What do you call a couple who espouse an extremist, anti-government ideology and kill two policemen and a bystander while draping one of their victims in a flag associated with a political movement?
After Sunday’s shooting spree perpetrated by just such a couple in Las Vegas, many in the media declined to use one potential label: terrorists.
Jerad and Amanda Miller, the young Nevada couple who fatally shot three people before killing themselves, were enamored of a right-wing, conspiratorial view of federal authority, according to law enforcement officials. They killed two police officers, Alyn Beck and Igor Soldo, as the men ate lunch, and covered one of the bodies with a Nazi swastika and the Revolutionary War-era “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, a symbol of the tea party movement. The pair shouted about “revolution” as they moved to a nearby Wal-Mart, where Amanda Miller shot a customer, Joseph Wilcox, who tried to stop them.
That shorthand description would seem to qualify the Millers as terrorists. Although the term’s strict definition has been a subject of debate within national security circles for years, there has been some consensus around Georgetown professor Bruce R. Hoffman’s five-part test for terrorism: an act of violence that was politically motivated, perpetrated to influence a broader audience, involved an organized group, targeted civilians and was carried out by a person outside the government.
Yet few media accounts have described the Millers as terrorists or their actions as terrorism.
The Washington Post avoided both terms in a news story on Monday. The Los Angeles Times wrote that the couple died “shouting messages of antigovernment revolution” but made no mention of terrorism. The Associated Press, the most widely distributed news service in the world, hadn’t used either term in multiple stories through Tuesday afternoon.
And that has prompted suggestions of a double standard.
“Without a doubt, if these individuals had been Muslim, it not only would be called ‘terrorism,’ but it would have made national and international headlines for weeks,” said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington-based group. “It was an act of terror, but when it’s not associated with Muslims it’s just a day story that comes and goes.”
Hooper cited a litany of news stories about domestic acts of violence that never gained prominence as acts of terrorism because, he said, Muslims weren’t involved: the attempted storming of an Atlanta-area courthouse by a heavily armed man last week, the arrest of two men accused of setting off pipe bombs in venues in the D.C. area and an Alaska couple associated with an anti-government group who plotted to kill federal judges.
“There’s absolutely a double standard, and it needs to be called out,” said Arsalan Iftikhar, a senior editor of the Islamic Monthly. “Whenever a white person engages in violence they’re considered crazy lunatics, but when a brown Muslim does it, it’s an act of terrorism. Since 9/11, the media is quick to jump on anything an Arab or Muslim does, but it takes a much more deliberative approach when it’s a white person.”
News organizations, including The Post, say they are reluctant to call anyone a terrorist unless officials do so first.
“In general, we shy away from independently labeling people as terrorists and would factually note if someone has been listed or labeled as such by someone else, such as the FBI or another government entity,” AP spokesman Paul Colford said in an email.
He said, however, that there are some “clear” cases in which the word applies: the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001; bombings in Bali, London and Madrid; and the assault on a Nairobi shopping mall last year by the militant group al-Shabab. But in incidents such as the shootings in Las Vegas, the news service relies on the FBI or other agencies for such terminology.
The Reuters news service has a similar policy. Its stylebook advises reporters to use the terms “terrorism” and “terrorist” only when attributing them to a specific source. “Aim for a dispassionate use of language so that individuals, organizations and governments can make their own judgment on the
basis of facts,” it says. “Seek to use more specific terms like ‘bomber’ or ‘bombing’ . . . ‘gunman’ or ‘gunmen,’ etc.”
Such labels are important both as a cultural matter and as a matter for law enforcement, said Daniel Byman, a counterterrorism expert at Georgetown University and the Brookings Institution. Alleged terrorists or terrorist groups get the attention of federal agencies such as the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security and are prosecuted under national security laws, he pointed out, whereas ordinary criminal suspects are investigated by state and local authorities and tried under local statutes.
“If it’s an al-Qaida attack, you can bet it will affect the resources and how we respond to it,” Byman said. But “many of the objectives [of right-wing extremist groups] are close enough to legitimate political movements. It would be hard to take them on as a whole without causing a lot of discomfort” among people who don’t have violent aims.