Why Doesn't American Media Freak Out When the Terrorists Have White Skin?
I've been deeply struck this week by the extreme amount of attention being paid in the media to the horrific terrorist attacks on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Struck mainly because there is something strangely, and profoundly, disproportionate about it all.
In most regards, the coverage is warranted. Terrorism is an important subject, and in an ideal world, the more information we have about such a thing, the better informed we will be. Presumably, we would then be better situated to work together to form a response that actually would effectively defeat the terrorists, both in their specific purposes as well as in the way they generically spread the use of violence in the world as a "solution."
However, that is not what has been happening.
Instead, the intensity of the 24/7 cable news cycle glare has produced almost all heat and very little light. We're being inundated with what Jeremy Scahill calls the "the terrorism expert industrial complex," a whole cottage industry of neo-conservative ideologues posing as "terrorism experts" who pretend to be warning the public about a dire threat they face, but really are primarily engaged in whipping up xenophobic fears about Muslims, Arabs, and scary brown people in general.
This means we have gotten halfwits like Steve Emerson -- yes, the same man who brought us the short-lived media meme that the Oklahoma City bombing was committed by Middle Eastern terrorists -- going on Fox News and warning that the city of Birmingham had become "totally Muslim." You've got CNN anchors like Don Lemon grilling a Muslim lawyer and asking if he supports ISIS. You've got Jeannine Pirro getting on Fox and ranting that we need to find all radical Muslims and wipe them off the face of the earth.
What this means is that the terrorists, truly, are winning.
Fox's Shannon Bream made clear what the criteria for calling people terrorists actually is, when she asked:
If we know they were speaking unaccented French and they had ski masks on, do we even know what color they were, what the tone of their skin was? I mean, what if they didn't look like typical bad guys? As we define them when we think about terror groups.
Naturally, Fox News has been the worst. They have a whole Murderer's Row of Islamophobic "experts" who literally do nothing but whip up people's fear and loathing of all things Muslim. Their owner, Rupert Murdoch, thinks that all Muslims need to be held responsible for the terrorism. And the network's hosts have been leading the torchlight parade. But CNN and MSNBC have not been a great deal better. All of them, as Vox's Max Fisher observes, are mainstreaming a very toxic brand of Islamophobia on our television sets.
What particularly struck me this week was the wildly different response we saw, both in the media (whose response then was reflected by the growing hysteria of the public) and by politicians -- particularly conservatives from both sectors -- to the terrorist rampage in Norway on July 22, 2011, by the terrorist Anders Behring Breivik.
Just to refresh your memories, Breivik's meticulously planned attacks killed 77 people and left 319 people injured, many of them quite seriously. The vast majority of his victims were children, murdered on an island camp that Breivik drove to after setting off bombs in downtown Oslo. The details, lest you have forgotten, were unbelievably horrifying:
When Breivik arrived on the island, he presented himself as a police officer who had come over for a routine check following the bombing in Oslo. He was met by Monica BÃ¸sei, the camp leader and island hostess. BÃ¸sei probably became suspicious and contacted Trond Berntsen, the security officer on the island, before Breivik killed them both. He then signalled and asked people to gather around him before pulling weapons and ammunition from a bag and indiscriminately firing his weapons, killing and wounding numerous people. He first shot people on the island and later started shooting at people who were trying to escape by swimming across the lake. Survivors on the island described a scene of terror. In one example, 21-year-old survivor Dana Barzingi described how several victims wounded by Breivik pretended to be dead to survive, but he later came back and shot them again. He did relent in his executions on some occasions: first, when an 11-year-old boy who had just lost his father (Trond Berntsen) during the shooting, stood up against him and said he was too young to die; and later, when a 22-year-old male begged for his life.
Some witnesses on the island were reported to have hidden in the undergrowth, and in lavatories, communicating by text message to avoid giving their positions away to the gunman. The mass shooting reportedly lasted for around an hour and a half, ending when a police special task force arrived and the gunman surrendered, despite having ammunition left, at 18:35. It is also reported that the shooter used hollow-point or frangible bullets which increase tissue damage. Breivik repeatedly shouted "You are going to die today, Marxists!"
That was perfectly in keeping with what we later learned about Breivik in the days immediately following the rampage. What motivated this terrorist act, in fact, was exactly the paranoid fear of radical Islamic takeover that now is gripping the American media: The thousand-page manifesto that he published before the rampage, in fact, called for a violent right wing revolution across Europe “before our major cities are completely demographically overwhelmed by Muslims.”
Chip Berlet wrote an incisive analysis of Breivik's manifesto, explaining:
Breivik thought Cultural Marxists=multiculturalists=Islamization of Europe. This racist right-wing conspiracy theory is tied to the Islamophobic "Demographic Winter" thesis. In his online posts, Breivik considered himself a cultural conservative and condemned "Cultural Marxism." The idea of "Cultural Marxism" on the political right is an antisemitic conspiracy theory claiming that a small group of Marxist Jews formed the Frankfurt School and set out to destroy Western Culture through a conspiracy to promote multiculturalism and collectivist economic theories.
As I noted at the time:
Breivik's work is largely a regurgitation of ideas and claims that have been circulating on the Right for a long time, including mainstream sources such as Fox News and Andrew Breitbart. There's nothing original here -- except that he, like Adkisson, simply takes the "logic" (as it were) of the cultural warriors he parrots and ratchets it up the next logical step into violent action.
Where could people like Breivik, and his American counterparts, learn about Cultural Marxism? Why, by watching Andrew Breitbart spew about it on Fox News with Sean Hannity, of course:
Indeed, one of the very people cited as an inspiration in his manifesto was none other than Steve Emerson -- along with a large raft of right-wing Islamaophobic pundits from the United States, notably Pam Geller and Richard Spencer, both of whom have leading the torchlight parade against Muslims after the Paris attacks.
That brings us back to the hours and days immediately after Breivik's rampage, when his identity was yet unknown. Sure enough, the leading lights of the "terrorism expert industrial complex" immediately pronounced the attacks the likely work of Islamic radicals.
One of the leading pundits in that charge was a right-wing "expert" named Will McCants, who posted online about it , after which the rest of the media (especially Fox) swung into action and declared the attacks the work of radical Islamists:
As I noted at the time:
It's also a sobering reminder that, while we've been obsessing nationally over the supposed threat of Islamist radicals -- embodied by Peter King's haplessly myopic hearings on domestic terrorism -- the reality remains that right-wing extremist terrorism remains the most potent domestic-terrorism threat in America as well. Indeed, the number of violent domestic-terrorism incidents has been steadily rising for the past two years, but the threat has gone largely ignored. Indeed, the Obama administration has kowtowed to right-wing complaints by gutting our own government's intelligence-gathering capacities in this area.
But of course, the media (and particularly right-wing pundits were having none of such talk. Here's Bill O'Reilly a few days after the attacks, denouncing anyone who might label Breivik a Christian:
Now, on Sunday, the "New York Times" headlined "As Horrors Emerged, Norway Charges Christian extremist". A number of other news organizations like the "LA Times" and Reuters also played up the Christian angle. But Breivik is not a Christian. That's impossible. No one believing in Jesus commits mass murder. The man might have called himself a Christian on the net, but he is certainly not of that faith.
Of course, not only did Breivik describe himself throughout his manifesto as a Christian, but claiming that he was not one is simply dishonest.
O'Reilly's attack, however, was part of the broader media response to Breivik: Playing down the significance of his ideological motivations, and refusing to examine the implications of those beliefs on our understanding of what constitutes terrorism. Instead, we got the same response we heard during the attacks on the prophetic DHS memorandum about right-wing extremists: They aren't a serious threat, and that's not terrorism!
O'REILLY: Sometimes I think the world is going mad. This Breivik guy is a loon, a mass murderer who apparently acted out of rank hatred. No government supported him. No self-proclaimed terror group like al Qaeda paid his bills. Breivik is just another loser who caused tremendous horror by murdering innocent people. There is no equivalency to jihad. No worldwide Breivik movement. Just another violent pathetic legacy stemming back to Cain.
Of course, it's worth recalling that just a few months before the attack, O'Reilly was castigating anyone for even believing that right-wing domestic terrorism was even any kind of serious problem. This is part of the growing tradition in the American media, and particularly conservatives, to whitewash such terrorism out of all our news narratives. It is a tradition that continues to this day.
Let's also recall the overall media and political response at the time: Breivik and his rampage disappeared from the news cycles within the week, nor was the story the subject of wall-to-wall coverage beyond the first day or so of the attack. The most intense coverage occurred on the first day, while the media still was running with the Islamist-attack narrative.
There was a memorial service for the victims of the bombings afterward. Only a handful of European leaders showed up to show their solidarity with the Norwegians. Benjamin Netanyahu was not there. The United States did not send a delegation of top-flight officials. And the conservative media and politicians did not jump all over him for the omission for it, either.
And yet here we are, three and a half years later, and the media can't find enough time to talk about the Paris attacks and report on every detail regarding them. And of course, it has been a launching pad for attacks from the right on everything Muslim.
More than a few critics have similarly noted the disparity in coverage between the Paris attacks and the horrifying terrorist attacks simultaneously occurring in Africa, which have produced more than 2,000 dead. It is a truly horrifying tale; many of the victims have been burned alive.
These questions need to be asked. Clearly, the inability of journalists to reach the scene of the violence in Nigeria is a contributing factor. But it's also clear that the color of the victims -- all of them being black Africans -- is also a factor, perhaps the decisive one. White people in the USA and Europe don't care as much because they cannot identify with the victims.
However, that was not the case in the Breivik murders: All of the victims were white people, many of them young and blonde and pretty, the kinds of victims that Fox News normally dwells upon ad nauseam.What the contrast there reveals is that white people are even more likely to avoid confronting terrorism when they are able to identify with its perpetrators.
And the hard reality is that right-wing extremism has been our most potent domestic threat for more than the past 20 years, and it not only remains that way, but it has intensified dramatically in recent years.
As CNN's Peter Bergen noted this summer, the numbers lean heavily when it comes to the sources of domestic terrorism in this country:
In fact, since 9/11 extremists affiliated with a variety of far-right wing ideologies, including white supremacists, anti-abortion extremists and anti-government militants, have killed more people in the United States than have extremists motivated by al Qaeda's ideology. According to a count by the New America Foundation, right wing extremists have killed 34 people in the United States for political reasons since 9/11. (The total includes the latest shootings in Kansas, which are being classified as a hate crime).
By contrast, terrorists motivated by al Qaeda's ideology have killed 21 people in the United States since 9/11.
Much of the reason most Americans are not only unaware of this fact, but remain in deep denial about it, is that the media have failed utterly in their duty to report on this accurately and responsibly. Most of the many terrorist incidents that occur in the United States either go unreported altogether, or are treated as "isolated incidents" that only warrant one or two days' coverage, and frequently are relegated to the back pages of our newspapers and the brief mention at the bottom of our newscasts.
Who knows why the media have failed so badly -- but much of the blame lies with their own cowardice. My experience in trying to report on domestic terrorism over the years has been that, since I won a National Press Club Award for Distinguished Online Reporting for my work at MSNBC reporting on domestic terrorism back in 2000, every nearly media outlet that I have contacted about reporting on the subject since then has run away and hidden when it became clear that the stories would make this reality crystal clear. More than a few editors have suggested to me that even running such stories would bring them accusations of "liberal media bias" that they did not want to have to deal with.
And it has grossly distorted the shape and nature of our discourse about terrorism. Rather than including the understanding that radical white people also commit violent and fearful acts of terrorism in our discussion of the issue, the only form of terrorism that is seriously discussed is the kind involving brown people, preferably of Arab extraction. Those are the only people, in the public's mind, that qualify for the sobriquet of terrorist.
Yet if we understood terrorism not as a product of merely Islamic extremism, but more correctly of extremism itself -- and in recent years, right-wing extremism particularly -- we would have a better and firmer grip on how we go about defeating the phenomenon. For starters, we would be less likely to incorrectly identify terrorism with an ethnicity or a religion (brown Muslim people), and to correctly identify it with a toxic mindset (radical right-wing extremism).
Because, as anyone who has studied them understands, Islamic extremists are at their base far-right-wing fundamentalists. And they are very, very similar in their psychological orientation to white fundamentalists who join the Ku Klux Klan or neo-Nazis who join the Aryan Nations or white "libertarians" who become "sovereign citizens." They are identical in their thinking to people like the Family Research Council's Bryan Fischer, who sounded like your basic radical imam the other day when he suggested that the attack on Charlie Hebdo was God's punishment for the magazine's "blasphemy."
If we were to realize that reality, we might have a constructive dialogue about tackling terrorism at its root -- namely, in coming to terms with the extreme alienation that leads to radicalization, and what drives it, both at home and abroad.
But no. Instead, we are having conversations in Europe and America about how to deal with Muslims.
Consider, if you will, the motives of the Paris terrorists. As Juan Cole has explained:
This horrific murder was not a pious protest against the defamation of a religious icon. It was an attempt to provoke European society into pogroms against French Muslims, at which point al-Qaeda recruitment would suddenly exhibit some successes instead of faltering in the face of lively Beur youth culture (French Arabs playfully call themselves by this
anagramterm deriving from wordplay involving scrambling of letters). Ironically, there are reports that one of the two policemen they killed was a Muslim.
And so far, the discourse in both Europe and America (more so here) has played right into their hands. So far the European revulsion at the terrorism has become translated into vicious attacks on Muslims and their institutions, including arson attacks on their mosques and a variety of hate crimes. As Cole has subsequently noted, there is a real danger that far-right extremist parties will make real political gains in various European governments as a response to the Paris violence.
The media have played a key role in inflaming these sentiments, and they have been unapologetic about trotting out the "experts" who rail against Islam and send people's irrational fears into orbit. Will McCants, the "expert" who originally identified the Breivik attacks as being likely caused by Muslim radicals, has been back to work, weighing in on the Paris attacks and warning everyone that these were probably representative of a much larger plot (connected, apparently to both Al Qaeda and ISIS, even though they are rival organizations) to begin massive terrorist attacks on Europe and America.
As Karen Finney has explained at Media Matters, this is an incredibly backwards and self-destructive response that plays right into the hands of the terrorists:
Academic research into the causes of terrorism directly contradicts the idea that multiculturalism is part of the problem, pointing instead to the powerful tool inclusion and engagement can be in preventing radicalization, increasing integration into a set of values and broader counterterrorism strategies. One such study, authored in 2010 by the Center for European Reform's Rem Korteweg and colleagues, examined the radicalization process and found that factors like racism and bigotry as well as economic factors like high unemployment "reinforce the sensation of disenfranchisement and contribute to radicalization. Extremist Islamism offers these people new meaning."
Another study examined the correlation between feeling excluded and support for or a "sympathetic" view of extremist Islam. Among the findings: young Muslims ages 18-25 in Montreal were less likely than their counterparts in Berlin and Copenhagen to feel excluded from society, and they were much less likely to identify with Islamic extremism. Results like these are why engagement and inclusion are among the strategies America's National Counterterrorism Center utilizes in preventing radicalization.
Eventually, you would think, the American media will have to wake up. It may take the horror and tragedy of another Anders Breivik, acting out on American soil, for them to do so.
But even then, I won't be holding my breath.