Media portrayals of terrorism are racially loaded. There’s no doubt about it. But the way in which it is racially loaded is not immediately apparent, and a lot of the hot takes in the media today following the shooting in Vegas shows that people can be far too hasty in their presentation of issues.
Put simply, the problem is not the use of language to describe events, but the difference in prominence of events.
The claim that went viral today was that white people are not described as ‘terrorists’. They are described as ‘lone wolves’ who are ‘loners’ with ‘mental illness’. When the Vegas shooting occurred, people weren’t denouncing it as terrorism because the perpetrator was white, you see. If he had been brown, it would have been terrorism.
First off the bat, there’s no general definition of terrorism. The term varies from place to place in the specifics. What is useful to say is that the US and Australia both understand terrorism as being fundamentally about the intent behind the violence. It is nothing about the scale, severity, or impact on the community, it is about the state of mind of the person behind the violence and whether they are trying to coerce the community in some way. In Australia, we require the motivation to involve advancing a political, religious or ideological cause. In the US, it’s more broad.
This creates an interesting dynamic in the first place. In Australia, white males rarely need to resort to violence in order to coerce the population, but marginalised communities do. With the rise of right wing populism, this has changed and we are already aware of white nationalist groups (like the Sovereign Citizens) who, for whatever reason, feel marginalised and are potentially prone to radicalisation.
Framed differently, whites already run the government, media, and banks… why would they need to radicalise?
I’m careful to note that this doesn’t mean that whites don’t radicalise. They do. And, when they do, the media attention is different.
When the terrorist is ‘ethnic’, we have protracted debates fuelled by various segments of the media about immigration, Islam, and why we should ban burqas. The debate is extensive because the community’s prejudices are inflamed and the media has an incentive to stir controversy. It’s an industry of outrage and clickbait, and there is content to mine.
When it’s a white racist being pinged under counterterrorism law, there’s no similar controversy. The shock jocks don’t care. There’s nobody to deport. Nobody gets any mileage out of ‘Why are the whites out of control in this country?’
And it’s not just in the terrorism sphere. A white guy with a 4WD mowed down an Indigenous kid on a bike because Mayo McMurder thought the kid had stolen something. It was practically impossible to keep this in the news, and it certainly didn’t get wider circulation in the mainstream community. We don’t want to hear about People Like Us who commit crimes; we want to hear about the threat posed by the Other.
As a community, we leap way too quickly to the ‘terrorism’ label. It seems to mean a particular kind of high profile violence rather than anything specific. We certainly jump to the label before we know what the motivations are of the people committing the violence.
But there is some absurd rhetoric in opposition to this point. One news outlet claimed that the language used between white and non-white perpetrators was different. Brown people were terrorists while whites were ‘lone wolves’, for example. Except the evidence is the opposite. The ‘lone wolf’ rhetoric has made it easier for racists to make early calls about non-whites being terrorists prior to any link being made with established terror groups. That is, ‘Look at this violence! Anybody who isn’t white might be a lone wolf terrorist.’
Further, nothing is gained by describing every kind of dramatic violence as terrorism. If you think that the media too quickly labels people of colour as terrorists (you’d be correct), there’s nothing to be gained by using the label in haste for other types of violence as well. You don’t teach the dog to stop shitting in the yard by taking a dump there yourself.
If you want to improve the quality of debate around terrorism, don’t click the links.
There is nothing worth knowing within the first 48 hours of an incident. Hell, you’re better off waiting a week before reading anything about the issue. If everybody waited a week before reading anything, there would be no incentive for media outlets to broadcast inflammatory nonsense. It would slow down the narrative and promote considered, thoughtful commentary.
You don’t need instantaneous information about events that are occurring or just occurred. When you heard there was a shooting in Vegas, were you in a position to do literally anything about it? No. No you weren’t. It was useless information. So why incentivise shitty behaviour by consuming a product that you actually don’t need?
Coverage of terrorism is racist, but in a less overt way than that alleged. It is also not helpful to fuel a debate about the term ‘terrorism’ that promotes outrage and indignation where the outrage and indignation are misplaced and not supported by facts.