Why Western Media Avoided Calling The Paris Mass Killing “Islamic Terrorism”? There is fear that by calling the terrorists religious fanatics we may invite more violence. Wishful thinking that vagueness will make us safe

WASHINGTON – The common feature of almost all the reporting about the Islamic terror attack against the magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, with 12 people killed and many others injured, is the deliberate omission of the adjective “Islamic”. In fact, in early reporting, some media even avoided calling this killing spree an act of “terror”, preferring the more neutral and politically unassailable expression “act of violence”, or “senseless violence”.

From “violence” to “terror”

After French President Francois Hollande called the shooting an act of terror, then most media felt on safe ground and changed from “violence” to “terror”. But hardly anyone calling this tragedy “Islamic terrorism”. This deliberate vagueness continued even after the news that the probable suspects have been identified as French citizens of Arab descent, while the police is pursuing them, (one of them surrendered).

Islamic terror?

All in all, for most media reporting on this event, the step from defining this very violent action “terror” to labeling it “Islamic terror” seems to be too long. And so, very few dared to call this mass killing by its proper name.

Among the few, Alexis Brezet of the daily French Le Figaro who wrote in an editorial: “C’est une guerre, une vraie guerre, qui nous a été déclarée: la guerre du fanatisme islamiste contre l’Occident, l’Europe et les valeurs de la démocratie”. “This is a war, a true war that has been declared against us: the war of Islamic fanaticism against the West, Europe and democratic values”. Well, let’s call a spade a spade.

But most media, especially immediately after the fact, did not feel the need to go as far as declaring the obvious: “Yes, there are some Islamic fanatics in France, and elsewhere in other Western countries, who believe it is their mission to  indiscriminately “punish” infidels through bombings, killings and other acts of terror”.

We know the facts

And therefore most media are just not going to venture as far as stating that this mass killing in Paris is the work of Islamic religious fanatics. And yet the facts we know (and this was before the identification of the possible culprits) do not allow much uncertainty.

The satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo has been a target of previous attacks by Muslim radicals and is under police protection on account of its policy to publish satirical material on Islam and the Prophet Mohammed, an editorial position that at least some Muslims consider to be a terrible offense that must be punished.

So, we know that Charlie Hebdo magazine is viewed as an enemy by Muslim radicals in France, and possibly beyond. The shooters who killed several staff members, while injuring many others, shouted that their action is their way to avenge the Prophet. And they did so while also shouting “Allah Akbar”, “God is Great”.

So, based on all we know, it is not wild speculation to assume that the French journalists were targeted and killed by terrorists inspired by their own interpretation of Islam, because of their “sin” of publishing (offensive) satire against Islam.

But no, we are not going to say that.

Why such restraint?

The question is “Why not?” Is it because (very responsibly) we do not want to fan the flames of violence? Is it because we do not want to encourage random retribution against thousands of possible Muslim/Arab targets in France or elsewhere?

Sure enough, it is possible that, by characterizing this murders as an act of an “all-out” war by Muslims against Christians, policy-makers and the media may become responsible for inciting chaos.

Indeed, if we start shouting that “Moslems” are attacking “us”, this may appear to some (Western) crackpots as a green light to engage in their own indiscriminate private revenge by bombing mosques or buildings where Arab families live.

This is true. Therefore I do agree that, even when faced with such shocking news, one should try to stay calm. And yet, I suspect that there is a lot more behind this media “restraint”.

Let’s not provoke them

I believe that behind all this there is an unconfessed fear that, by denouncing “Islamic terrorism”, we may make the terrorists “angry”, while inciting others to join the fight. And –you see– when they get really angry then they become more vicious and more aggressive. Therefore, if somehow we tone this whole thing down, for instance by omitting the plain fact that this is religion-inspired violence –which is to say that this is not about religion but may be something else– we may be able to avoid more trouble. I have no solid evidence to back this assertion up, but I feel that this is the real reason.

Fear of the unknown enemy

And this does not surprise me. And here is why. We have reasonably peaceful Western societies under occasional attack by assorted angry Islamic radicals (many of them home grown) who really believe that we are the source of all their problems. They also claim that in order to be true believers they have an obligation to retaliate against us.

We know that there are not that many of them. But their determination and their violent methods make them lethal. To make all this a lot more complicated, we do not know how may there are, where they are, and we are not sure that we can catch them, let alone prevent them from undertaking new attacks.

Can we wish this ugly thing away?

And therefore we cling to the totally irrational hope that, if we just tone down a bit what just happened, we may be able to avoid more such attacks. Look, I do understand that gratuitous inflammatory language is not helpful.

Indeed, if we go back a few years, George W. Bush’s almost daily repetition that after 9/11 America was engaged in an existential “War on Terror” that had to be waged against enemies who wanted to destroy us did not help much. In fact, major mistakes (think about the invasion of Iraq) were justified under the catch-all label of this “fight to the end” against “mortal enemies”.

However, while we do not want to fan the flames of violence, deliberate omissions just like those I observed amount to obfuscation and/or a flight into some delusional dream world in which, if we just call this religion-inspired violence something else, this threat somehow will vanish.

We do not know how to deal with terrorism

The problem about terrorism is that it is indeed a form of “asymmetrical warfare” in which the asymmetry always benefits the attacker. Just one action always gets an oversized echo. In this case, three gunmen in Paris, by killing a few journalists, managed to create national and internationals convulsions, with reactions and repercussions half a world away. President Obama made a public statement. The Police Commissioner of New York City made a statement.

The fact is that our societies are just unable to find the appropriate response to a (self-described) mortal threat whose nature, scope, intensity and staying power we cannot gauge and simply do not understand.

I have said in earlier pieces that probably the best approach would be to deliberately down play all terror acts in order to deny the terrorists what they want the most: “Headlines, and the Fame that comes with them”.

Fear invites more attacks

Clearly we do not have the discipline to deny the terrorists the headlines they crave and get after each action. Yet, by failing to call them what they truly are, we reveal how deeply afraid we are of them. And this palpable fear is probably interpreted by them as weakness.

Unfortunately, the perception that feeble societies will easily crack under pressure will encourage more attacks.

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