I was just one letter among many, but its contents stuck with me. “Mr. MacKinnon,” the reader wrote, “still cannot find within himself the intestinal fortitude to call those who took hundreds of women and children hostages in Beslan, and proceeded to shoot them in the backs, their proper name – terrorists and cowards.”
Journalists get letters all the time, most of them critical of the job we do. I read them all, learn what I can, and delete the silly stuff. Few bother me. This one stung, though, largely because it implied I’d somehow done a disservice to the victims of last September’s Beslan school massacre.
I had wandered for days through that haunted gymnasium at Middle School Number One, unsure of where to put my feet amidst the charred remains of some of the hundreds of parents, children, and teachers who died there. I stood in the drizzling rain and watched as the tiny open caskets of ashen-faced dead schoolkids were lowered into the muddy ground.
I hated the people who caused that community so much pain, and thought my anger came across in my writing. But what really incensed the reader was that I had avoided calling the perpetrators by the name he thought they richly deserved – “terrorists.” He rightly pointed out that I always put quotation marks around that word.
Frankly, it was no mean feat. I spent hours wrestling with my copy. I settled on “gunmen,” “militants” and “hostage-takers” as three words that indisputably applied. Why the semantic gymnastics? Because the word “terrorist” – the one the reader so desperately wanted me to use – has been hijacked.
The reader himself provided the proof by insisting that if I didn’t use the word, it would prove to him that I was anti-Russian, a spin doctor for the Chechen rebel cause. In his correspondence, he often used the word “they.” He wanted me to take sides. For many, it’s not enough that journalists do what they’re paid to do – report on what happened in neutral language, and let the reader sort out who was right and who was wrong. That may not seem like a difficult judgment in Beslan, but it’s more complicated in the broader context of the bloody 10-year-old war in Chechnya.
Other readers complained about my refusal to use the “T-word” when I covered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the war in Iraq. In most cases, they were so passionately sure of the rightness of their side that it was clear the last thing they wanted was neutral reporting. What’s the difference between referring to “the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.” and the “the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks”? Very little, except that a lot of people will complain if you don’t choose the latter.
It’s a continuing debate: Reuters and the CBC have essentially ditched the overcharged noun, while CanWest Global Communications Corp. has sided with my reader by saying that using any other word to describe suicide bombers is glossing over what they (again, that word) really are. The Globe and Mail’s own policy is somewhere in the middle, usually leaving it up to the reporters to call it as they see it.
It would be easy to blame this linguistic mess on George W. Bush and his with-him-or-against-him mentality or Donald Rumsfeld and his descriptions of occupied Iraq as a struggle between democracy and a collection of “terrorists” and “anti-Iraqi forces.” It ignores the basic truth that – as an American soldier told me one day as we chatted near the Abu Ghraib prison – “if foreign tanks came to my city, there’s no telling what I’d do.”
But the mistakes began long before Bush 43 and his team arrived on the scene. The Globe’s own stylebook instructs reporters and editors to “use this term to describe groups or individuals who use violence against the innocent public, or the threat of it, to achieve political ends.” You can see how some people saw Nelson Mandela as a terrorist for advocating armed struggle against the apartheid regime in South Africa.
What the Globe stylebook unfortunately leaves vague – by not instructing reporters to treat the armies of nations the same way they do informal militant structures, or more to the point, all civilians as equals – is the very root of the word. “Terror” doesn’t only occur when the means is a suicide bomb or a hostage-taking; terror occurs whenever parties of war target civilians.
When I was in the Rafah refugee camp last May to examine the handiwork of Israeli bulldozers sent in the name of “fighting terror,” an Israeli helicopter opened fire just overhead. The gunner wasn’t trying to hit our car or any of the others on the road, but wanted to scatter us and keep us from driving towards a military operation. I can assure you that as I dove into the backseat, fumbling with my bulletproof vest, I felt terror. I imagine the ordinary citizens of Rafah felt likewise.
The reason Bush, Putin, and Sharon want us to use this word is they understand its emotional value – it has the power to divide two warring sides into good and evil in the minds of voters. A terrorist, they make clear in speeches, is someone with no morals and, more importantly, no cause.
Those fighting against them in Iraq, Chechnya and the Palestinian territories know this just as well, and tellingly throw the word “terrorist” right back when given the chance to speak by the mainstream media.
If we’re not going to apply the word fairly – if we’re not going to apply it to those who bombed the mental hospital in Grozny as well as those who shot up Middle School Number One in Beslan – then throw it out entirely. If we don’t, then the ideologues on both sides win. The results of that could be truly terrifying.