September 25, 2001 5:10 p.m.
hat follows in this column you must read with the greatest suspicion and dubiety. For in the interests of full disclosure, I must inform my readers that I have a commercial interest in the opinions I am about to express.
My day job, when I am not taking a vacation in the sunlit uplands of opinion journalism here and elsewhere, is that of editor-in-chief of United Press International. And this column will critically examine the decision by my counterpart at Reuters, a rival news agency with a distinguished history and current reputation, to prohibit the use of the word "terrorists" by their editors and reporters to describe the people who destroyed the World Trade Center in New York, drove a plane into the Pentagon, and attempted to hijack the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania.
Here is what Steven Jukes, Reuter's global head of news, wrote in a memo to his staff in an internal memo (made available to the world by media critic Howard Kurtz in the Washington Post): "We all know," he wrote, "that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter and that Reuters upholds the principle that we do not use the word terrorist . . ."
In an interview Jukes explained this ruling on the grounds that "We're trying to treat everyone on a level playing field, however tragic it's been and however awful and cataclysmic for the American people . . ."
And he added that "we don't want to jeopardize the safety of our staff . . . in Gaza, the West Bank and Afghanistan . . ."
Let me deal with these arguments in reverse order.
Mr. Jukes's final point is a legitimate concern that influences every editor when he makes assignments to a dangerous conflict. Sometimes an editor will pull out a reporter who has been threatened by locals. What an editor cannot do, however, is to soften or dilute his agency's reporting in order to mollify those locals.
That would strike at the impartiality that should be any news agency's raison d'etre. And not employing the word "terrorist" to describe the WTC attackers comes perilously close to softening Reuters' reporting.
What word or phrase, after all, will now Reuters use to describe them? "Mass murderers"? That would be accurate enough, indeed almost synonymous with "terrorists?" For that very reason, however, it would also be prohibited by Mr. Jukes's ruling.
How about "the people who attacked the World Trade Center"? That would meet the most exacting standards of reportorial neutrality. But it would also be a cumbersome and repetitive device that would open Reuters to ridicule.
then? Or "guerrillas" maybe? But such descriptions would put
those who kill thousands of innocent people on the same level as striking
trade unionists, advocates of civil disobedience, or even irregular soldiers
who nonetheless respect the rules of war.
It is terrorists hijacking planes who put themselves on a different and lower level to other people not the journalists who report their actions with attempted objectivity. Terrorism is a part of contemporary reality. To gloss over it is to paint a false picture. And insofar as that false picture erases the real distinction between, say, a politician whose power derives from votes and one whose power derives from bombs, then a serious distortion enters into reporting.
Nor is this a hypothetical criticism. Much reporting of the conflicts in Northern Ireland, Colombia, and the Basque country has blurred exactly that distinction.
Finally, let us look at Mr. Jukes's underlying justification that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." By a nice coincidence this argument was justly characterized on Saturday in Canada's National Post as "an adolescent sophistry" by the Canadian poet and journalist, George Jonas.
Simply put, the sophistry consists of confusing a terrorist's cause with his methods.
A terrorist is a man who murders indiscriminately, distinguishing neither between innocent and guilty nor between soldier and civilian. He may employ terrorism planting bombs in restaurants, or hijacking planes and aiming them at office towers-in a bad cause or in a good one.
He may be a Nazi terrorist, or an anti-Nazi terrorist, a Communist or an anti-Communist, pro-Palestinian or pro-Israel. We may want to defeat his political cause or see it triumph. For his methods, however, the terrorist is always to be condemned. Indeed, to describe him objectively is to condemn him even if his cause is genuinely a fight for freedom with which we sympathize.
Therein lies Mr. Jukes's trial and temptation.
Those who sympathize with the terrorist's cause whether they are Islamic fundamentalists seeking America's withdrawal from Saudi Arabia, or Spanish citizens in the Basque country who want an independent Basque state, or Irish Americans seeking Britain's withdrawal from Northern Ireland are tempted to overlook or deny his methods. They do not want to acknowledge that someone is killing innocent people in the name of a cause they passionately support. They wish to banish such an uncomfortable truth from their minds. So they do not like to see him accurately described as a terrorist. It makes them feel guilty about the support and sympathy they give him; it may even make them reconsider that support.
When Reuters decided not to call the perpetrators of the World Trade Center attack "terrorists," it took a step towards making people feel less guilty about aiding or sympathizing with such evil. It was a small step, but an unnecessary one. And it should be retraced.