Feb 1 2000

Terrorism Stories: Three Cases, Two Standards

On December 3, 1999, two white, U.S.-born men, Kevin Ray Patterson and Charles Dennis Kiles were arrested for allegedly plotting to blow up a TV tower, an electrical station and propane storage tanks in California, supposedly in hopes of sparking a Y2K-related militia uprising. Police say they found bomb-making equipment and illegal firearms in their homes. The names of the suspects appear in 96 newspaper articles in the Nexis computer database (as of January 6).

On December 14, an Arab man, Algerian national Ahmed Ressam, was arrested while attempting to cross into the U.S. from Canada, reportedly carrying urea fertilizer, a liquid explosive and other bomb-making ingredients; officials said he was traveling under a false passport and had ties to a violent Algerian group. Ressam’s name appeared in 906 newspaper articles in Nexis.

On December 28, Jere Wayne Haney–a white, U.S.-born Texas resident who works as a mechanic for American Airlines–was charged with possessing 50 pounds of ammonium nitrate; police say they also found bomb-making instructions and white supremacist literature in his house. This suspect’s name appeared in 45 Nexis newspaper articles.

Why is it that bomb suspects who are white and American generate roughly one-tenth to one-twentieth of the media interest of an Arab bomb suspect? Actually, these numbers perhaps exaggerate the attention paid to the alleged domestic terrorists; many of the stories about the Algerian suspect ran on the front page, while the California and Texas stories were often news briefs. The network evening news shows had 44 stories that mentioned Ressam, two that mentioned Patterson and Kiles (both on CBS–12/15/99, 12/20/99), and no mentions of Haney.

Is the coverage different because Arab terrorists are more dangerous than the homegrown variety? Hardly–one only has to think back to the Oklahoma City bombing to be reminded that most terrorism is domestic in origin. And it’s not because the purported threat posed by Ressam was so much greater than that posed by the other suspects; scientists at Lawrence Livermore Laboratories estimated that the explosion triggered by a bomb at one of the propane storage tanks could have killed half the people in a five-mile radius (Sacramento Bee, 12/7/99). The danger if an airline employee were involved in bomb-making is obvious.

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that it’s Ressam’s ethnicity that made him so much more newsworthy. Even the lure of a Y2K tie-in wasn’t enough to get mainstream media to deviate from their stereotypes about who commits terrorism–or, at least, whose terror we should fear.