Outrage in China has followed the Kunming attack that killed 29, not just for the violence, but for the way the West has (and hasn't) defined what happened. Making sense of the *T* word.
BEIJING — The deadly attack by knife-wielding assailants at Kunming train station has brought enormous grief to the Chinese public. Nobody with even the slightest bit of humanity can ignore the tragic loss of 29 innocent lives and the injuries of more than 100 others.
And yet over the past week, some Western press reports about the attack have used quotation marks around the word “terrorist,” causing further grief and anger among many Chinese readers.
In a People’s Daily article entitled “Absolutely Hypocritical And Heartless,” the government-run Chinese newspaper lambasts those in the English-language international press for their “cynical and confusing logic as well as their ulterior motives of sowing discord.”
If targeted killing of innocent civilians is not terrorism, then what is it?
But first, let’s look more closely at whether the American and British press singled out this case in China or whether it simply has a tendency to avoid the “terrorism” label.
The “awkward” New York Times
On Feb. 24, a series of bombings in Iraq killed 38 people and wounded more than 50 others. Nowhere in The New York Times coverage did the words “terrorist” or “terrorism” appear. The newspaper instead used the words “suicide bomber” and “militant.”
And after a twin bomb attack in the Lebanese capital of Beirut, the American newspaper again avoided the word “terrorist,” choosing instead “attacker.” Similarly, an article about a grenade blast in a Peshawar, Pakistan cinema that killed 11 people and wounded 25 did not employ words such as “terror” or “terrorist.”
Does the American press deliberately play down terrorist acts that occur in other countries? Let’s also review examples in which Americans were targeted.
On Sept. 11, 2012, a deadly attack against the U.S. embassy in Benghazi killed the American ambassador, among other victims. But it was not until Sept. 20 that year that the U.S. government formally used the phrase “terrorist attack” to describe the incident.
Instead, up to that point, The New York Times repeatedly characterized it as a “deadly attack,” which involves much less emotion.
It appears that The New York Times only uses “terrorist” or “terrorism” in its coverage if a terrorist organization has claimed responsibility for an attack, or if a government institution the newspaper trusts defines it as such.
The Boston Marathon bombing last April is still fresh in people’s minds. On the day of the attack, The New York Times avoided the word “terrorism” in its coverage and specifically noted that President Barack Obama’s initial comments about the incident also avoided the word.
Qualifying someone or something as “terrorist” isn’t just a trivial choice of words. The U.S. government can freeze the assets of individuals or groups identified as terrorists and prohibit American citizens from doing business with them.
This is why the American embassy in China used such uncomfortable phrases in its first statement about the Kunming station murders. It characterized the brutal attack as a “horrible and totally meaningless act of violence.”
When pressed by Chinese reporters during the regular news briefing on March 3, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki used the word “terrorism,” but whe qualified it by saying, “based on the information reported by the Chinese media.”
The “academic” BBC
The BBC, the British broadcaster that regards itself as fair and impartial, has specific guidance for its reporters on these matters.
“Unfortunately, there is no agreed or universal consensus on what constitutes a terrorist, or a terrorist attack,” its guidelines say. “The value judgement frequently implicit in the use of the words ‘terrorist’ or ‘terrorist group’ can create inconsistency in their use or, to audiences, raise doubts about our impartiality.”
The guidelines continue: “That does not mean we should emasculate our reporting or otherwise avoid conveying the reality and horror of what has occurred. But we should consider the impact our use of language may have on our reputation for objective journalism amongst our many audiences.”
In other words, a BBC reporter is expected to describe what has occurred and to avoid actively labeling the act or perpetrator because “labels applied to groups can sometimes hinder rather than help.”
BBC’s editorial guidelines also go so far as to suggest alternate language. “We should use words which specifically describe the perpetrator such as bomber, attacker, gunman, kidnapper, insurgent, and militant.”
Of course, not all English-language press operate like The New York Times or the BBC. Numerous publications such as The Financial Times, The Economist and Time magazine all unequivocally characterized the Kunming incident as a terrorist attack.
Is the dispute over the quotation marks just a fuss? Everyone is entitled to their own judgment. For most readers in the world, two attitudes would probably help them most — one is to have “more sense, less anger,” and another is “Don't do unto others what you don’t want others to do unto you.”