How we talk about incidents of violence like the killings in Las Vegas makes a difference. Today, I’ll focus on two aspects of our national conversation: The danger of inspiring copycat violence through sensationalized media coverage, and what the decision to call an act “terrorism” means.
THE MEDIA TALKS TOO MUCH ABOUT THE KILLERS
The wrong kind of media coverage of mass killings can create the seeds for the next mass killing, University of North Carolina sociologist Zeynep Tufekci says. As she wrote for The Atlantic in 2012, “I am increasingly concerned that the tornado of media coverage that swirls around each such mass killing, and the acute interest in the identity and characteristics of the shooter—as well as the detailed and sensationalist reporting of the killer's steps just before and during the shootings—may be creating a vicious cycle of copycat effects similar to those found in teen and other suicides.”
Mass shootings have multiple causes. Easy access to weapons and poor mental-health infrastructure are two other common ones. But given the difficulty of addressing either of those in the United States, Tufekci is focusing on helping the media become more cautious in its handling of these incidents. “These killers often seek mainstream attention, and often as a way of ‘revenge’ in their twisted mind against the broader society,” she told me in an email. She wants major media organizations to cover mass homicides like they do suicides. Reporting on suicides often follows widely endorsed guidelines that urge writers not to sensationalize the deaths. Tufekci has created similar guidelines for the media’s reporting on mass killings:
1. Law enforcement should not release details of the methods and manner of the killings, and those who learn those details should not share them...
2. If and when social media accounts of the killers are located, law enforcement should work with the platforms to immediately pull them...
3. The name of the killer should not be revealed immediately...
4. The intense push to interview survivors and loved ones in their most vulnerable moments should be stopped.
Public desire for understanding of these events needs to be balanced against the risk that focusing on the wrong details will inspire more killings. A particular problem, according to Tufekci is “reporting from the killer’s vantage point.” Close-ups of the killer’s last moments—and arsenal—do little to inform the public but can plant the “seeds of ideation.” Her goal isn’t censorship, but sensitivity. “Having footage of panicked people running from [the killer] on loop is counterproductive,” she said. “Such footage can be shown once or twice, and shelved—it adds no news value the 83rd time.” She urges a focus on victims’ stories instead.
The killers’ stories will be shared anyway on social media, but it makes a difference if individuals have to look for them in what she’s called the “seedy corner” of the internet. “The people already motivated to find gory footage exist, and they are one category.” She’s focused on another group: Potential killers who want “attention on their terms.” The media has the power to decide whether to give it to them.
THE HISTORY OF “TERRORISM”
After the attack, Masthead member Laura wrote in to raise a common question about violence like this: Should we call it terror? “What's the significance of designating something a terrorist act?” she asks. “Historically, when did we start using that designation, and why?”
The word “terrorism” appears in The Atlantic’s archives as far back as 1865, describing the violence of the French revolutionary Robespierre. But it didn’t become a subject of fierce political debate until more recently. In the early 1970s, the terrorism scholar Martha Crenshaw said there was no serious debate about the word. Terrorism, she said, entered the American political consciousness in the 1980s, in part because of the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Lebanon, which killed hundreds of service members.
But that attack wouldn’t necessarily meet modern “academic purists” definition of terrorism, as Karolina Lula writes, since it targeted the armed forces. According to Lula, scholars of terrorism tend to define an act of terrorism loosely as one that “is politically motivated, perpetrated by non-state actors like lone wolves or organizations, and targets civilians rather than the military.” Scholars like Lula object to lumping together categories such as “terrorists” (who target civilians) and “guerillas” (who target the military), because it loses nuance that help make diagnoses and predictions. Poorly labeled violence, she writes, is like a “misdiagnosed affliction.” You can’t cure what you don’t understand.
Calling an act “terror” also has legal consequences. The FBI investigates specific acts that fall within the American legal definition, but it’s not necessarily the same one academics use. “I know there’s a definition of terrorism that all of us carry around as a colloquial matter,” said then-FBI Director James Comey in 2015, reacting to public outcry when his office didn’t charge Charleston shooter Dylann Roof with terrorism. Domestic terrorism, he said, consisted of an act of violence meant to “influence a public body or citizenry.” The specific motive matters: “It’s more of a political act,” he said. Roof was ultimately found guilty of federal hate crimes and sentenced to death. In other cases, the decision to make terrorism charges—or not—affects what resources are brought to bear. As terrorism scholar Daniel Byman told NPR, “If it's a crime that's seen as someone who might be linked to an international terrorist group, you get the vast federal U.S. national security bureaucracy as well as tremendous political attention.”
That question of international involvement is vexing reporters about the Las Vegas attack. ISIS’s news agency quickly claimed credit for the attack, even though the Vegas killer was a gambling, alcohol-drinking, middle-aged white man, whom investigators have not currently linked to the terrorist group. ISIS is normally careful in claiming attacks, so, Graeme Wood writes, “a false claim of credit in Las Vegas will effectively shred the Islamic State’s news agency’s credibility.” But as the New York Times’ Rukmini Callimachi tweeted, “If those of us who study ISIS are confused, it's interesting to note that even ISIS sympathisers are having trouble parsing today's claim.”
ISIS may simply have gotten it wrong, as they did earlier this year when they claimed an incident at a casino in Manila that was not, in fact, directed by ISIS. They share that error with another important source: The president of the United States, who also incorrectly called the Manila incident terrorism. Donald Trump’s decision to call an act terror or not—the T word didn’t come up when Trump called the Las Vegas attack “pure evil” Monday—is at the heart of the current anxieties about terrorism. When acts of extreme violence target groups who feel marginalized by the state, as they did in Charlottesville earlier this year, the word “terrorism” takes on another meaning. By arguing about the word for so long, we’ve made it a political category. If the violence against you isn’t “terror,” that means it’s not worth arguing about.
TODAY’S WRAP UP
- Question of the day: In following the Las Vegas story, what have you heard too much of, and what would you like to know more about?
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- Coming soon: Tomorrow, Caroline celebrates the release of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book by talking to “the Horde,” the group of commenters who were part of his community at The Atlantic.
- What we’re thinking about: We’re scheduling upcoming conference calls with Atlantic writers and editors, including Ta-Nehisi, Jeff Goldberg, Lenika Cruz, and others. Who else would you like to hear from?
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