It wasn't long after the stabbing at Leytonstone station in London earlier this month that the word "terrorism" began circulating in the press and on social media. The massacre in Paris a few weeks before had left many feeling vulnerable to an attack in the UK. When one witness claimed to hear the 29-year-old suspect Muhyadin Mire shouting "this is for Syria" and "blood will be spilled," his motive was all but decided. The Telegraph called it the "Leytonstone terror attack," the Sun described it as a "terror stabbing" and other news agencies repeated the words of the Met's Counter Terrorism Command unit, who said it was treating what happened as a "terrorist incident."
A few days after the attack, as Mire appeared at Westminster Magistrates' Court, his brother Mohammed spoke to Jon Snow on Channel 4 News. Sitting alongside two prominent members of the local Somali community Mohammed drew a picture of a young man troubled by a history of mental illness that stretched back to his teenage years. In a conversation Mohammed had with his brother not long before the alleged attack took place, he claimed Muhyadin "was saying odd things, talking nonsense," and "seeing demons." Mohammed had appealed to the local authority for help but received nothing.
Could a man as vulnerable and unwell as Mire's brother suggests really be guilty of terrorism? Though there is no internationally agreed definition of the term, the British government and MI5 defines it as: "The use or threat of action designed to influence the government or an international governmental organization or to intimidate the public, or a section of the public; made for the purposes of advancing a political, religious, racial, or ideological cause." Given the mention of Syria, you can see why the term was invoked, but if Mohammed's words are anything to go by, it seems the cause is just as likely to be the UK's poorly funded mental health services than any grand plan to inspire fear and "influence the government."
As more context emerges, it seems important not to jump to conclusions. The fact that the attack was labelled as "terrorist" so quickly seemed to some to offer yet more evidence that our understanding of what constitutes terrorism is inconsistent and structured more by the race and religion of the person responsible than the actual crime committed.
One way to test this is to look at cases where the word "terrorism" has not been invoked. On September 11 this year, 26-year-old Zack Davies was sentenced to life in prison for a vicious attack on Dr. Sarandev Singh Bhambra, a Sikh man who was out shopping in Tesco in a small town in North Wales. Davies, who had links to the neo-Nazi group National Action—described by Hope Not Hate as "the most ideological Nazi group" to come out of Britain for decades—was heard screaming "white power" as he assaulted the Sikh dentist with a machete and hammer.
Unlike the alleged attack by Muhyadin Mire, terrorism never came into Zack Davies' case. The media called him an "extremist," "machete man," and a "Nazi-obsessed loner" and the crown prosecution service opted not to prosecute him under the 2000 Terrorism Act. When the Telegraph described the Leytonstone stabbing as "Britain's first terror attack since the murder of Lee Rigby in 2013," it was presumably accepting that what happened to Dr. Bhambra was not terrorism.
To many this seems like a double standard. After Davies's trial was concluded, Bhambra's brother asked the public to imagine what the outcome would have been if an Islamic extremist had attacked a white dentist while shouting Jihadist slogans. "Sarandev was singled out," he said in a statement, "because of the color of his skin. We are in no doubt that had the racial disposition of this case been reversed this would be reported as an act of terror with a wider media coverage."
Given that the UK's current definition of terrorism is often criticized for being too broad, it seems right to ask why the label wasn't used in this case. Davies's crime certainly seems to fit the bill: it was a clear act of attention-grabbing political violence on a minority group by a man who was found with copies of Mein Kampf and The Turner Diaries (the "bible of the racist right") in his bedroom.
Of course this isn't the first time the British media has been accused of having a skewed understanding of who is a terrorist and what constitutes terrorism. Shortly before it was confirmed that the bombing of central Oslo and massacre on Utoya island was the work of white supremacist Anders Brevick, many laid the blame on Islamic extremists. The Sun's front-page headline: "Al Qaeda Massacre: Norway's 9/11" remains perhaps the most glaring example of a British newspaper irresponsibly assuming terrorism = Islam.
Likewise, the immediate decision to describe the murder of Lee Rigby back in 2013 as an act of terrorism seemed to some to be influenced by the fact that the perpetrators were Muslim and had shouted "Allahu Akbar." The attack fell under the UK's current definition of terrorism, but other definitions—including the US's—emphasize that terrorism involves violence perpetrated against noncombatants. Lee Rigby may have been out of uniform when he was killed near his barracks in Woolwich but he was nonetheless a serving member of the armed forces, and was specifically targeted for that reason. While in this case the label seems warranted, the immediate and unequivocal use of the term raised a few eyebrows.
The idea that the British media only considers events "terrorism" if they're linked to radical Islam is clearly an overstatement. From the late 1960s through to the early 00s, terrorism was more regularly associated with the IRA. Recent attacks by white supremacists such as Pavlo Lapshyn, a far-right university student who murdered 82-year-old Mohammed Saleem in Birmingham and attempted three mosque bombings, have also been widely described as terrorism.
If you look at the style guides of British media outlets you can also find a clear effort to exercise caution when reporting on terrorism. The London-based news agency Reuters, for example, has a long-standing policy of not calling anything terror or terrorism unless specifically quoting somebody else. After the 7/7 attacks in London, the BBC took a similar path. Today its style guide states, "Terrorism is a difficult and emotive subject with significant political overtones… we try to avoid the use of the term 'terrorist' without attribution." The Guardian's style-guide encourages its journalists to be "very careful about using the term" and the Economist also says: "Use this word with care, preferably only to mean someone who uses terror as an organized system of intimidation."
Of course, the tendency to rely on the assessment of the government, police and courts in using the term terrorism still raises questions around objectivity. Attributing the word terrorism to institutions of the state may absolve journalists from putting forward their own subjective judgement, but it still runs the risk of treating official opinion as gospel, when many feel like it's anything but.
As a case in point, back in 2007, Robert Cottage, a former candidate for the far-right British National Party, avoided a terrorism charge despite possessing an armory of explosive chemical weapons described as the largest amount ever found in the country. Likewise in November last year, 20-year-old soldier and EDL supporter Ryan McGee managed to avoid a terror charge despite writing about "murdering immigrants" and admitting to making a nail bomb loaded with shrapnel. He was jailed for just two years at the Old Bailey and the prosecutor Roger Smart said he "was not a terrorist but an immature teenager." When it comes to the implementation of terrorism legislation, many feel like their is a two-tier legal system which is biased against Muslims. However cautiously the news media tries to approach the issue, these biases can be easily reproduced.
Added caution can't necessarily account for the perception that the media cares more about terrorism committed by Muslims than terrorism committed on Muslims. Although the Zack Davies case was covered by most major news outlets, it wasn't as big a story as the Leytonstone attack and had nothing like the round-the-clock reporting Lee Rigby received—despite Davies's attack being an act of revenge for Rigby's death.
In the week that followed the Paris attacks on November 13, 115 Muslims living in the UK faced "hate crimes" according to a report that appeared in the Independent. Towards the end of the month an arson attack on Finsbury park mosque in London was explicitly described as a "terrorist attack" by its chairperson, Mohammed Kozbar. Given the number of abuses that have occurred under existing terrorism legislation, using the term more may not be the way forward. But as political violence of different kinds continues, the issue of how the media chooses to report on terrorism is unlikely to go away.
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