A terrorist by any other name

Posted: Tuesday, April 13, 2010

When is a terrorist not considered a terrorist? When the U.S. media identifies him as a "Christian."

When is a terrorist group not considered a terrorist group? When the U.S. media calls it an "anti-government militia."

Exceptionalism is alive and well in reporting on violence in the name of religion, as evidenced in the recent case of the so-called Hutaree "militia" in Michigan.

The leader of the group, 45-year-old David Brian Stone, pulled no punches about who he was, coining the term "Hutaree" for his group, which his Web site translates as "Christian warrior." His motto is the biblical passage John 15:13: "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." That the combination of this name and motto can be a recipe for terrorism does not take much pondering.

Yet Joshua Rhett Miller of Fox News described the Hutaree in a March 29 story as a "purportedly Christian-based militia group." In a similar vein, Nick Bunkley and Charlie Savage of The New York Times, in their March 29 report, identified Stone and the Hutaree somewhat apologetically as "apocalyptic Christian militants." This, despite the fact that the group not only stockpiled weapons and engaged in training identical to al-Qaeda's modus operandi, but even planned improvised explosive devices based on those used by terrorists in Iraq.

In its "Times Topics" coverage, The New York Times positively contorts itself to avoid using the word "terrorist." It describes the Hutaree as a "Michigan-based Christian militia group," and, mirroring the language of Attorney General Eric Holder, as "anti-government extremists."

Are we reserving the term "terrorist" only for Muslims these days? Such a reservation stokes indiscriminate fear of Muslim "others." It also constructs an implicit "us versus them" dualism between a broadly "Christian America" and an allegedly monolithic "Muslim world," as Samuel Huntington most notoriously opined in his clash of civilizations theory.

Religion is all too often seen as the root of terrorist violence, rather than as one of its most effective tools. As Scott Shane argued in the April 4 edition of The New York Times, we need a robust debate about what terms to use across cases. Journalists can help by practicing consistency, and by pointing out attempts to scapegoat one group, and exempt another, from the opprobrium associated with terms like "terrorist."

Mainstream Christians like me cringe when a group like the Hutaree is identified as "Christian." Perhaps this incident can help other Americans empathize with what close to 1.5 billion Muslims might have felt every time in the last few years they have heard the words "Muslim terrorists," or, far worse, "Islamic terrorists."

• Jon Pahl is professor of the history of Christianity in North America at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, and author of "Empire of Sacrifice: The Religious Origins of American Violence."

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