By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

The T-word

Now that Hamas has taken over the Palestinian parliament, we can expect a renewal of the debate over whether the news media should label the organization as “terrorist.” Here is some background.

More than two years ago, then-Boston Globe ombudsman Christine Chinlund offered an expansive explanation for why the media shouldn’t use the T-word to describe Hamas, and why they should use the term to describe “specific acts.” An excerpt:

What possible reason is there for not unflinchingly applying the word terrorist to any organization or person who targets civilians? It may seem like hair-splitting, but there’s a reason to reserve the terrorist label for specific acts of violence, and not apply it broadly to groups.

To tag Hamas, for example, as a terrorist organization is to ignore its far more complex role in the Middle East drama. The word reflects not only a simplification, but a bias that runs counter to good journalism. To label any group in the Middle East as terrorist is to take sides, or at least appear to, and that is not acceptable. The same holds true in covering other far-flung conflicts. One person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter; it’s not for journalists to judge.

That said, journalists can not, and should not, be blind to reality. When we see terrorism, we should say so. A suicide bombing on a crowded bus is clearly an act of terrorism and should be so labeled. And it should also be described in all its painful detail. Such reporting is more powerful in its specificity than any broad label.

This approach — call the act terrorist, but not the organization — is used in many newsrooms, including the Globe’s. It allows for variations: The terrorist label can appear in a quote or when detailing Washington’s official list of terrorist groups. But not in the reporter’s own voice.

That appears to be the policy followed by the New York Times, too. (Or as the New Republic Online once caustically put it (sub. req.), “close examination of the Times suggests a policy of referring to attacks against civilians as terrorism except when the victims happen to be Jewish.”) So it was interesting today to see the split between the news pages and the editorial page. The lead news article, by Steven Erlanger, referred to Hamas as a “radical Islamic party,” and noted carefully that the organization is “considered a terrorist group by Israel, the United States and the European Union.”

The lead editorial throws such caution to the wind, calling Hamas “an organization that revels in terrorism.” Of course, the editorial page is supposed to be opinionated — and perhaps there really isn’t any discrepancy, since the editorial might be said to refer to “specific acts” Hamas engages in rather than the organization itself.

Obviously Hamas uses terrorism to advance its cause of destroying Israel. Does that make it a “terrorist organization”? You would think so. Expect to see this debated extensively — and heatedly — in the days and weeks to come.

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  1. Bill Baar

    Hamas paid Nashat Aqtash $180,000 for media advice during the elections. The Guardian wrote about him yesterday. Trying to figure out if they’re terrorists or not is a bigger problem for Hamas then the Media.When you get down to it, itreally Hama’s call how to define themselves… the media will follow and Aqtash gives some no brainers,The advice Nashat Aqtash gave to Hamas:· Say you are not against Israelis as Jews· Don’t talk about destroying Israel· Do talk about Palestinian suffering· Don’t celebrate killing people· Change beard colour (if red)The read beard’s irrelevent but it would be a good start if besides stopping to celebrate killing people; they just stopped killing.

  2. Bill Baar

    Here is the link to The Guardian story… the tags didn’t work.,,1690610,00.html

  3. Steve

    Gee, Bill, if they did all that they could call themselves “Fatah”. After all, that’s just what Arafat did for Oslo. It didn’t change Fatah’s modus operandi. They didn’t even have to stop celebrating killing people – they just had to make the appropriate clucking noises in English.But overall, I think this election result is a good thing. The Palestinians have actually made a choice to replace their ruling government. If the change of power really occurs (and there’s little reason to doubt that it will), I think it’ll be a first for an Arab polity. Hamas does hold the promise of a less corrupt government, which may actually start to improve the lives of Palestinians instead of enriching their rulers. I bet there’s a lot of Fatah officials trying to find a place to hide, if not from violent retribution, then from criminal prosecution.This is a perfect test of the empowerment power of democracy – if the man on the street in the Palestinian Territories feels he has actual power, he might be less likely to turn to violence. (Let’s ignore the woman on the street – Hamas is likely to do so as well.)But now, the will of the Palestinian people has been clearly politically expressed – against corruption and for the destruction of a Jewish state. (I heard a Hamas spokesman on NPR yesterday saying that Jews are welcome to live in an Islamic Palestine. They’re quick studies – learning to lie easily to the western media.)Have two democracies ever been at war with each other?

  4. Anonymous

    Steve, there apparently have been many wars between democracies: was elected. “Bitter Fruit” tells about the coup in Guatemala. etc.

  5. Bill Baar

    I think Hamas’s election is a good thing too. A dangerous thing, but good. Arabs have to figure out their own fate now.The problem with Oslo was we and Europe bankrolled a corrupt Fatah in the territories with the expectation Arafat would be a strongman and keep things in check.He swindled the West, and Arabs, instead; and propagated the worst kind of medevil anti-semitism it will take years to overcome.Now Rice has put Hamas on notice the American welfare is ending. I suspect Europe will do the same.Arabs in the territories have expressed their will, taken power, and now –like everyone else– they will have to accept the fate they make for themselves: renounce terror, accept a Jewish homeland; or face an appalling isolation and the realization other Arabs aren’t going to help.Notice those photos of Hamas celebrating didn’t show anyone parading their kids as sucide bombers as in the past.It’s going to be hard to convince even the sad unbalanced folks Hamas has been recruiting to commit acts of terror when they here a future with Democracy.It’s not easy, but it’s the best way to go.

  6. Bill Baar

    Hitler never had international supervision of German elections.If only the US had not listened to the Liberal Religionist, The Christian Century, the Pacifists, etc… and backed a strong League of Nations that would have done things……like step into Germany in 1934 and supervized the elections.

  7. Anonymous

    If Sharon the terrorist can lead the Israeli state, I guess Hamas can lead the Palestinians.The only difference between Israel terrorism and that of the PLO is that Israel has the military might to blow up innocent people. Just like when the US sits off the shore and sends cruise missiles to demolish the houses and kill people who had nothing to do with anything.David Lindorf of Counterpunch just did an excellent article about how military leaders have forsaken doctrines long held as important for civilized nations. Blowing up twenty women and children to kill four suspected terrorists in Pakistan is appalling. That the American Public actually accepts it under the collateral damage theory is downright inhumane. “What comes first, a country or a man”Billy Bragg

  8. Bill Baar

    anon: The only free elections in the Arab world are happening in the Occupied Territories and Iraq.If the US and Isreal are terrorists, we’re of a very different sort.But we’re not, we’re the Arab worlds best hope. And the left has bitterly betrayed the Arab left.Here is a plea from the Iraqi Communist Pary,We have to note, with regret, that the Iraqi democratic forces have not received, in their difficult struggle, effective solidarity and support from international forces of the left. As a result, most of the latter have unfortunately been rendered observers of events, rather than exerting positive influence on the ongoing struggle over the future course of developments in Iraq, especially in supporting the struggle for a democratic prospect, at a time when the Iraqi patriotic and democratic forces are in urgent need for such concrete and multifarious support and solidarity.–International Relations Committee, Central Committee – Iraqi Communist PartyBaghdad, 15 January 2006 .The left is corrupt again and feeds its own comrades to the most brutal reaction rather than acknowledge George Bush is right.

  9. neil

    Anybody on the “left” is a comrade to communists now? And if they deny it, then they are corrupt for forsaking their brethren? Come on.In the same letter the ICP says:At the same time, we respect the right of all parties and organizations in the countries that have sent troops in Iraq to call for their speedy withdrawal. It is their own internal affair, while we too reserve the right to formulate our own position in accordance with what we consider to be in the interests of our country. Not exactly an expression of bitter betrayal. Anyway, so a bunch of supposed communists claim for themselves an association with “democratic forces”, and complain that they have not received support from “international forces of the left” in their valiant struggle. How expedient. These vague forces (which I guess means anybody who thinks the US should get out of Iraq soon, or who thinks George Bush was wrong to invade) may feel no obligation to support their “comrades” in the ICP because they suspect their true motivations, because they are being untrue to their own revolutionary principles, which preclude support for the democratic process. That a communist group claims support for a democratic process is absurd on its face. What obligation does the “left” have to support communists anyway, even phony ones? I’m a little leftish, but don’t call me comrade.The “left” if you insist on thinking in such bipolar terms…no…the position that we ought to withdraw from Iraq sooner than “as long as it takes” derives from the belief that the US has neither the right nor the credibility to assign for itself the role of overseer of the direction of Iraq’s political future. You can agree with this position or not, but labelling it “left” (or “anti-communist”?) or whatever doesn’t move the dialog forward.The phenomenon of fundamentalist/communist etc forces who are profoundly opposed to American ideals participating in and in some cases gaining power via a democratic process makes for some great ideological pretzels, to be chewed on together by strange bedfellows indeed. I hope they don’t leave crumbs in the sheets of our political discourse…

  10. Anonymous

    “But we’re not, we’re the Arab worlds best hope”-Bill BaarCome down off you high horse there, Bill. Most of the ‘terror’ of the world is a result of the inability of masses of people to find true consideration of their grievences. The Arabs were screwed after WWI by the west and since then have watched their resources and people being exploited by the west and leaders held in power by western resources. You think simple democratic election of leaders beholden to the west will resolve this. Terror is the tool of the powerless. It’s only called terror by the people who have power. When the US blows up houses and kills women and children without any evidence of wrongdoing and people like you sit smugly by your computer and NOT call that terror simply means that YOU couldn’t possible love you kids. You haven’t any love in your heart because you can’t feel that pain. Go back to surfing for porn, dude. You’re such a wanker.

  11. mike_b1

    Their oil was exploited? How? Did the West march in with tanks to commandeer it?The Arabs are exploited, sure, but it’s by their own ruling class and religious leaders, not by the West.

  12. Anonymous

    Are you just another idiot, Mike?The US puts their leaders in charge, props them up and then provides military and economic support. In exchange our corporations get to do whatever we need to there. They skim off the oil profits.The British Empire did it in India, the French did it in Indochina. It’s the history of the world. The rich are all connected to each other and exploit the poor. Go back to wetting your bed.

  13. Bill Baar

    anon: 12:03 The Brits got Iraq as a mandate after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. They didn’t want to stick around.The problem with Oil then was the Brits didn’t want Hitler to get it. That’s why we were so concerned about Iraq and Iran and the whole middle east.Ditto with Stalin in the 50s.There is not much Oil producers can do with Oil except sell it to us. West has never intervened to get it ourselves. It would have been cheaper to just pay. The problem was keeping the Hilters and Stalins from seizing it and using it as a weapon.

  14. mike_b1

    Anon 12:03 a.m. That’s a lot of anger for a guy whose up past midnight on a school night. Catch your wife with another guy again?Sounds like your Prozac is running low. Next time, try cutting them in half. They’ll digest more easily.

  15. Anonymous

    Hey Mike. Sounds like you got some good background on the Prozak thing. I suggest maybe you just finish off the bottle. It’s legal now.I’ll make a deal with you. You stay away from my wife and I won’t go after your transexual boyfriend.

  16. mike_b1

    Impossible: My tranny is your wife.

  17. Anonymous

    Ha! Burn!

  18. Anonymous

    Well, that would certainly explain the shitstains on the front of her/his underwear!!Assclown

  19. Anonymous

    I think the use of transexual is fitting here since the topic is the ‘T-word’

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