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Talking About Terrorism

Words matter. We are taught this from an early age, and it is reinforced in personal relationships and professional settings. How local community leaders, journalists, and those in formal leadership positions, such as university chancellors, frame an event can matter significantly in how people feel about it.

I want to share a story about 9/11. In a civic leadership program I was responsible for at the time for established leaders from diverse sectors and institutions, we did an exercise built around reflections from the events of 9/11/01. It involved reading a document describing the day and its events and then discussing it. Half of the participants were given a version that focused on the loss of life and violence, the other half a version describing the heroic stories of people helping one another to survive, and the outpouring of love and support that followed. The words chosen obviously shaped our reaction to the two different descriptions of the same events.

Even the words we choose to name such an event matter. Previously, I had always referred to 9/11 as a terrorist attack. My daughter chose the same words when her younger brother asked her to tell him about it. Until I looked it up today, though, I could not say exactly how many perpetrators were involved. There is a website called the Global Terrorism Database that lists terrorist events and is copyrighted by a Center of Excellence within the US Department of Homeland Security. Some acts are conducted by groups of people, some by lone actors, often suicide bombers. For the Department of Homeland Security, the number of people involved influences whether or not an event is an act of terrorism. Do the numbers of people injured or killed matter, or is terrorism defined by the reason behind the act? As citizens in an increasingly connected, smaller public square of a large and diverse world, these are good questions to ask.

I found myself asking those questions yesterday afternoon when outrage was expressed in the public square, captured quickly if not completely through various social media outlets, about the coverage of three Muslim students in North Carolina, shot by a neighbor. I know about it solely because of Twitter. No “mainstream” media outlet pushed a notice to my smartphone or my inbox in any of the digests I receive daily as part of my work. Once aware of the crime, I could find a video on CNN of the wife of the man who killed the students, but I could not find one on CNN of the victims’ family press conference, held at roughly the same time. I only knew about the press conference, again, thanks to the people posting on social media.

The social media realm zeroed in quickly on how the media uses words like terrorist to describe actors in some situations, but “lone wolf” in other settings. Evidently, word choice is something that consumers of information notice and consider key in framing events. Here’s how one Tweeter put it: Imagine if a Muslim guy shot three North Carolina students (of any ethnicity). @FoxNews would be screaming about terror.

The chancellors of the two university communities most directly affected posted messages on their schools’ respective websites. One was brief and general, the other longer and shared specifics, including a possible motive that the shootings were prompted by an argument over a parking space, which at the time of the post, could not be known. Without decreeing one approach more correct than another, it’s important to remember that, in moments of leadership, words matter and advancing data before it is confirmed can ultimately lead to lower confidence in that leader if the data doesn’t hold up as factual over time. Therefore, institutional leaders need to stage responses to tragedies. For the rest of us, we must choose words carefully in those moments we choose to exercise some personal leadership by commenting, retweeting or responding in today’s public square online.

I agree with those who suggest media outlets have been slow to report these deaths of remarkable, bright, service-oriented young Americans. Were their deaths an instance of terrorism? That remains to be seen.

Ann Skeet is the leadership ethics director at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

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