Media's Focus on Ancestry of London Attackers Unwarranted

05/30/2013 03:55 pm ET | Updated Jul 30, 2013
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Last Wednesday in London, 25-year-old British serviceman and father Lee Rigby was brutally killed in broad daylight by two Islamic extremists of Nigerian descent. In a videotaped rant, one of the suspects claimed that this act of terrorism was in response to the presence of British troops in Muslim nations. The overwhelming majority of civilian deaths in the South Asian and Middle Eastern countries to which the alleged murderer was almost certainly referring come courtesy of the Taliban and other Islamic extremist groups, not British or American soldiers. But from the type of person who would kill an innocent man on a crowded thoroughfare, then hold an impromptu press conference at a nearby intersection while brandishing a meat cleaver in his bloodied hands, fact-checked legitimate discourse is likely too much to expect.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, media reports have prominently highlighted the Nigerian heritage of the perpetrators. Articles from the BBC, the Telegraph, and the Guardian have discussed their roots at length, and CNN referred to one of the suspects as a "British national of Nigerian descent." As a Nigerian-born, Australian and American-raised "third culture kid" who has met people whose knowledge of Nigerians comes from the alien flesh-eating prostitutes and thugs in Neill Blomkamp's 2009 movie District 9, I naturally perk up when I notice things like this. So is the media's focus on the ancestry of the suspects relevant, fair, or consistent?

Michael Adebolajo was born in Great Britain, and Michael Adebowale was born in Nigeria but is a naturalized British citizen. They were both raised and educated in Great Britain. They both converted to Islam, and were radicalized, in Great Britain. The Nigerian influences in the lives of both of these attackers were the "devout Christian" parents who raised them. Adebolajo attempted to visit Somalia, not Nigeria, to train with terrorist group al-Shabab. Omar Bakri Mohammed, a radical cleric who was expelled from the UK in 2005 and claims to have personally converted Adebolajo to Islam, was born and raised in Syria, not in Nigeria. And while British Prime Minister David Cameron has been careful to point out that the overwhelming majority of Muslims do not support the cowardly behavior of these criminals, perhaps we should take a look at the country upon which the media has insisted it will focus:

There are no U.S. drones in the skies over Nigeria, and no British bombs falling on Nigerian soil. Bruce Willis's 2003 movie Tears of the Sun, in which a U.S. Navy SEAL team is dispatched to Nigeria to rescue American citizens during a civil war; and James Cameron's 2009 film Avatar, where Colonel Miles Quaritch claims to have served "three tours" of duty in Nigeria; are both damagingly inaccurate: the only British or American troops in Nigeria are the guards inside the British High Commission and the American Embassy. Terrorist group Boko Haram recruits and operates solely in the Muslim northern half of Nigeria. It has bombed countless churches full of people from the country's Christian south, which is where the ancestry of the suspects lies; many victims have also been Muslims from the north. Average citizens on the streets of London and New York may be unaware of these granular details, but the media upon which we rely for information has an obligation to be better informed and more precise.

Why the unfair focus on the killers' irrelevant heritage, then? Is it because non-English surnames must be explained to confused media audiences? If these two British converts to radical Islam had the non-English surnames of Rooney and Gerrard instead of Adebolajo and Adebowale, would the media hastily inform readers that the men's grandparents had emigrated to Liverpool from Limerick? Or are the families of English national soccer team stars Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard, both of whom are of Irish descent and the latter of whom even has an English-born cousin who plays for the Republic of Ireland's soccer team, able to move to England and allowed to become "English" in a way that families from Britain's former colonies in Africa, Asia, and the West Indies are not? People with names like mine are forced to ask questions like these every single day.

The inconsistent application of these ancestry-based media disclaimers raises even more questions. Why is UK-born nobleman Baron Victor Adebowale (no known relationship to the London attacker) rarely described as a "British national of Nigerian descent"? British journalists fail to consistently mention that Olympic star Eniola Aluko, who plays professional soccer while practicing law at the same time, was born in Nigeria. The BBC almost never discusses the fact that British discus throw record-holder Lawrence Okoye, who has deferred his admission to the University of Oxford's law program in order to pursue an NFL career, was born in Britain to Nigerian immigrants. Ohio-born Princeton and Caltech graduate John Dabiri, who received tenure at Caltech at the age of 29 before winning a prestigious MacArthur Foundation "genius grant," is described as an "American biophysicist" on his Wikipedia page. How long would it take before his collective web presence was edited to read "Nigerian American" if he were accused of a crime next week?

Whenever an event like this occurs, there is an understandable need to digest and explain. But why are we so quick to rely on destructive argumenta ad hominem that stereotype only some groups within our societies? Twenty-three-year-old Virginia Tech student Seung-Hui Cho, who arrived in the U.S. aged 8, killed 32 students in a violent rampage in 2007. While some American students of Korean descent endured physical violence in the aftermath of this tragedy, no Kellys, Sullivans, or O'Gradys experienced the same after Timothy McVeigh's 1995 bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City; nor should they have. It is difficult to imagine a job applicant of Italian descent being "jokingly" asked if he or she has Mafia affiliations, but an employee of a Manhattan company once decided that it would be appropriate to "jokingly" announce that I "must be the one sending those Nigerian scam emails" while at a formal recruiting event.

What happened in London is a tragedy, and the Nigerian Diaspora joins the UK in condemning this act. As we do so, it is important for society and the media to not engage in the intellectually lazy practice of stereotyping. Selective "otherness" and disclaimers of convenience distract from the real issues at hand: the heinous nature of this crime, the innocent victim and his mourning family, and the growing question of how to combat home-grown -- yes, home-grown, not Nigerian-grown -- terrorism in a modern world.