When Is a Terrorist Not a Terrorist?

FAIR has long complained (Extra!, 7-8/95; Extra Update!, 12/98) about corporate media’s avoidance of the word “terrorism” to describe the murder of doctors who perform abortions, even though it meets the standard definition: the use of violence against non-combatants to achieve a political purpose. But the term is still glaringly absent from the corporate media discussion of attacks like Scott Roeder’s assassination of abortion provider George Tiller. (For an exception to the rule, see an Oregonian editorial, 1/29/10.)

The choice of terms makes a crucial difference in the way the issue of violence against women’s health clinics is discussed. Take an AP piece that ran after Roeder was convicted, which ran under the headline “Conviction Angers Anti-Abortion Militants” (1/30/10):

Testifying in his own defense, a remorseless and resolute Roeder insisted he had committed a justified act for the defense of unborn children by killing Dr. George Tiller, one of the country’s few physicians to offer late-term abortions. It was a bold legal strategy that, if successful, had the potential to radically alter the debate over abortion by reducing the price for committing such an act of violence.

When it failed, those who share Roeder’s passionate, militant belief against abortion were outraged: One said they are getting tired of being treated as a “piece of dirt” unable to express the reasons for such acts in court. So while relieved at the outcome, abortion-rights advocates worry a verdict that should be a deterrent will instead further embolden those prone to violence.

It’s hard to imagine AP publishing an article that treated the claim that “terrorism” was justifiable as a “bold legal strategy” with the “potential to radically alter the debate,” or suggest that handing out a lesser sentence to a “terrorist” might avoid “emboldening” others in his movement. That’s because the word “terrorist” comes with an assumption that killing people to promote your cause is inherently illegitimate. When the issue is abortion, however, it seems like the corporate media thinks the jury is still out.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.