Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler has provided us with some telling insight into the mindset of journalists reporting on the Middle East. In explaining why the term "terrorist" is rarely used when describing so-called "militants" who launch murderous attacks on Israeli civilians, Getler implicitly concedes precisely what he is explicitly trying to deny--that the terminology his newspaper employs is determined by political judgments.

Some of his points are in fact well-taken--for example, that "[t]errorism and terrorist...[l]ike all labels....do not convey much hard information", and are often better replaced with more specific terms. It's also understandable that he'd prefer that his newspaper "not resolve the argument over whether Hamas is a terrorist organization", since "adopting particular language can suggest taking sides" in the political debate over the issue.

Or rather, it would be understandable if the ombudsman considered taking sides on political questions surrounding terrorism to be anathema. But Getler shows no such squeamishness when definitively distinguishing between, say, Al Qaida and Hamas.
Hamas conducts terrorism but also has territorial ambitions, is a nationalist movement and conducts some social work. As far as we know, al Qaeda exists only as a terrorist network. It is composed of radicals from several Islamic countries. The Palestinian resistance is indigenous. Al Qaeda launched a devastating surprise attack on the United States. Israelis and Palestinians have been at war for a long time. Palestinians have been resisting a substantial and, to Palestinians, humiliating, Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza since they were seized in the 1967 war.
Now, Getler is free to believe, along with his employers, that these distinctions are real and meaningful. (Or he could be more like me, and consider these "distinctions" to be false, meaningless rationalizations for a shamefully spineless refusal to condemn terrorism.) But he cannot seriously claim that his position on the question is not political in nature. And indeed, he implicitly admits it:
That resistance has now bred suicide bombers. These are terrorist acts, not to be condoned. But the contexts of the struggle against al Qaeda and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are different. News organizations should not back away from the word terrorism when it is the proper term. But as a rule, strong, descriptive, factual reporting is better than labels.
In other words, labelling "terrorist acts" is a matter of objective description. But use of the label "terrorism" must take into account "context". (Readers can decide for themselves whether the context to which he refers is planetary, pedagogic, pharmaceutical--or perhaps some other word beginning with "p".)

Why all this bending over backwards to avoid being explicit about political judgments? Well, if Getler were to admit that he and his paper are taking a political position on this issue, then he would have to mount some kind of explicit defense of it. Unfortunately for him, his position--that the history of the region somehow lends a degree of legitimacy to Hamas' ongoing campaign of terrorist murder--is morally, logically and politically indefensible. Clearly, then, it's in his interest to pretend, however implausibly, that his blatantly political plea for consideration of "context" is instead an expression of impartial, objective neutrality.

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