A gunman killed nine people in “two apparently racially motivated shootings” at shisha bars in Hanau, Germany on 20 February. The German BILD newspaper said that the perpetrator, Tobias R., had expressed extreme rightwing views in his confession letter.
Although there is a lack of agreement on the definition of “terrorism”, it is typically understood to be the use or threat of violence to achieve political, ideological or religious objectives. So why is there a seeming reluctance to label white shooters or perpetrators, including Tobias R., as “terrorists”?
In mainstream media coverage of such events, you won’t hear white attackers being labeled as “terrorists”. Instead, these attacks are usually blamed on mental illness and efforts are made to humanize the perpetrator.
After the killing of nine African Americans at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina in 2015, the narrative was that the suspect Dylann Roof was probably suffering from mental illness.
Roof was convicted of hate crimes. Following the killing, he wrote of how he did not regret his actions and did not “shed a tear for the innocent people” he killed. While it was clear that Roof’s motives were racist, the Wall Street Journal said the “system and philosophy of institutionalized racism identified by Dr. King no longer exists.” Instead, the publication blamed an inevitable evil that “stalks humanity.”
According to a study conducted at Georgia State University, terror attacks carried out by Muslims receive 357 per cent more media coverage than those carried out by other groups. The study also states that the “members of the public tend to fear the Muslim terrorist while ignoring other threats.”
The perpetrator involved in the killings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand in 2019 had spewed his hatred for Muslim immigrants, praised Trump as a “symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose”, and decried the “decaying” of the white, European, Western world.
The Daily Mirror was criticized for whitewashing the terrorist who carried out the killings. The paper reserved most of the front page for a photo of Brenton Tarrant as a young child, referring to him as an “angelic boy who developed into an evil far-right mass killer.” The use of the term “angelic boy” and “working-class madman”, as he was referred to in the Australian Courier Mail, either intentionally or unintentionally, masks his Islamophobic motives.
Many cited and compared the Mail’s coverage of the Daesh-related shooting in an Orlando nightclub in 2016. The headline for the story referred to Afghani-Pashtun origin Omar Mateen as an “ISIS Maniac.” It is no wonder that people question as to why these terrorists are referred to as such in the media while white terrorists are called “mass killers.”
Caution is exercised in media organizations when there is a white perpetrator involved while the term “terrorist” is easily placed into headlines when the perpetrator is Muslim.
This media stigma and bias have devastating impacts on the lives of Muslims and shape an unfair narrative about who should be feared and who shouldn’t, depending on race. Being white should not protect a terrorist from being labeled a terrorist.
By Ryan Carrick