by David Kopel
September 23, 2001
On the morning of Sept. 11, Coloradans tuning in to television and radio were informed that two terrorist planes had hit the World Trade Center. Soon after, they found out that terrorists had struck the Pentagon. And what did they find when they opened the morning's Rocky Mountain News? There on Page 2 - the most prominent page for a news article - was a story celebrating a terrorist who bombed the Pentagon.
The story, "Ex-radical: No qualms about love of explosives," was a New York Times special feature about Bill Ayers, a member of the Weather Underground, which was one of the main terrorist organizations in the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Ayers is currently an education professor in Chicago, and his wife, convicted terrorist Bernardine Dohrn, is a lawyer. As the article detailed, Ayers and his group bombed the Pentagon, "one of 14 bombings for which he and the Weather Underground claimed responsibility."
The article fawned over the terrorists: "He still has the ebullient, ingratiating manner, the apparently intense interest in other people, that made him a charismatic figure. . . . Today [Ayers and Dohrn] seem like typical baby boomers. . . . 'Happily for me,' Bernardine told the Times, 'Billy keeps me laughing, he keeps me growing.' " Did Ayers regret his terrorist past? "I don't regret setting bombs. I feel we didn't do enough."
There is nothing wrong with biographical pieces on retired terrorists. Indeed, such pieces can offer readers valuable insight into the terrorist mentality. But it is very wrong for newspapers to produce laudatory puff pieces about terrorists. Both The Denver Post and the News have the contractual right to reprint New York Times stories, but only the News chose to run the Times celebration of terrorism.
The next day's News had a rather different attitude about terrorism, of course. And both papers properly called Sept. 11's perpetrators what they were: "terrorists." The newspapers did not take the position that, since the perpetrators thought of themselves as holy warriors and not terrorists, the newspapers should not take sides. So the newspapers did not run "balanced" headlines such as "Militants bomb World Trade Center."
Quite plainly, people who blow up civilian targets are "terrorists," rather than "militants." The latter term might properly be used for irregular fighters who attack military targets.
Yet both before and after the terrorist attack on America, the Post and the News ran Associated Press stories describing Palestinian terrorists as "militants." Technically this is true, since the terrorists are "aggressively pursuing a political or social end" (Oxford English Dictionary). But "militant" in the context of attacks on civilians is a terrible euphemism, like calling a Gestapo torture specialist "a German government employee." People who plant bombs in restaurants and who deliberately target schoolchildren are "terrorists" - regardless of whether the victims are Americans or Israelis.
Newspaper editors had to make difficult decisions about what kind of pictures to use. The Post and News both published photos of people leaping to their death from the World Trade Center, to escape death by burning. Some papers, such as the Newark Star-Ledger chose not to, according to the journalism Web site, www.poynter.org. In response to some reader complaints Post editor Glen Guzzo defended the decision to use the photos: "it is clear that this is one of the defining images of the past week." Guzzo's rationale was correct, and the pictures help portray the mass horror on a human scale.
But the Post was much more reluctant with some other defining photos of the week: Palestinians celebrating the terrorist attacks. The day after the attack, the News ran two photos of the celebration, one in color, accompanied by a long article. The article observed that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat condemned the attacks.
The Post, however, used no photos, and put news of the celebrations in a tiny world news wrap-up at the bottom of a page, and on Thursday had a pair of articles describing diverse reactions from around the world. Not until Sunday did the Post carry a Palestinian "celebration" photo, and even then it was a small black-and-white at the bottom of a page. The Post did, however, run a couple of short items noting that the Palestinian Authority (Arafat's government) was threatening violence against journalists taking film and photos of the celebrations.
Both Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon donated blood to help American victims. Both donations were obvious photo-ops, staged to influence American opinion. The papers would have been justified in printing neither photo or both. The News printed both photos, but the Post used only the Arafat photo - juxtaposing it with a story about the Israelis killing seven Palestinians in a counterterrorist raid (which, of course, the story did not call "counterterrorist").
Holger Jensen's Sept. 18 column, "Attacks beyond bin Laden's power?," provided readers with some important information, such as the fact that most Muslims in the world are not Arabs, and that radical Islam is a gross deviation from mainstream versions. But Jensen also complains that Israel "seized more Palestinian land in 1976."
Actually, he meant 1967, during the Six-Day War. And it would have been helpful to acknowledge that Israel seized the land after King Hussein of Jordan, the former (non-Palestinian) owner of the West Bank, declared war on Israel; and after Gen. Gamel Nasser of Egypt, the former (non-Palestinian) owner of the Gaza Strip, announced that he was about to drive all the Jews into the sea, and expelled U.N. peacekeepers.