Inside the mind of Newsweek on “terrorism”

Editors and writers reveal that "terrorism" is something only foreigners, not Americans, can do

Topics: Media Criticism, Washington, D.C.,

(updated below – Newsweek‘s response)

On so many levels, this is one of the most stunningly revealing things I’ve read in quite some time.  As I documented last week, the media’s reluctance to describe IRS attacker Joe Stack as a “terrorist” reveals that this term has little to do with the act itself and everything to do with the demographic attributes of the actor:  namely, in the American political lexicon, “Terrorists” are Muslims who dislike the U.S., while Americans — especially ones who are white and non-Muslim — cannot, by definition, qualify.  Anyone who has doubts about that or who thought my argument was hyperbole should click on that link, which will direct you to an internal discussion among Newsweek editors and writers over their reluctance to use the term “Terrorist” to describe Stack and who they believe qualifies instead.

Aside from the suffocating denseness of their discussion — most of them ramble on about who is and is not a “Terrorist” for three straight days without even attempting to define what that term means — just look at how blatantly tribalistic and propagnadistic they are about its usage.  Many of them all but say outright that it can apply only to Muslims but never non-Muslim Americans.  The whole thing has to be read to be believed — and what’s most amazing is that they published it because they obviously though it was some sort of probing, intelligent discussion which would enlighten the public — but let’s just examine a few of the contributions.  First, here’s the question posed to the group by Newsweek Editor Devin Gordon:

We’ve been having a discussion over here about the aversion so far to calling the Austin Tax Wacko a terrorist – or as the Wall St Journal called him “the tax protester.” And I’m wondering if anyone has read yet – or would tackle themselves – a thorough comparison between our ho-hum reaction to a guy who successfully crashed a plane into a government building versus the media’s full-throated insanity over the underpants bomber, who didn’t hurt anyone but himself.



This is the first answer, from Managing Editor Kathy Jones:

Did the label terrorist ever successfully stick to McVeigh? Or the Unabomber? Or any of the IRS bombers in our violence list?

Here is my handy guide:

Lone wolfish American attacker who sees gov’t as threat to personal freedom: bomber, tax protester, survivalist, separatist

Group of Americans bombing/kidnapping to protest U.S. policies on war/poverty/personal freedom/ – radical left-wing movement, right-wing separatists

All foreign groups or foreign individuals bombing/shooting to protest American gov’t: terrorists.

So according to Newsweek‘s Managing Editor, only a foreigner who “protests the American government” can be a Terrorist.  Americans cannot be.  Indeed, according to her, “all foreign individuals bombing/shooting to protest American government” are “Terrorists,” which presumaby includes Muslims who fight against American armies invading their countries (which is how the U.S. Government uses the term, too).  Meanwhile, Leftist Americans who engage in violence are “radicals,” while those on the Right who do so are merely “protesters, survivalists, and separatists.”  Only anti-American foreigners can be Terrorists.  That’s really what she said.  Then we have this, from reporter Jeneen Interlandi:

I agree with Kathy. Right or wrong, we definitely reserve the label “terrorist” for foreign attackers. Even the anthrax guy (not that we ever found him) wasn’t consistently referred to as terrorist.

Reporter Dan Stone takes that a step further:

Yep, comes down to ID. This guy was a regular guy-next-door Joe Schmo. Terrorists have beards in live in caves. He was also an American, so targeting the IRS seems more a political statement — albeit a crazy one — whereas Abdulmutallab was an attack on our freedom. Kind of the idea that an American can talk smack about America, but when it comes from someone foreign, we rally together.

One might think he was being ironic or merely describing how Americans (but not Newsweek) foolishly thinks, but he described the views of his fellow reporters and editors perfectly, and virtually nobody in the discussion took that as anything other than accurate and serious.  Reporter Eve Conant goes so far as to provide the justification — or at least the mitigation — for what Stack did as opposed to those dirty people with beards in caves:

Isn’t the ho-hum reaction in part the simple psychology behind the fact that a) no one likes the IRS and b) he’s an American (so closest he might get is “domestic terrorist” in terms of labels) who doesn’t hate Americans but hates an institution. The act is horrible, but somehow the motivation is perceived as less offensive. As one conservative at the CPAC conference told me, Stack simply “made a poor life choice.” There’s no way anyone would say that about the underwear bomber.

Now here’s Mike Isikoff, not even pretending that the term has a consistent meaning:

ok, just to weigh in on this — I think some of the comments miss what I take to be the fundamental distinction. The underpants bomber, for all his ineptitude, was equipped and dispatched by a foreign enemy — Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — whose ultimate leader (bin Laden) has declared war on the United States and who has demonstrated his willingness and intent to inflict mass casualties on our civilian population. That makes underpants man a terrorist and had he been captured overseas, would have made himan enemy combatant — and why the Obama administration dispatches the U.S. military and Predator drones to destroy the people who sent him here. Similarly, the Fort Hood shooter may have been a disturbed “lone wolf” but he was in ideological alignment and in communication with a member of the same foreign enemy.

That makes them both terrorists.

The Austin tax protestor, the anthrax scientist wacko, the Unabomber — all did heinous things that we can describe any way we want — certainly what they did were terrorist acts –  but they all remain a very different kettle of fish, which is why Mr. underpants man gets more attention that Austin tax protestor flying plane into building.

So when a Muslim attacks a military base that is deploying soldiers into a war zone, that’s Terrorism.  By contrast, when non-Muslim American slaughter civilians — even by sending lethal biological agents or bombs to them through the mail — perhaps it’s “terrorism” in some technical sense, but not the real kind (as Fox News put it:  it’s “not Terrorism with a capital T”).  Michael Hirsh added:  ”Isikoff pretty much has it right. Al Qaeda and Islamist extremism co-opted the term ‘terrorist’ after 9/11.”

A couple of the participants in the Newsweek discussion pushed back against this mentality and cogently argued that because it’s the act, not the identity of the person, that determines “Terrorism,” Americans can and often do qualify.  Articles Editors Kate Dailey and Ben Adler, for instance, argued that those who kill abortion doctors are clearly “terrorists,” because — as Adler put it — “trying to bully [people] thru fear of violence into behaving a certain way that suits your political views strikes me as the epitome of terrorism.”  But of course that applies to everything from the American “Shock and Awe” campaign in Iraq to the Israeli attack on Gaza, though Newsweek would never, ever apply the term that way.

What’s perhaps most strange about the Newsweek discussion is that it often lapses into the Innocent Bystander Syndrome of journalism, where journalists talk about phenomena that they cause as though they have nothing to do with it and merely observe it.  Thus, several of them don the voice of objective scientist studying the mating habits of farm animals (i.e., American citizens) — let’s try to understand why these interesting, bizarre creatures get so pent up over the Underwear Bomber but don’t care about the IRS attacker – without acknowledging or realizing that their jingoistic, tribalistic, and government-mimicking use of the term Terrorism (that’s what is done by those Muslims who don’t like us, but never by us) plays a major role in how these episodes are perceived.  

It’s quite similar to the way that other countries’ use of barbaric interrogation techniques is “torture,” while the same methods when used by Americans are — at worst — “enhanced interrogation techniques that some critics refer to as ‘torture’.”  Or how the short-term detention of American journalists by Bad foreign countries receives endless media attention, while America’s years-long, due-process-free imprisonment of Muslim journalists is studiously ignored.  Journalists bolster these narratives through their sycophantic, government-serving behavior, and then marvel at the outcomes they spawn as though they are nothing but detached, impotent observers.

All of this yet again underscores the prime function of establishment journalism in the U.S.:  to uncritically amplify the views of those who wield political power.  And it is also perfectly consistent with their first mandate:  the U.S. is incapable of acts of evil (and certainly incapable of “Terrorism”), which is reserved only for those foreigners who dislike and “protest” the United States.

 

UPDATE:  Newsweek editors replied in various ways to this; for a summary of those responses, with links to them, see the last two paragraphs here.

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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