On Wednesday, Dec. 2, two alleged terrorists walked into a San Bernardino County building and opened fire on their coworkers. Suspects Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, a married couple, were later killed in a shootout with police.
As soon as the alleged suspects were identified, media outlets began labeling the attack an act of terrorism, with the Los Angeles Times splashing the word “terrorism” across its Saturday front page in all caps.
Media reports quickly began reporting on possible motives for the attack, including unconfirmed links and allegiances to ISIL and previous plans to carry out an attack.
Everything was quickly wrapped up in a pretty package. Mass shooters committed a terrorist attack on U.S. soil and were quickly killed by police. President Obama made an historic address to the nation promising that, “the threat from terrorism is real, but we will overcome it,” as reported by CNN.
The problem with this story is that terrorist attacks are committed in the U.S. on a regular basis, yet those other instances don’t end the same way. The reason is because these other instances of terrorism are committed by white men.
On June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof walked into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, and killed nine black people, including the senior pastor, State Senator Clementa C. Pinckney.
Roof wrote in a manifesto before the shooting, “I chose Charleston because it is most historic city in my state, and at one time had the highest ratio of blacks to Whites in the country. We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.”
Not only did the media not refer to this as a terrorist act, but Roof was taken alive by police who bought him Burger King to eat after placing him in custody, according to The Huffington Post.
Outlets such as CNN and MSNBC went on the air to discuss whether Roof may have suffered from mental illness and referred to him as a lone gunman. This is par for the course every time a mass shooter in the U.S. is a white man.
The Washington Post addressed this “discrepancy” in reporting in an article by Dr. Anthea Butler.
“But listen to major media outlets, and you won’t hear the word “terrorism” used in coverage of Wednesday’s shooting. You haven’t heard the white, male suspect, 21-year-old Dylann Roof, described as “a possible terrorist” by mainstream news organizations (though some, including The Washington Post, have covered the growing debate about this discrepancy). And if coverage of other recent shootings by white men is any indication, he never will be. Instead, the go-to explanation for his alleged actions will be mental illness. He will be humanized and called sick, a victim of mistreatment or inadequate mental health resources,” Butler wrote.
This pattern has held true for other white mass shooters like Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold, James Holmes, Jared Lee Loughner, Adam Lanza, and most recently Robert Lewis Dear in the Colorado Planned Parenthood shooting.
Despite the fact that a new study reported by NBC News stating that white Americans are the biggest terror threat to the U.S., white mass shooters are never labeled domestic terrorists.
The FBI defines domestic terrorism as an activity involving dangerous acts to human life that violate federal or state law that appear intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population and/or influence the policy of government by intimidation and occur primarily within the U.S.
Roof’s statements in his manifesto fit this description. Dear’s anti-choice beliefs and statements to Planned Parenthood staff of “no more baby parts” during the siege fit this description. Yet the title of “domestic terrorist” has failed to apply to these white men.
The point is not that Americans should go easy on radical Islam. The point is that violent white supremacists, fundamental Christians, and radical Muslims should be treated with the same seriousness, and the same labels. Due to systemic racism and white supremacy in American culture, they are not.
The manner in which the suspects are apprehended is vastly different. Loughner shot senator Gabrielle Giffords in the head and he was captured alive. Dear shot three cops, killing one, during the Planned Parenthood siege, and he was taken alive.
In a country where cops currently shoot and kill black people for reaching for a wallet or running away and gun down a 12-year-old child for playing in a park with a toy gun, a white man who killed a cop during a mass shooting was arrested alive.
Muslim suspects Sayd and Malik in San Bernardino were killed in a hail of 380 police bullets.
This is further evidence that despite all of the many excuses we hear for why police use lethal force against suspects, the simple fact is that police choose to kill certain suspects, based on skin color.
Despite the fact that we live in a society built on racism, those who take on the job of journalists who report the truth must do better to point out these inconsistencies, not contribute to them.
In contributing to these glaring differences in media coverage, journalists continue to contribute to a racist, white supremacist narrative that pervades our news sources, and therefore contribute to furthering racism in our society.