Why do white terrorists receive different treatment?

News coverage should not reinforce racist standards on terrorism coverage

Ian Britton/Flickr

Ian Britton/Flickr

By Cassandra McGrath, Collegian Columnist

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In recent years, there have been many cases where people of color are called terrorists after committing serious crimes or mass murders, while white people are often defended or given a grace period to explain. The Oxford Dictionary defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.” This definition does not mention race — and for good reason. There is no correlation between whether or not you are a terrorist and the color of your skin. In the recent bombing in Austin, Texas, the public was made aware that the acts of violence were carried out by Mark Anthony Conditt, a 23-year-old white man from the Austin area. In all of the articles I found about Conditt, the word terrorist was never used, as reporters resorted to terms such as “serial bomber” to identify this criminal. This begs us to ask why Conditt was not called a terrorist, while many people of color are.

In the days following the investigation, I read plenty of articles that resemble a witness testimony for Conditt. The New York Times published a piece including quotes from people who knew Conditt and how they reacted to the incident. The quotes reflected only positive statements of the attacker, “He always seemed like he was very polite,” and “He was a nerd, always reading, devouring books and computers and things like that,” and “He was always kind of quiet.”

What purpose does adding these quotes into the article serve, besides trying to humanize the murderer? In cases where the terrorists happened to be of color, there has been absolutely no positive spin or opportunity for an explanation given. I was shocked to find that anyone at any point could find something positive to say about a person who committed such a heinous crime, never mind having those words published in the news. If news sources are going to give witness testimonies to white people who commit horrible crimes, they must do it for every other race or not at all.

My frustration in the reporting that followed the Austin Bombings multiplied as I read a story from the Washington Post, which included a statement from Austin Police Chief Brian Manley. After Conditt killed himself by setting off a bomb in his car, the police investigated his belongings and found a voice recording from Conditt talking about his life. In reference to this recording Manley said, “Having listened to that recording, he does not at all mention anything about terrorism, nor does he mention anything about hate. But instead, it is the outcry of a very challenged young man talking about challenges in his personal life that led him to this point.”

After reading this, my first thought was, “who cares?” He took the lives of innocent, unsuspecting people and I do pity him. My second thought was, would the police be treating Conditt the same way if he was not white? Even White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee said in a tweet, “There is no apparent nexus to terrorism at this time.” Why it is not immediately reported as a terrorist attack? It is hard to see how this could not be considered domestic terrorism.

On March 29, weeks after the first bombing, Manley finally called Conditt a domestic terrorist stating, “he terrorized the city of Austin.” But this was true all along. Why did it take so long for the police to recognize him as a terrorist?

In cases where people that were not white committed a crime, the treatment is very different. For example, when Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev set off two bombs at the 2013 Boston Marathon, they were called terrorists by President Obama only one day later. Obama was correct in his characterization — but we should be questioning why it took weeks for the police to identify the Austin bombings as an act of terror, and only one day for the President to call the Boston Marathon Bombings a terrorist attack.

Racism is an issue that affects everyone. We must expect more from our government officials and reporters who are reinforcing institutionally racist ideals into our everyday lives. Being labeled a terrorist should depend on the crime committed, not the color of their skin. Although it is only one word, it has a tremendous effect on how people view crime in our country.

Cassie McGrath is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]