Call Terrorists “Terrorists”

Yet another newspaper has published a column that wrestles with the question of when it is appropriate to label a murderer a terrorist. On September 5, 2003, Boston Globe ombudsman Christine Chinlund wrote a column entitled “Who should wear the ‘terrorist’ label?” Chinlund, did not employ the same clear, one-standard approach of Philip Gailey, the St. Petersburg Time‘s editor of editorials  Instead, she explained to Globe readers that the newspaper’s editors consider it acceptable to label attacks against civilians “acts of terror,” but do not consider it appropriate to name the perpetrators “terrorists,” unless they are from Al Qaeda.

There are numerous contradictions in the piece all stemming from a view that if we in America are attacked by mass murderers seeking to destroy our people and way of life — those killers are obviously terrorists. But when far-away killers deliberately blow up children and pregnant women on buses in Israel, fine points of definition and complexity supposedly apply requiring these killers to be described in circuitous and gentler language.

The column appears below, followed by CAMERA comments on its discrepancies.


Who should wear the ‘terrorist’ label?
By Christine Chinlund, 9/8/2003

With this week’s 9/11 anniversary comes reflection on all that has changed these past two years. Even our language has shifted; the word terrorism itself casts a different shadow.

It has always, of course, been a powerfully negative label. But post-9/11 the word’s potency has multiplied. In the current climate, the terrorist tag effectively banishes its holder from the political arena. More than ever, it condemns rather than describes.

Indeed, newspapers must be doubly careful about how they apply the word. Sparing use is the norm. For example, the Palestinian organization Hamas, whose suicide bombers maim and kill Israeli citizens, is routinely described in the Globe and other papers as a “militant,” not terrorist, group.

Such restraint infuriates some Middle East partisans (most often, but not exclusively, supporters of Israel) who say it sugarcoats reality and that any group targeting civilians is terrorist. I receive regular demands to, as a Chelmsford reader put it, “stop misleading readers with terminology that affords terrorists a false degree of legitimacy.”

What possible reason is there for not unflinchingly applying the word terrorist to any organization or person who targets civilians? It may seem like hair-splitting, but there’s a reason to reserve the terrorist label for specific acts of violence, and not apply it broadly to groups.

To tag Hamas, for example, as a terrorist organization is to ignore its far more complex role in the Middle East drama. The word reflects not only a simplification, but a bias that runs counter to good journalism. To label any group in the Middle East as terrorist is to take sides, or at least appear to, and that is not acceptable. The same holds true in covering other far-flung conflicts. One person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter; it’s not for journalists to judge.

That said, journalists can not, and should not, be blind to reality. When we see terrorism, we should say so. A suicide bombing on a crowded bus is clearly an act of terrorism and should be so labeled. And it should also be described in all its painful detail. Such reporting is more powerful in its specificity than any broad label.

This approach – call the act terrorist, but not the organization – is used in many newsrooms, including the Globe‘s. It allows for variations: The terrorist label can appear in a quote or when detailing Washington’s official list of terrorist groups. But not in the reporter’s own voice.

The wisdom of this approach is, understandably, the subject of renewed debate in the wake of the recent, horrible bus bombing in Jerusalem that killed 21 people. There are good arguments on both sides. But I cast my lot with those who believe the current approach – perhaps imperfect and a bit contrived – best serves accuracy and impartiality, at least for now. It is a necessary accommodation in a complicated world.

“The overall approach here is to describe events and present facts rather than to attach labels to individuals or groups,” notes Globe editor Martin Baron. “We particularly seek to avoid hot-button language that has become associated with a point of view . . .”

Baron notes that Middle East coverage is a special concern for many readers. He acknowledges the view of supporters of Israel who “believe we should use the term ‘terrorist’ to describe militant Palestinian groups that encourage or carry out horrific suicide bombings against civilians” — and of Palestinians and their backers who “argue that theirs is a legitimate struggle over land and freedom . . . (and) that Israeli military killings of Palestinian civilians should be properly portrayed as ‘state terrorism.’ ” The debate, he says, is complicated by the fact that some militant Palestinian groups also perform some social service functions.

Best, he says, to avoid attaching labels to either side, instead providing “accurate, fair and honest accounts of specific news events.” That includes calling suicide bombings “acts of terror” and “terror attacks.” (The Globe also routinely points out the State Department designation of Palestinian groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad as terrorist organizations.)

The Globe practice, says Baron, is to evaluate each story individually. In the “relatively rare” instances where the terrorism label is used broadly, he says, “it has been applied to groups that have no clearly identifiable or explicitly articulated political objective.”

Count Al Qaeda as one of those exceptions. In the Globe and elsewhere, it’s called a “terrorist network” — which prompts critics to argue, anew, that if Al Qaeda is a terrorist organization so is (fill the blank).

It’s difficult, given that the definition of Al Qaeda in the United States is almost solely based on the 9/11 attacks, to imagine seeing it as anything else. A more precise definition – “a radical Islamist network that employs violence against innocents” – trumps “terrorist” on grounds of specificity, but it ignores one of our most profound national experiences, 9/11. Given Al Qaeda’s self-definition and its large-scale embrace of terrorism, it has proven itself an allowable exception.


The ombudsman represents the readers. Her opinions and conclusions are her own. Phone 617-929-3020 or, to leave a message, 929-3022. Our e-mail address is [email protected]

CAMERA comments:

1) The article asserts that Hamas should be called a “militant” group – not a terrorist one – because of its “complex role in the Middle East drama.”

However, if “complex” refers to the “good” side of Hamas, the “social service functions” mentioned, why does this mitigating factor not apply to Al Qaeda too, which also built hospitals, clinics and roads in Afghani stan and Africa?

2) The author maintains that to use “terrorist” means “to take sides.”

In fact, not using the term is taking sides — the Palestinian side. The Palestinians blowing up buses prefer not to be called “terrorists.”

3) The article trots out the tired platitude: “One person’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist; it’s not for journalists to judge.”

But there are millions of “person[s]” who consider Al Qaeda freedom fighters and Globe journalists do “judge” — that Al Qaeda should be called a terrorist organization.

4) Globe editor Martin Baron is quoted as saying that in the “relatively rare” instances where the terrorism label is used broadly, “it has been applied to groups that have no clearly identifiable or explicitly articulated political objective.”

But the term terrorist or terrorism does, by dictionary or /U.S. Legal Code/State Dept definition, apply to groups with political objectives.

  • violence (as bombing) committed by groups in order to intimidate a population or government into granting their demands (Webster’s Dictionary)
  • …premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience. For the purposes of this definition, the term “noncombatant” is interpreted to include, in addition to civilians, military personnel who at the time of the incident are unarmed and/or not on duty. [From Title 22 of the United States Code, Section 2656f(d) and the State Department’s “Patterns of Global Terrorism” 2000]

Al Qaeda has a political objective — the defeat of the West, by apocalyptic means if necessary, and the triumph of a brand of extreme Islam. But the Globe considers Al Qaeda a terrorist group.

5) The author argues that America’s “profound national experience” – the trauma of 9/11 – changes everything and makes it right to call the killers of 3,000 citizens “terrorists.”

But every 50 dead Israelis, targeted for deliberate murder, equates in quantity in that tiny nation to the magnitude of the 9/11 attacks in the United States. Israel has suffered, and continues to suffer many “profound national experiences.” But the Globe advocates sanitized language for the killers.

6) And what is Globe policy regarding terminology for the group Islamic Jihad, which has no clinics, hospitals or childrens’ summer camps and only one purpose in life — the destruction of Israel and its people? Is this a “terrorist”group?

CAMERA agrees entirely that Al Qaeda should be termed a “terrorist” organization — and urges the Globe and other media outlets to cease their double standard and start characterizing groups such as Hamas as “terrorist” as well.

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