When it comes to using the words “terrorist” and “terrorism” accurately, The Washington Post remains consistently inconsistent. This is not a semantic quibble, words being the predominant way human beings express thought. Right words are fundamental to precise description, and such description is the basis of journalism, science, law and moral judgment, among other activities.
Failing to distinguish between terrorists and “militants,” “guerrillas,” and other imprecise or erroneous labels – as The Post and other news media often do, in particular in reporting on Arab violence against Israelis – endorses, implicitly if not explicitly, a lethal Palestinian tactic. As Moshe Haberthal, professor at New York University law school and professor of Jewish thought and ethics at Hebrew University explained recently, Palestinian combatants’ goal is to erase the distinction between civilians and soldiers, making every Israeli a target, anywhere and at any time.
Targeting non-combatants, of course, is the essence of terrorism and a violation of Western rules of war, hence a war crime.
Recent Washington Post coverage of terrorism reflects the newspaper’s difficulty in reflecting this basic principle:
“Detainee with Baltimore ties charged,” a February 15 article by Post staff writer Peter Finn, reported on charges against a former Baltimore area resident held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. “Majid Khan, a Pakistani citizen and a former legal resident of the United States, is accused of conspiring with Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks …” Finn reported. The U.S. military alleges that Khan carried funds to “Jemaah Islamiah, a regional terrorist [emphasis added] organization in Southeast Asia,” which used the money to fund the 2003 bombing of a Marriott Hotel in Indonesia, in which 11 people were killed and more than 80 wounded.
“Thailand: Iranians linked to bomb plot; Plan to Attack Israeli Diplomats” a February 17 Associated Press dispatch published by The Post, reported on claims by Thai police that four Iranians in Bangkok had been planning to attack Israeli diplomats. AP paraphrased a police spokesman, saying in its own words that a suspect “was being investigated for terrorism-related [emphasis added] activities linked to the Bangkok blasts.”
The article directly quoted Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak as saying that “…Iran, which is a veteran sponsor of terror [emphasis added], is trying to raise the bar even more, trying to harm diplomats around the world.”
And in “Man charges with attempt to bomb U.S. Capitol,” a page one article in the February 18 Post, the paper quoted a specialist in “terrorism sting operations.” It also mentioned “repeated criticism [of the suburban Washington Dar al-Hijrah mosque] for ties to worshipers who were found to have been terrorism suspects” and noted “in the past year, federal agents have arrested at least 20 people in the United States on terrorism-related [emphases added] charges ….”
But in “Palestinian ends hunger strike in deal with Israel,” a February 22 news report by Joel Greenberg, an Israel-based correspondent for The Post, readers learn that “Khader Adnan, 33, accused of being a prominent activist in the militant [emphases added] Islamic Jihad group, had refused food for 65 days, longer than any other Palestinian prisoner ….” In truth, Adnan was jailed on suspicion of being a leader, not “activist,” in the Iranian-sponsored Islamic Jihad, designated a terrorist, not “militant” organization by Israel, the United States and other governments.
One day later, in The Post’s page one news feature, “Sense of inevitable war grips Israel; Many see the prospect of striking Iran over its nuclear program as the lesser of two evils” (February 23, the words terror, terrorist and terrorism, though appropriate, do not appear.
Instead, correspondent Greenberg writes of “the militant groups affiliated with it [Iran], including Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.” Hezbollah also is described as “the guerrilla group” and Hamas as “the Islamist movement” [emphases added] even in the context of their attacks on civilians.
The Post fails to mention that Hezbollah and Hamas are designated by the U.S. government, as well as Israel and others, as terrorist organizations.
When The Post and Greenberg make the distinction, they sometimes minimize it. For example, “Jordan hosts Hamas leader in bid to boost role in region; Overture to Palestinian group is also aimed at engaging with Islamists,” (January 30), accurately and appropriately reports that “in Washington and in Israel … Hamas is considered a terrorist organization [emphasis added] because of its deadly attacks on Israeli civilians.” Not only Israeli civilians, however, tourists and foreign workers also have been murdered by Hamas in pursuit of its anti-Jewish jihad.
In general, The Post – and other news outlets – tend to describe terrorism and terrorists accurately the closer they strike to the media’s primary audiences and offices. Editorial judgment and journalistic accuracy, however, seem to be suspended when the aggressors are Palestinian Arabs and the victims are Israelis, especially Israeli Jews.
“Palestinian ends hunger strike in deal with Israel” did use the phrase “terrorist attacks” once. The effect, for readers lacking independent knowledge of the source of the direct quote containing the description, might have been to exculpate Adnan. “… Richard Falk, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian areas, cited a statement from the Israeli government that Adnan ‘is not suspected of direct involvement with terrorist attacks [emphasis added].’” And drug lords don’t usual make street corner sales. Adnan was in preventative detention as a security threat by virtue of his alleged Islamic Jihad leadership position, not on charges of pulling the trigger in a specific shooting.
Readers ought to have been informed that Falk is not a reliable source. His chronic anti-Israel actions have led the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, to call for his removal.
“Sense of inevitable war grips Israel” contained a similar significant omission. It states that “thousands of rockets fired by Hezbollah struck northern Israel during the nation’s 2006 war against the guerrilla group, and hundreds more were fired by Hamas and other groups during Israel’s three-week offensive in late 2008 and 2009 against the Islamist movement.”
This short-hand obscures the reasons Israel went to war: Hezbollah fired hundreds of rockets into Israel while infiltrating the country to kill and kidnap soldiers; Hamas and its allies had fired thousands of rockets and mortars into Israel before the latter invaded the Gaza Strip in 2008. Israel did not go to war against Hezbollah and Hamas, who then fired rockets; the terrorist groups fired rockets, then Israel counter-attacked.
Precise chronology, like accurate terminology, is fundamental. It helps distinguish journalism from gossip. The Post’s inconsistency undermines its journalism.