What is your initial reaction to the following breaking news?
A group of five spent months planning to blow up an Ohio bridge during the anniversary of Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden’s death. An FBI informant had them under intense surveillance for some time.
So who do you think the prime suspects are?
If you were envisioning grisly beards, white skullcaps, and the word ‘jihad,’ you might be surprised to know that none of those descriptions have any relation to this story. Think again.
The real story is this: An undercover FBI agent had been closely monitoring the five self-described anarchists. The five men planned to use violence to express themselves, and their disdain with corporate America. There was no real threat to the public as the explosives the group “bought” from the agent were actually inoperable. Muslims were not involved.
This incident is a reminder of the work that lays ahead in how we react to the news of a “terror attack.” Why is it that when a Muslim is mentioned in the media, their religion is the first word used to describe them? In fact, the word "Muslim" usually appears in the headline. Take this headline from liveleak.com, “Devoted Muslim kills daughter.” In this 2007 story in which Muslims were not involved, “Father arrested for killing 13-month old daughter.” There is no mention of race or religion in the second story, nor is there a need. Crime is crime regardless of the perpetrator. Using religion in a headline to attract readers is a sick gamble that must cease.
While the following examples were not terrorism related, you get the idea. Imagine if the Ohio five had been Muslim. First, it would have, been all over the news; further cementing the stereotype that terrorism is a uniquely Muslim problem. Second, their religion would have been the main hook of the story.
I am not saying that religion should never be taken into account; sometimes it is part of the story and must be told. But, religion should not define the news. What we apply to one group, should be the rule for all. If someone Catholic or Buddhist happens to commit an act of terrorism, should it be mentioned in the headline as the first bit of news we need to know? Or, should descriptions of race, religion, sexual orientation, and color remain out of the picture, so that we can actually focus on the root of the problem, instead of creating more problems by amplifying stereotypes and prejudice?