06/13/2012 06:47 am ET Updated Aug 13, 2012

'Terrorist': Apply The Label Consistently, Please

Real-life scenario No. 1: A man with a weapon strides into a military medical office in Texas and opens fire, killing 13 people and wounding 29 before he is stopped and taken into custody. In the ensuing news media coverage and public discussion, the incident is widely viewed as an act of terrorism.

Real-life scenario No. 2: A man with a weapon shows up at a public gathering inside a supermarket in Arizona and opens fire, killing six (including a U.S. district judge) and wounding 13 (including a member of the U.S. House of Representatives) before he is stopped and arrested. In the ensuing media coverage and public discussion, the incident is generally not characterized as terrorism.

The difference? In the first scenario -- the 2009 Fort Hood shootings -- the perpetrator, Nidal Hasan, was a Muslim of Palestinian ancestry. In the second -- the 2011 Tucson shootings that left Rep. Gabrielle Giffords gravely wounded -- the perpetrator, Jared Loughner, was non-Muslim and white.

So it goes, according to new research by a terrorism prosecutions expert in Portland, Ore., when it comes to public perception of what constitutes terrorism. An analysis by law school professor Tung Yin of Lewis & Clark (the college where I work) reveals that race and religion strongly color portrayals of terrorism, to the point where crimes of a similar pattern -- political motivation, mass destruction, indiscriminate killing, etc. -- tend to be characterized differently in this country when the perpetrators are Muslim or of Arab descent.

This matters. "Terrorist," after all, is the mother of all damning labels in this post-9/11 age. And beyond politics and public relations, ideas about what constitutes terrorism and who commits it can have a significant effect on law enforcement and court outcomes. It's a term that needs to be used with care and consistency.

Listening to Yin review cases of actual and intended violence, one is struck by how the term "terrorist" has been conspicuously absent from public discourse about some high-profile incidents of recent years.

No white terrorists?

Here in Oregon, a father-son team, Bruce and Joshua Turnidge, are on death row for planting a bomb that killed two police officers in a bank in 2008. Prosecutors portrayed the pair as bigots who hated the government. Terrorists? Not if most news media accounts are to serve as our guide. Yin finds the same dynamic in The New York Times and Wall Street Journal coverage of the arrests of five men (all Caucasian and non-Muslim) in Cleveland this spring in a plot to bomb a bridge. Are the alleged Cleveland plotters terrorists? Not if the words of most investigators and reporters are any indication.

Not to say that non-Muslim whites never get tagged as terrorists. Yin notes that two notorious bombers in recent (but pre-9/11) U.S. history have worn the label --Timothy McVeigh and the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski. You would search in vain, however, for other non-Muslim perpetrators of mass violence in this country who have been similarly branded.

As Yin asks (rhetorically) in the title of his study, "Were Timothy McVeigh and the Unabomber the Only White Terrorists?" (The study has been accepted for publication in a juried law review and is available online at the Social Science Research Network.) Clearly, McVeigh and Kaczynski are not the only white terrorists -- not if that loaded term is to be used precisely and responsibly.

Get it right

Getting this right is important for a host of reasons. As many have argued (present company included), subjecting all American Muslims to terrorism-related stereotypes and suspicions is unfair and unwise. Bear in mind that the term "terrorist" is legally significant, too. If perpetrators of violence and their abettors are proved to operate out of terrorist intentions, sentences can go up in federal cases and in some state courts.

As Yin argues, "There are real costs imposed on society when terrorism becomes branded with Islam: Cognitive biases against Muslims become more potent; investigators risk losing the trail of non-Muslim perpetrators when they fixate reflexively on Muslims; and worst of all, some government officials, aware of the biases and concerned about appearing anti-Muslim, may overcompensate by deliberately ignoring specific 'red flags' about Muslim individuals."

Yes, the overcompensation problem. Those who defend American Muslims are tempted at times to obscure the religious and terrorist angles when Muslims do perpetrate violence; this, to protect Muslims from reprisals and reduce the potency of such incidents as fodder for anti-Muslim politics. Such a dynamic was evident in the way some tried to downplay the fact that Nidal Hasan, the man charged in the Fort Hood shooting, is a Muslim and did spew violent jihadist rhetoric on the Internet.

If the religion dimension helps identify a suspect, and if the t-word helps law enforcement and the public understand the nature of an act of mass violence, its use is justified. If the label fits, apply it. But fairly, please.

This article was first published in USA Today