Confession or No Confession, Kasab Remains Mere Gunman for NYT, Others

Mohammed Ajmal Amir Kasab was captured in a chilling photograph and now he has confessed his role in the Mumbai terrorist attacks, but he remains a 'gunman', rather than a 'terrorist', for the New York Times and other leading American newspapers. And with a reason.

After his surprising and dramatic confession before a special court in Mumbai Monday, Kasab is hogging headlines in the American media that is revisiting the semantic-ethical issue of which attacker qualifies as terrorist.

For the New York Times and the Washington Post, Kasab is strictly a gunman.

"Mumbai Gunman Enters Plea Of Guilty", the Post headline read a day later, and the 428 words of the report from New Delhi do not include "terrorist" -- not even to qualify the "attack".

Kasab is "one of the 10 gunmen who laid siege to India's financial capital for three days last November", Lashkar-e-Taiba is "outlawed, Pakistan-based group" and the attack that claimed more than 170 lives is "the deadly carnage".

The NYT report with the headline "Suspect Stirs Mumbai Court by Confessing" has 1,050 words, but terrorist is not among them. Kasab is "suspect", "gunman" and "attacker".

The Wall Street Journal calls the incidents "terrorist attacks", but those behind them were "10 suspected gunmen". For the Los Angeles Times, the 21-year-old Pakistani is "the only suspected gunman".

This is, of course, no different from the terminology the American media used in reporting those ghastly events on Nov 26-29 last year.

Why is, so to say, one man's 'terrorist' another man's 'assailant'?

The answer was given by the NYT's public editor Clark Hoyt.

Writing in December when those gory images were still fresh in memory, Hoyt noted that the "10 young men" who "went on a rampage with machine guns and grenades, taking hostages, setting fires and murdering men, women and children" were described in The Times by many labels.

"They were 'militants', 'gunmen', 'attackers' and 'assailants'. Their actions, which left bodies strewn in the city's largest train station, five-star hotels, a synagogue, a cafe and a hospital -- were described as 'coordinated terrorist attacks'. But the men themselves were not called terrorists."

He reprinted a comment posted on the newspaper's website by a reader: "I am so offended as to why the NY Times and a number of other news organizations are calling the perpetrators 'militants'. 'Murderers, or terrorists perhaps but militants? Is your PC going to get so absurd that you will refer to them as 'freedom fighters?'"

Hoyt noted that the Mumbai terror attacks "posed a familiar semantic issue for Times editors: what to call people who pursue political, religious, territorial, or unidentifiable goals through violence on civilians".

He referred to a two-page memo written by James Bennet, the Times's Jerusalem bureau chief during 2001-04 and now the editor of the Atlantic, on the use of "terrorism" and "terrorist".

The memo, still cited by NYT editors though the newspaper has "no formal policy on the terms", says it was easy to call certain egregious acts terrorism "and have the whole world agree with you".

"The problem, he said, was where to stop before every stone-throwing Palestinian was called a terrorist and the paper was making a political statement," noted Hoyt.

"I do not think it is possible to write a set of hard and fast rules for the T-words, and I think The Times is both thoughtful about them and maybe a bit more conservative in their use than I would be.

"My own broad guideline: If it looks as if it was intended to sow terror and it shocks the conscience, whether it is planes flying into the World Trade Center, gunmen shooting up Mumbai, or a political killer in a little girl's bedroom, I'd call it terrorism -- by terrorists."

But the NYT and others seem to be waiting for more evidence as far as the Nov 26 attacks are concerned.

(Ashish Mehta can be contacted at ashish.m@ians.in)  


More by :  Ashish Mehta

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