When is a Terrorist a Terrorist?


It’s all about Semantics

Some words we toss around with abandon, having little idea what they mean:

  • Hegemony
  • Rhetoric
  • Semantics

We often use them incorrectly.

We think of hegemony as power over us, but Antonio Gramsci had a keener sense of the word.

Hegemony refers to domination we muggles accept blithely.

He wrote, “Ruling groups dominate not by pure force but through a structure of consent.”

Rhetoric just means speech, but it is often assumed to mean false speech or speech with a hidden agenda.

And semantics?

Semantics is the study of language.

So when someone says, “It’s just semantics,” what does that actually mean?

Semantics means the study of meaning.

And meaning is at the core of what think about in framing, which I teach.

So when someone this week asked me how the news media are framing the bomber featured in news from Texas, I decided to look.

Is the bomber framed as a terrorist?

I first checked the New York Times, and discovered coverage avoided calling the bomber a terrorist, even after linking him to the murders of two African-American residents and injuring other individuals.

The 23-year-old Texas native was characterized as a home-schooled youth who called himself a conservative when he wrote his political views in a class project: he favored capital punishment and argued homosexuality is abnormal.

The Times avoided the word terrorism and terrorist when describing Michael Anthony Conditt.

And when I searched headlines and stories for more, the topic of “terrorism” tended to be discounted.

When police found a 25-minute message that Conditt recorded, Austin Police Chief Brian Manley said:

“He does not at all mention anything about terrorism, nor does he mention anything about hate, but instead it is the outcry of a very challenged young man, talking about challenges in his personal life,” according to NPR.

In other words, the police chief worked hard to discount terrorism.

So: what does terrorism mean?

The holy grail of all things semantic—the Oxford English Dictionary—has several definitions for terrorism, with the key description as “instilling terror, fear, intimidation, coercion or bullying.”

Terrorism can also be an act of the state, as in the reign of terrorism during the French Revolution, and it can mean use of violence for political aims.

The last definition—for political aims—seems to best address the reluctance of the New York Times to frame the Texas bombings as terrorist.


Because the bomber has yet to provide evidence (that we know) which promotes a political point of view.

Still: others wonder whether the rationale for avoiding the terrorist moniker is because the lad is White.

In an eerie coincidence, today marks the one-year-anniversary of the London attack of pedestrians near the Palace of Westminster.

The attacker was a native of Great Britain who drove his car into a crowd and killed five folk—some with his vehicle, one who was dumped over the bridge, and one police officer, who was stabbed.

Many others were injured in the 22 March 2017 attack and the killer was slain.

The attacker–Adrian Russell Elms (later known as Khalid Masood)–converted to Islam as an adult.

School photos—plastered in the British tabloids—depict a youngster with dark skin, whose ethnicity isn’t specified.

Still: several news reports speculate that Elms/Masood was bullied as an individual of color in mostly-White primary schools in England.

New reports of the London attack speculate that Elms/Masood acted alone, and revealed he sent a message that he was, “Waging jihad in revenge against Western military action in Muslim countries in the Middle East,” according to the Telegraph.

No media reports hesitate in calling Elms/Masood a terrorist, yet today’s news reports refrain from creating the same label for the 23-year-old Texan.


My guess is that news reporters take great care when leveraging the word “terrorist” in news stories.

If there is no confession from the terrorist that his prey were victims of ideology, then the terrorist is described as troubled youth, whose murderous acts are, “the outcry of a very challenged young man, talking about challenges in his personal life,” according to the chief of police.

What’s salient in this argument is that the intent, rather than the outcome, is what matters when framing the news.

The British-born terrorist claimed he was seeking revenge.

The American-born terrorist appears to have responded as an “outcry” in response to his personal “challenges.”

Frankly: I don’t see the difference.


Today’s blog is dedicated to my brilliant and hard-working students who join me each year in an adventure that examines framing. They honor me. They keep me going.

22 March 2018

Image from the website “Artnet,” featuring work by the anonymous British artist, Banksy, in Clacton-on-Sea in the United Kingdom. According to Artnet, the town’s council decided to paint over the mural “in response to complaints that the immigration-themed piece was offensive.”






#khalid masood





About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in american indian. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to When is a Terrorist a Terrorist?

  1. Ashana M says:

    I think there is a difference, and it has to do with organizations (and ideologies) outlasting individuals. He has been stopped. No one is afraid of what else he might do. The KKK, however, lives on and is still frightening.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I imagine the problem is racial and ideological. After all, when people, mostly Native, gather to oppose environmental degradation, they are too often branded as economic terrorists. That said, I am glad he is caught.

    Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s