After all, they might work for an organization that sponsors a clinic. The offensive and scatoligal euphemism, "F-Bomb", now has company in the Times style manual, the "T-Bomb."
WHEN 10 young men in an inflatable lifeboat came ashore in Mumbai last month and went on a rampage with machine guns and grenades, taking hostages, setting fires and murdering men, women and children, they were initially described in The Times by many labels.
They were “militants,” “gunmen,” “attackers” and “assailants.” Their actions, which left bodies strewn in the city’s largest train station, five-star hotels, a Jewish center, a cafe and a hospital — were described as “coordinated terrorist attacks.” But the men themselves were not called terrorists.
Many readers could not understand it. “I am so offended as to why the NY Times and a number of other news organizations are calling the perpetrators ‘militants,’ ” wrote “Bill” in a comment posted on The Times’s Web site. “Murderers, or terrorists perhaps but militants? Is your PC going to get so absurd that you will refer to them as ‘freedom fighters?’ ”
The Mumbai terror attacks posed a familiar semantic issue for Times editors: what to call people who pursue political, religious, territorial, or unidentifiable goals through violence on civilians. Many readers want the newspaper, even on the news pages, to share their moral outrage — or their political views — by adopting the word terrorist, with all its connotations of opprobrium. What you call someone matters. If he is a terrorist, he is an enemy of all civilized people, and his cause is less worthy of consideration.
In the newsroom and at overseas bureaus, especially Jerusalem, there has been a lot of soul-searching about the terminology of terrorism. Editors and reporters have asked whether, to avoid the appearance of taking sides, the paper bends itself into a pretzel or risks appearing callous to abhorrent acts. They have wrestled with questions like why those responsible for the 9/11 attacks are called terrorists but the murderers of a little girl in her bed in a Jewish settlement are not. And whether, if the use of the word terrorist can be interpreted as a political act, not using it is one too.
The issue comes up most often in connection with the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and to the dismay of supporters of Israel — and sometimes supporters of the other side, denouncing Israeli military actions — The Times is sparing in its use of “terrorist” when reporting on that complex struggle.
The reluctance carried over when the Mumbai attacks began. Graham Bowley, who was writing for a Times blog, The Lede, said, “I’m aware very much of the sensitivity around the word, so I knew they had to be ‘attackers’ ” until the paper knew more. One of his editors, Andrea Kannapell, told me she was much more focused in the early hours on who the people were and what they were doing than on what to call them.
Readers like “Bill” were having none of it, and as Jim Roberts, the editor of the Web site, read their comments, he began to think they had a point. “Indiscriminately shooting civilians seems on its very face to be an act of terror,” he said. How, Roberts wondered, could you separate the act from the actor?
He conferred with Kannapell, Paul Winfield, the news editor, and Phil Corbett, Winfield’s deputy. Winfield talked with Ian Fisher, a deputy foreign editor. “Terrorist” became an acceptable term in the Mumbai story. “We jointly decided we didn’t need to be throwing the word around flagrantly, but we didn’t need to run away from it, either,” Roberts said.
Ilsa and Lisa Klinghoffer, whose father, Leon, was shot and thrown from a cruise ship by Palestinian terrorists in 1985, wrote a letter to the editor asking why The Times was referring to Lashkar-e-Taiba, the shadowy group that apparently orchestrated the Mumbai attacks, as a “militant group.” “When people kill innocent civilians for political gain, they should be called ‘terrorists,’ ” the sisters said.
Susan Chira, the foreign editor, said The Times may eventually put that label on Lashkar, but reporters are still trying to learn more about it. “Our instinct is to proceed with caution, not rushing to label any group with the word terrorist before we have a deeper understanding of its full dimensions,” she said.
To the consternation of many, The Times does not call Hamas a terrorist organization, though it sponsors acts of terror against Israel. Hamas was elected to govern Gaza. It provides social services and operates charities, hospitals and clinics. Corbett said: “You get to the question: Somebody works in a Hamas clinic — is that person a terrorist? We don’t want to go there.” I think that is right.
Ethan Bronner, the Jerusalem bureau chief, said, “Our general view is that the word terrorist is politically loaded and overused.” But he said that sometimes, “when a person’s act has been examined and its intent and result clearly understood, we call him a terrorist.” Thus, a front-page story last July called a Lebanese man about to be exchanged for two dead Israeli soldiers a terrorist. The man, a fighter for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, had slipped into Israel nearly 30 years before and murdered a man and his 4-year-old daughter.
James Bennet, now the editor of The Atlantic, was The Times’s Jerusalem bureau chief from 2001 through 2004. After his return, he wrote a two-page memo to Chira on the use of “terrorism” and “terrorist” that is still cited by editors, though the paper has no formal policy on the terms. His memo said it was easy to call certain egregious acts terrorism “and have the whole world agree with you.” The problem, he said, was where to stop before every stone-throwing Palestinian was called a terrorist and the paper was making a political statement.
Bennet wrote that he initially avoided the word terrorism altogether and thought it more useful to describe an attack in as vivid detail as possible so readers could decide their own labels. But he came to believe that never using the word “felt so morally neutral as to be a little sickening. The calculated bombing of students in a university cafeteria, or of families gathered in an ice-cream parlor, cries out to be called what it is,” he wrote.
The memo said he settled on a rough rule: He would use the words, when they fit, to describe attacks within Israel’s 1948 borders but not in the occupied West Bank or Gaza, which Israel and the Palestinians have been contending over since Israel took them in 1967. When a gunman infiltrated a settlement and killed a 5-year-old girl in her bed, Bennet did not call it terrorism. “All I could do was default to my first approach and describe the attack and the victims as vividly as I could.”
I do not think it is possible to write a set of hard and fast rules for the T-words, and I think The Times is both thoughtful about them and maybe a bit more conservative in their use than I would be.
My own broad guideline: If it looks as if it was intended to sow terror and it shocks the conscience, whether it is planes flying into the World Trade Center, gunmen shooting up Mumbai, or a political killer in a little girl’s bedroom, I’d call it terrorism — by terrorists. New York Times December 14