Twisting the narrative on mass violence

How Stephen Paddock, who killed 59 and injured over 500, managed to avoid being labelled a terrorist

Twisting the narrative on mass violence

A few weeks ago, one of the deadliest shootings in US history occurred in Las Vegas. Stephen Paddock, a 64-year-old white male from Mesquite, Nevada, opened fire on a group of concert-goers, killing 59 and injuring 546.

Despite the act of terror, there is a reluctance to label this massacre a terrorist attack. This emphasizes a double standard in our society: white killers are labelled as mentally unstable, while Muslim perpetrators are labelled terrorists influenced by radical religious ideology.

In Canada, terrorist acts are legally defined as acts of violence committed for political or ideological reasons. In the US, international terrorism is committed by individuals or groups motivated by “designated foreign terrorist organizations or nations,” while domestic terrorism is committed by individuals or groups inspired by “primarily U.S.-based movements that espouse extremist ideologies of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature.”

However, whether or not perpetrators are legally classified as terrorists rests with prosecuting authorities.

In spite of the massive scale of the attack, Las Vegas Sheriff Joe Lombardo labelled Stephen Paddock as a “lone wolf” and “local individual” before conducting any extensive background investigation. Such statements seem common when perpetrators are white men. Similar language was used to describe James Holmes, perpetrator of the 2012 Colorado movie theatre shooting, and Dylann Roof, a white supremacist who killed nine Black churchgoers in Charleston in 2015.

The Las Vegas shooting has also revived concerns about bias against Muslim perpetrators perpetuated by politicians and media outlets, who appear to leave white perpetrators like Paddock comparatively unscathed.

There are stark differences between how US politicians treat Muslim shooters and white shooters. After the Las Vegas shooting, President Donald Trump tweeted his condolences to the victims and told reporters he thought Paddock was a “sick” and “demented” man. Before autopsies were performed or Paddock’s motives were determined, US House speaker Paul Ryan made a statement calling for mental illness reform — which he said “is often a diagnosis” with shootings like these.

The motivations behind mass shootings like the one in Las Vegas thereby often remain restricted to mental well-being and do not scrutinize white American men as a collective people.

In contrast, after the September 15 London bombing this year — also before any investigation was conducted — Trump tweeted that the attack was carried out by “a loser terrorist.” This was followed by another tweet exploiting the bombing to legitimize Trump’s infamous travel ban against citizens of six majority-Muslim countries.

Labelling Paddock a lone wolf or as mentally unstable individualizes and isolates his actions, hence segregating his behaviour from an ideology or a certain group of people. The motivations behind mass shootings like the one in Las Vegas thereby often remain restricted to mental well-being and do not scrutinize white American men as a collective people.

The media is also guilty of discrepancies when reporting mass shootings by white males as opposed to Muslims. Many media outlets have released articles questioning the mental stability of white shooters, or alternatively, hesitating to speculate on their motives at all. After the Paddock shooting, for instance, The Globe and Mail published an article entitled “Las Vegas Shooter’s motive still elusive after deadly attack.” This willingness to hesitate before jumping to conclusions should also be afforded to cases involving Muslim perpetrators.

Other articles also work to humanize the perpetrator. A Washington Post article described Paddock as someone who liked to gamble and listen to country music, adding that he “was a quiet man.”

Some newspapers deviate from this pattern when reporting Muslim shooters; in these instances, the perpetrator’s religious life is centralized. The two shootings that happened in Fort Hood in 2009 and 2014 are great examples: one shooter was Nidal Hasan, a Muslim man, and the other was Ivan Lopez, a non-Muslim man. Hasan and Lopez had similar histories: both were mentally unstable and held grievances against their fellow soldiers. Still, though the two atrocities were characterized as terrorism by law enforcement, headlines from CNN, NBC, and CBS were keen to hail mental illness and depression as the root cause of Lopez’s actions.

In covering the Hasan shooting, however, the media labelled him a terrorist and reiterated his religiosity. Hasan made the cover of Time magazine, in which the cover story was called “The Fort Hood Killer: Terrified … Or Terrorist?” The story opened with, “What a surprise it must have been when Major Nidal Malik Hasan woke up from his coma to find himself not in paradise but in Brooke Army Medical Center,” pinpointing the presumed ‘Islamic logic’ behind the shooting. Articles published by CNN and the Los Angeles Times also emphasized that religion was very important to Hasan.

Evidence exists of systemic bias in news coverage as well. One study of 170 news articles found that the word ‘terrorist’ was used for Muslim perpetrators more than twice as many times as for white perpetrators, while ‘mentally ill’ was ascribed to white male shooters 80 per cent of the time, an astounding 20 times more often than Muslim perpetrators.

The ultimate question that surfaces from irregularities in representation of shooters is why those irregularities exist in the first place.

At the outset, it could be blatant Islamophobia. From having to watch a copy of the Quran being burned and left outside a Sacramento Mosque to an innocent woman having her hijab pulled off in a London, Ontario supermarket, antagonism against Muslims has developed in both Canada and the US. Post-9/11, the world at large saw the whole of Islam as a religious ideology entrenched in violence and destruction. This fear contributes to our lack of hesitance when labelling Muslim perpetrators as terrorists.

In the same way, the War on Terror — which has hitherto been against a foreign radical Islamist enemy — invigorates the notion that terrorism is a foreign threat. Ergo, the terrorist label is reserved for Muslims because it serves as an ascription to foreigners who do not represent ‘American values’ — whereas Americans, particularly white Americans, are immune to such labels.

The fact of the matter is that Muslims are not responsible for more mass shootings than white men in America. A great deal of violence can be attributed to white supremacy and racism, especially following Trump’s election. As Las Vegas leaves millions reeling, it is important for us as students to educate ourselves on these issues and to seek the truth behind what we hear and see. As the audiences of politicians and media outlets learn to dismantle and challenge the assumptions underlying these messages, we can work toward annihilating the prejudices that infect our society.

Abdul Ali is a first-year student at St. Michael’s College studying International Relations.

Where is our Iraqi flag filter?

Disproportionate media and public attention granted to certain tragedies reflects the valuing and humanization of some lives over others

Where is our Iraqi flag filter?

As June turned to July this year, in the span of six days, three capital cities – Istanbul, Dhaka, and Baghdad – were targeted by deadly terrorist attacks. The attacks were among the worst to hit the countries. Over 200 people died in Baghdad alone, making it the deadliest attack in that city since 2003.

Yet, despite their magnitude, these attacks have received the bare minimum in terms of coverage from major news sources, social media attention, and public vigils. The few Facebook posts I saw about the attacks linked to a handful of New York Times or BBC articles, often captioned with a statement expressing disbelief that the story hadn’t received more media attention. Perhaps even more lacking than mainstream media coverage of the attacks was the social media response. There were no Facebook flag filters or trending hashtags for Turkey, Bangladesh, and Iraq.

It is clear where in the world the media’s gaze tends to fall, and this is by no means a new phenomenon. There have been countless instances of ‘Western’ countries receiving weeks of media coverage following terrorist attacks, while countries in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa barely get a day’s worth of mourning.

[pullquote-default]There have been countless instances of ‘Western’ countries receiving weeks of media coverage following terrorist attacks, while countries in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa barely get a day’s worth of mourning.[/pullquote-default]

Paris, for example, received an outpouring of support from the media and the international community after the November 2015 ‘Charlie Hebdo’ attacks. Well-publicized public vigils were held in dozens of cities internationally, and websites such as Skype allowed users to make free calls to France to connect to their loved ones following the attacks. Even Saturday Night Live started its show with a somber opening, something that has only ever been done after the 9/11 and Sandy Hook attacks, both of which took place in the United States. Landmarks around the world were lit up in the colours of the French flag when, only days earlier, they had remained dark while Beirut was mourning the worst terrorist attack to hit the city since the end of the Lebanese Civil War.

Similarly, after the Brussels bombings in 2016, London’s National Gallery, the One World Trade Center, and the Toronto sign were all lit with the colours of the Belgian flag. Yet more recently, not one of these landmarks lit up in honour of Turkey, Bangladesh, or Iraq.

[pullquote-features]The public have had an undeniable hand in the disproportionate attention given to certain tragedies over others through social media channels.[/pullquote-features]

In fact, the extensive media attention given to terrorist attacks in cities like Paris and Brussels have prompted the creation of Wikipedia pages dedicated solely to reactions to the bombings in both cities. While it is too early to tell whether Istanbul, Dhaka, and Baghdad will have similarly detailed pages, the small section dedicated to “Reactions” on the general 2015 Beirut Bombings Wikipedia page tells a different story.

Though this level of neglect for non-‘Western’ tragedies is troubling, it is also not something we can chalk up to being the responsibility of politicians or the media alone. The public have had an undeniable hand in the disproportionate attention given to certain tragedies over others through social media channels. Hashtags expressing worldwide support for victims do not gain “trending” status because of media conglomerates, but rather because of the use of the hashtag by everyday Twitter users. Public demand for official Facebook filters in support of Turkey, Bangladesh, or Iraq would undoubtedly yield results.

But a perceived lack of public interest in either of the above tragedies, reflected in a real absence of social media attention, has given mainstream media the fuel they need to justify their minimal coverage of these tragedies. Regardless of whether or not one believes social media has any real credence, it cannot be denied that Twitter and Facebook can be used to gauge interest. As the reaction to recent tragedies – or the lack thereof – has shown, our interests are very specific, and our sympathies, selective.

So what is it about France and Belgium that makes them easier to empathize with, compared to countries like Turkey, Bangladesh, and Iraq? Two things stand out: both countries are described as ‘Western’ in terms of culture, and their inhabitants are mostly white. When attacks in predominantly white Western cities get more media attention and support from the international community than attacks elsewhere – in essence, when the world is so brazen about valuing of certain lives over others – readers are presented with two harmful narratives.

The first of these narratives involves the normalization of terrorist attacks in “non-Western” cities. When criticism of disproportionate media attention arises, it is not uncommon to hear it dismissed by respondents claiming that “it happens all the time there.” These comments are not only unrelated to the issue at hand, as patterned terrorist attacks in certain areas provide all the more reason for the issue to get more media attention; they also spawn the idea that the death of people living in cities that regularly experience violence is not worth the time of readers and viewers.

But, as the targeted audience of ‘Western’ media, we know that this is not necessarily true. Mass shootings are on the rise in the United States, and we hear about them both frequently and extensively in the form of cover page stories, opinion pieces, and even the life stories of victims. While it is true that gun violence is pertinent to us as North American media consumers, terrorist attacks are by no means irrelevant to ‘Western’ media, given the often fear-mongering rhetoric employed by various governments and the “War on Terror.” Why is the same level of attention not paid to terrorist attacks elsewhere in the world?

This ties into the second narrative presented by the media, which paints terrorist attacks as tragedies that should only be mourned if those affected are white, or more specifically, non-Muslim. By releasing feature articles and profiles on white victims of violence while remaining silent about a predominantly Muslim city that has been attacked – and during Ramadan, no less – the media humanizes white victims, while simultaneously dehumanizing Muslim victims.

[pullquote-default]By painting Muslims as the enemy, this rhetoric allows governments to garner public support for foreign policy decisions that spit in the face of human rights.[/pullquote-default]

The perception that Muslim victims don’t make good news stories also contributes to the minimal coverage given to terrorist attacks in Muslim cities, and it perpetuates the idea that Muslim victims of terrorist attacks are irrelevant to Western media. Furthermore, a study published in the American Sociological Review has found that negative portrayals of Muslims in the media get more attention than positive ones, a finding that sheds light on the potential purposes behind the media’s manipulation of Muslim lives and suffering.

Much of this also comes as a result of the ‘Muslims killing non-Muslims’ rhetoric that has risen in the wake of the recent wave of terrorism. By painting Muslims as the enemy, this rhetoric allows governments to garner public support for foreign policy decisions that spit in the face of human rights. It takes the focus away from the violence faced by people hailing from countries all over the world and places it instead on religion by using Islamophobia to push a political agenda.

Any publicity gained by terrorist attacks in Muslim cities therefore dismantles this “Muslims killing non-Muslims” narrative, and threatens the culture of fear that allows governments to get away with drone attacks and the like. And whether knowingly or unknowingly, the media has latched onto this Islamophobic rhetoric.

As consumers of this media, we have had a hand in this demonization and dehumanization of Muslims. While the perceived interest of readers does not write the headlines, it shapes them. Our likes, shares, and use of hashtags reflect what we consider to be newsworthy, and when we ignore the few stories that are published by mainstream media about these attacks, we only prove these harmful narratives to be true. The media wields the power to disperse these narratives on a wide scale, but it is people like us who perpetuate them in smaller and more pervasive ways.

The fact remains that the issue at hand is much bigger than a seemingly trivial Facebook flag filter — but meaningful discourse starts with questioning why Paris got one, but Beirut did not. We must therefore start paying attention to the stories we don’t hear about, and learn to challenge what mainstream media presents us with. But more importantly, we need to start questioning our own sympathies, and why our hearts break for one city, and not for another.

Saambavi Mano is a third-year student at Victoria College studying Peace, Conflict, and Justice studies.