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'Muslim Killers' and Lone Wolves: The Biased Ways We Talk About Mass Shootings

In the aftermath of gun violence in the United States, media characterization of suspects and police reporting varies based on religion on ethnicity.
Photo by Zachary Massengill via gettyimages

Mass shootings are bafflingly commonplace in the U.S. Just last week, Robert Lewis Dear murdered three people in a Planned Parenthood facility. Around 11 AM on Wednesday December 2, suspects Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik of California opened fire at the Inland Regional Center, a non-profit community organization for disabled people living in the San Bernardino and Riverside counties. The LA Times reported the two killed 14 people and injured 21 others. The suspects were killed in a shootout with police later that day. The media's characterization and government's investigation into these crimes take on a markedly different framework when assailants are Muslim, or of Middle Eastern descent, versus when they are white, or Christian.


Read More: When Does Anti-Abortion Violence Become Terrorism?

Referring to Dear's shooting, Homeland Security Chairman, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) stated, "I don't think it would fall under quite the definition of domestic terrorism," even though the shooter reportedly mentioned "baby parts" to investigators, a reference to several anti-Planned Parenthood videos released by an extreme anti-abortion group this summer.

On Thursday morning, an anonymous source within federal law enforcement spoke to the LA Times about the San Bernardino shooting, stating in part, "We're very involved in terms of trying to see if the motive was something inspired by a terrorist organization or directed by a terrorist organization, or whether [Syed Farook] was self-radicalized." President Barack Obama made a statement Thursday morning as well, alluding to the possibility that the San Bernardino shooting could be terrorism. "It is possible that this is terrorist-related, but we don't know. It's also possible this was workplace-related."

When it was discovered Farook and Malik were Muslim, the New York Post changed its front-page headline, from "MURDER MISSION" to "MUSLIM KILLERS," inciting outrage across the Internet.

There is no doubt an anti-Muslim prejudice in this country, which certainly seeps into a lot of U.S. media coverage.

The Daily Beast covered the law enforcement pursuit of the suspects in the immediate aftermath of the attack. Following misinformation from the police, they published the name of another San Bernardino Muslim man, reporting he was involved in the shooting. That mistake was later corrected, after it became apparent that the man they named is actually Syed Rizwan Farook's brother, who has a very similar name. In their initial coverage, The Daily Beast described Farook's brother's home in detail that critics on social media have condemned: "The smell of basmati rice cooking came wafting through the door."


The distinct, sensational, "Muslim terrorist" angle is popular and perpetuates inaccurate stereotypes about the greatest perpetrators of violence in the United States. Michael Kugelman is the Senior Associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center. He specializes in the Middle East and U.S. relations. "There is no doubt an anti-Muslim prejudice in this country, which certainly seeps into a lot of U.S. media coverage," he wrote in an email to Broadly. "This may help explain why, even if it's through a subconscious process, media coverage often accentuates the ethnicities and religions of assailants who happen to be minorities in the United States."

When it comes to law enforcement's characterization of violence and how it varies drastically between crimes perpetrated by Christians and Muslims, Kugelman explained that it's related to the media and cultural perception. "Certainly Americans on the whole tend to equate Muslims with terrorism more so than they do with Christians," he wrote. "Part of the reason for this is media coverage, which tends to give tremendous levels of coverage to terror attacks perpetrated by Islamist terrorists and much less by other types of terrorists."

"These same perceptions, unfortunately, also tend to percolate down to law enforcement. That said, it's important not to generalize; plenty of Americans, including those in law enforcement, are much more appropriate in how they think in these contexts."


If there were stricter gun laws, it may have been more difficult for these people to have guns and to stage these massacres.

Kugelman named three common common denominators between the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood attack and the December 2 shooting in San Bernardino: Hatred, a lack of disrespect for life, and guns. "If there had been no guns involved, there would have been no shootings. And if there were stricter gun laws, it may have been more difficult for these people to have guns and to stage these massacres," he wrote.

"There are few, if any, countries with gun laws as lax as those of the United States. So strong is the gun lobby in this country that it has an impact on the U.S. global image." Kugelman said he's met many people in his travels around the world, especially in Europe, whose perspective on America would be positive, if not for the completely unconscionable ineffectiveness of our country's gun laws.

The biases of law enforcement, media, and the general American public impact the way that we talk about extreme violence in the United States. Stereotyping and sensationalizing Middle Eastern culture perpetuates prejudice and encourages the perception of ethnic and religious difference as strange, outsider, and dangerous. And, by only labeling some atrocities as terrorism and others as "lone wolf" situations, we overlook the fact that there have been more shootings than days of the year in 2015.

"[The right to bear arms is] deeply enmeshed with some of the founding identities of the United States, rooted in the uncompromising rights of freedom and private property," Kugelman wrote. "The problem is that these identities hearken back to a time that really does not exist anymore."