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March 08, 2005

Of Watchdogs and Terrorists

In his Sunday column, the often insightful New York Times public editor Daniel Okrent addressed two important media issues: 1) media watchdog organizations and 2) the media's use of various forms of the word "terrorist."

Of media watchdog organizations, he notes that brushing off these groups as "partisan" doesn't invalidate the substance of their arguments:

There was one more bugbear in that overloaded paragraph up top: "Media watchdog organizations." That's what you call the noble guardians on your side; the other guy's dishonest advocates are "pressure groups." Both are accurate characterizations, but trying to squeeze them into the same sentence can get awfully clumsy. It's also clumsy to befog clear prose by worrying over words so obsessively that strong sentences get ground into grits. But closing one's ears to the complaints of partisans would also entail closing one's mind to the substance of their arguments. [emphasis added]

Of the word "terrorist," he expounds:

But I think in some instances The Times's earnest effort to avoid bias can desiccate language and dilute meaning. In a January memo to the foreign desk, former Jerusalem bureau chief James Bennet addressed the paper's gingerly use of the word "terrorism."

"The calculated bombing of students in a university cafeteria, or of families gathered in an ice cream parlor, cries out to be called what it is," he wrote. "I wanted to avoid the political meaning that comes with 'terrorism,' but I couldn't pretend that the word had no usage at all in plain English." Bennet came to believe that "not to use the term began to seem like a political act in itself."

I agree. While some Israelis and their supporters assert that any Palestinian holding a gun is a terrorist, there can be neither factual nor moral certainty that he is. But if the same man fires into a crowd of civilians, he has committed an act of terror, and he is a terrorist. My own definition is simple: an act of political violence committed against purely civilian targets is terrorism; attacks on military targets are not. The deadly October 2000 assault on the American destroyer Cole or the devastating suicide bomb that killed 18 American soldiers and 4 Iraqis in Mosul last December may have been heinous, but these were acts of war, not terrorism. Beheading construction workers in Iraq and bombing a market in Jerusalem are terrorism pure and simple.

Given the word's history as a virtual battle flag over the past several years, it would be tendentious for The Times to require constant use of it, as some of the paper's critics are insisting. But there's something uncomfortably fearful, and inevitably self-defeating, about struggling so hard to avoid it.

For more on the 'T' word, see:

Posted by GI at March 8, 2005 10:38 AM