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Who should wear the 'terrorist' label?

WITH THIS WEEK'S 9/11 anniversary comes reflection on all that has changed these past two years. Even our language has shifted; the word terrorism itself casts a different shadow.

It has always, of course, been a powerfully negative label. But post-9/11 the word's potency has multiplied. In the current climate, the terrorist tag effectively banishes its holder from the political arena. More than ever, it condemns rather than describes.

Indeed, newspapers must be doubly careful about how they apply the word. Sparing use is the norm. For example, the Palestinian organization Hamas, whose suicide bombers maim and kill Israeli citizens, is routinely described in the Globe and other papers as a "militant," not terrorist, group.

Such restraint infuriates some Middle East partisans (most often, but not exclusively, supporters of Israel) who say it sugarcoats reality and that any group targeting civilians is terrorist. I receive regular demands to, as a Chelmsford reader put it, "stop misleading readers with terminology that affords terrorists a false degree of legitimacy."

What possible reason is there for not unflinchingly applying the word terrorist to any organization or person who targets civilians? It may seem like hair-splitting, but there's a reason to reserve the terrorist label for specific acts of violence, and not apply it broadly to groups.

To tag Hamas, for example, as a terrorist organization is to ignore its far more complex role in the Middle East drama. The word reflects not only a simplification, but a bias that runs counter to good journalism. To label any group in the Middle East as terrorist is to take sides, or at least appear to, and that is not acceptable. The same holds true in covering other far-flung conflicts. One person's terrorist is another's freedom fighter; it's not for journalists to judge.

That said, journalists can not, and should not, be blind to reality. When we see terrorism, we should say so. A suicide bombing on a crowded bus is clearly an act of terrorism and should be so labeled. And it should also be described in all its painful detail. Such reporting is more powerful in its specificity than any broad label.

This approach -- call the act terrorist, but not the organization -- is used in many newsrooms, including the Globe's. It allows for variations: The terrorist label can appear in a quote or when detailing Washington's official list of terrorist groups. But not in the reporter's own voice.

The wisdom of this approach is, understandably, the subject of renewed debate in the wake of the recent, horrible bus bombing in Jerusalem that killed 21 people. There are good arguments on both sides. But I cast my lot with those who believe the current approach -- perhaps imperfect and a bit contrived -- best serves accuracy and impartiality, at least for now. It is a necessary accommodation in a complicated world.

"The overall approach here is to describe events and present facts rather than to attach labels to individuals or groups," notes Globe editor Martin Baron. "We particularly seek to avoid hot-button language that has become associated with a point of view . . ."

Baron notes that Middle East coverage is a special concern for many readers. He acknowledges the view of supporters of Israel who "believe we should use the term `terrorist' to describe militant Palestinian groups that encourage or carry out horrific suicide bombings against civilians" -- and of Palestinians and their backers who "argue that theirs is a legitimate struggle over land and freedom . . . (and) that Israeli military killings of Palestinian civilians should be properly portrayed as `state terrorism.' " The debate, he says, is complicated by the fact that some militant Palestinian groups also perform some social service functions.

Best, he says, to avoid attaching labels to either side, instead providing "accurate, fair and honest accounts of specific news events." That includes calling suicide bombings "acts of terror" and "terror attacks." (The Globe also routinely points out the State Department designation of Palestinian groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad as terrorist organizations.)

The Globe practice, says Baron, is to evaluate each story individually. In the "relatively rare" instances where the terrorism label is used broadly, he says, "it has been applied to groups that have no clearly identifiable or explicitly articulated political objective."

Count Al Qaeda as one of those exceptions. In the Globe and elsewhere, it's called a "terrorist network" -- which prompts critics to argue, anew, that if Al Qaeda is a terrorist organization so is (fill the blank).

It's difficult, given that the definition of Al Qaeda in the United States is almost solely based on the 9/11 attacks, to imagine seeing it as anything else. A more precise definition -- "a radical Islamist network that employs violence against innocents" -- trumps "terrorist" on grounds of specificity, but it ignores one of our most profound national experiences, 9/11. Given Al Qaeda's self-definition and its large-scale embrace of terrorism, it has proven itself an allowable exception.

The ombudsman represents the readers. Her opinions and conclusions are her own. Phone 617-929-3020 or, to leave a message, 929-3022. Our e-mail address is

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