Terrorists, Terrorism and The Washington Post

The Washington Post published an informative, moving first anniversary feature on the Sept. 1, 2004 seizure of an elementary school in Beslan, Russia. That attack ended with the deaths of 331 people, 186 of them children.

The substance of  “School Is Symbol of Death for Haunted Children of Beslan; A Year After Siege, Russians Still Grapple With Dark Memories,” by Post foreign service correspondent Peter Finn was worthwhile. And the vocabulary of  the August 28, 2005 article stood out as well.

The Post describes those who seized the school as terrorists six times and their attack as “Russia’s worst terrorist [emphasis added] act ….”  Although a surviving terrorist is referred to once as a “hostage-taker, the euphemism “militant” never appears. Neither do other substitutions commonly applied to Palestinian terrorists, such as “gunmen” or “fighters.”

CAMERA has criticized The Washington Post repeatedly for its inconsistent, contradictory use of the words terrorist and terrorism, and frequent, inaccurate substitution of militant for terrorist. Our July 21 analysis, Location, Location, Location, pointed out the newspaper’s frequent and precise use of terrorist and terrorism in the newspaper’s coverage of the July 7 London subway and bus bombings – and avoidance of those terms in reporting the suicide bombing of a shopping mall in Netanya, Israel.

Unfortunately, Finn’s Beslan anniversary feature does not appear to mark a change, but rather seems to illustrate that The Post‘s contradictory, misleading and even invidious usage regarding terrorist and militant continues. For example:

* In “Anguish and Anger a Year Later in Beslan; Broken Community Begins Three-Day Remembrance of Separatist Siege at School,” September 2, Finn repeats his reference to the mass killings as Russia’s “worst terrorist act.” But the perpetrators are identified as terrorists only in a direct quote from Russian President Vladimir Putin. Otherwise, in The Post‘s own words, they are “separatist fighters,” “Chechen separatists,” “heavily armed guerrillas,” “guerrillas” and “one surviving attacker.”
* “Beslan Marks Anniversary of Attack’s End,” a September 4 Associated Press dispatch published by The Post, refers to “one of Russia’s deadliest terrorist attacks ….” But those who committed it were said to be “heavily armed militants,” “rebels,” and “gunmen.”

In other recent articles, The Post again showed more readiness to use the words terrorism and terrorist in news from the United States and European than the Middle East:

* In the September 7 article “Rebuilding Begins Where Terror Struck; N.Y. Transportation Hub Costs $2.2 Billion,” datelined New York City, not only does “terror” appear in the headline, but Post correspondent Michelle Garcia also writes in the body of the article that “Five days before the four-year anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks [emphasis added], federal and state officials celebrated the first phase of reconstruction at a site still considered a cemetery by survivors.” The word militant does not appear.

* The August 31 article, “Ex-Counterterrorism Chief Cites Rise in Attacks,” by staff writer Walter Pincus, referred to Osama bin Laden as “the terrorist leader.” Pincus also paraphrased former White House counter-terrorism director Richard Clarke as criticizing Bush administration rhetoric on “fighting terrorists abroad” and noting that “chemical plants represent particularly dangerous targets for terrorists.” The terms jihadist threat and jihadist networks are used, but militant is not.

* On August 21, The Post published an Associated Press article, “Pope Urges Muslims to Fight Terrorism; In Germany, Benedict Seeks Religious Unity Against Fanaticism.” Datelined Cologne, the AP dispatch used the word terrorism four times in its own narrative and twice in direct quotes of Pope Benedict XVI. The word militant did not appear.

* In “Judge Heard Terrorism Case As He Interviewed for Seat,” August 17, staff writer Jim VandeHei reports on Salim Ahmed Hamdan, who, “like many other suspected terrorists, was detained at the prison in Guantanamo Bay and accused of belonging to the al Qaeda terrorist organization.” The term “Bush’s anti-terrorism strategy” appears twice, “terrorism case” and “terrorist suspects” each once. Militant does not appear. 
* In the same edition, the article “L.A. Holdups Linked to Islamic Group, Possible Terrorist Plot,” by staff writers Amy Argetsinger and Dan Eggen, the word “terrorist” appears in the headline, in the lead paragraph about an investigation of gas station hold-ups that “broadened into an investigation of a possible terrorist plot …”, and in the sentence “No connections have been made to al Qaeda or any other foreign terrorist group.” The phrases “‘jihadist’ literature,” “jihadist literature,” and “radical Islamic group” appear. Militant does not.

Yet in “Israeli Pullout Creates Political Opportunity; Shift of Gaza Land and Assets to Palestinians Sharpens Hamas-Fatah Rivalry,” a September 5 report by Post foreign service correspondent Scott Wilson, the words terrorism and terrorist do not appear.

Hamas is listed by the United States and Israel as a terrorist organization. But “Israeli Pullout Creates Political Opportunity” says Hamas has an “armed wing” that “carried out ambushes, suicide bombings and missile strikes on Jewish settlements during the nearly five-year Palestinian uprising.” In fact, Hamas conducted terrorism in Israel and the West Bank and Gaza Strip resulting in the murder of hundreds of Israeli non-combatants and the wounding of many more. Its “armed wing” – an assortment of terrorist cells – continues to define it.

Fatah, often termed a political party or movement, was co-founded by Yasser Arafat and – through its al-Aksa Martyrs Brigades, Tanzim and other affiliates – remains the largest Palestinian terrorist group, the major component of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. The PLO itself was and remains an umbrella organization of terrorist groups. Fatah’s West Bank leader, Marwan Barghouti, was convicted by Israel for his involvement in terrorist murders during the “al-Aksa intifada” and jailed.

Nevertheless, “Israeli Pullout Creates Political Opportunity” says only that “Fatah [like Hamas] … operates its own militia ….”

CAMERA’s continued focus on the news media’s use, or avoidance, of the words terrorism and terrorist and the frequent substitution of militant or other euphemisms is not a quibble. George Orwell famously warned that corrupt language could lead to corrupt thought, eventually to the point of justifying murder.

We pointed out in our July 21 analysis that The Washington Post‘s general failure to accurately describe Palestinian Arab terrorism against Israel goes back at least to the early 1980s. Then the paper’s coverage often attempted to disassociate Arafat from the anti-Israel, anti-Jewish, anti-Western attacks carried out at his direction by the PLO and its constituent groups.

Doing the same now not only with Fatah but also Hamas obscures the news instead of rep orting it accurately. It makes the paper a de facto apologist advocate for one side – and that side the aggressor. Journalistic standards demand that The Washington Post identify the aggression and the aggressor accurately and consistently.

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