmly in the gun lobby’s pocket, perhaps his remarks have some meaning in this context as well.
We expend staggering amounts of resources and manpower on counterterrorism, but fail to adequately regulate the sales of the weapons wielded in terrible massacres like Columbine and Sandy Hook, and now Umpqua.
And it’s because we’re far more afraid of the Muslim terrorist than the white one, or the half-white one, armed with perfectly legal guns bought from the neighborhood gun shop, even if the Muslim terrorist is killing far fewer of us than the native son. Regardless of the perpetrator’s religious or political motives, death is death, and killing is killing, and mass murder intimidates and coerces the civilian population to return to the FBI’s definition of terrorism and affects the conduct of a government by mass destruction.
It’s time we recognized these shootings for what they are — terrorism — and the shooters for who they are — terrorists — and denude these words, words with real, palpable effect over popular imagination and opinion, and, consequently, the formation of policy and legislature, of racial and religious connotation.
Matthew Ormseth is currently a student at Cornell University majoring in English. He seeks to give an honest portrayal of life as both a university student and member of the Millennial generation.