In America, there are no laws to force media to follow government party-line narrative or version of the story, unlike Egypt. This is not perfect but, at least theoretically, readers and viewers will decide for themselves which version to believe. The first amendment prohibits any laws that infringe on freedom of expression.
Following the Oregon shooting, however, when a 26-year-old man, identified by police as Chris Harper Mercer, killed nine people and wounded seven others while on a shooting rampage at a community college in southwest Oregon, President of the ‘free world’ Barak Obama reacted differently. He was sombre and frustrated and actually asked media for help, requesting them to put the death toll into perspective by comparing the thousands of Americans killed by gun violence with those killed by terrorism.
He wanted reporters and editors throughout the United States to provide a context illustrating the disproportionate amount of people murdered with guns every year: “I would ask news organisations, because I won’t put these facts forward — have news organisations tally up the number of Americans who’ve been killed through terrorist attacks in the last decade, and the number of Americans who’ve been killed by gun violence, and post those side by side on your news reports.”
A few media outlets took his request seriously. Vox, an edgy modern digital magazine that covers news around the world with an audience of more than 170 million people, published a report with maps and graphics comparing violence committed by terrorists and gun violence. Since 2001, 406,496 Americans died of gun violence, and 3,380 of terrorist violence. There have been 142 shootings in American schools since January 2013. Yet the majority of Americans still believe that terrorist acts by Muslims are the biggest threat to this country. This probably explains the reason why most Americans aren’t good at math. After every mass shooting in this country, the media goes through the same tired reflexive reactions: shock, rationalisation and condolence to the victims and their loved ones.
This is not the case when the perpetuator is Muslim or Arab, the sequence of reactions change from shock to condemnation of a whole culture and Islamophobic coverage. Since the tragedy of 9/11, coverage of violence in this country focuses too much on the ones committed by foreign terrorism, while domestic terrorism and violence is brushed away and sensitised, and the perpetuator is usually characterised as a lone wolf, or mentally ill.
After the Oregon shooting, when Mercer, who was killed in a fire fight with the sheriff’s deputies, demanded his victims to state their religions before shooting them, no-one spoke about religious fanaticism or fundamentalism or American Taliban. The Wall Street Journal instead reasoned that the shooter was not able to have a girlfriend, and this may have contributed to the mass shooting.
“The gunman who executed nine people at an Oregon community college before killing himself ranted in a manifesto he left behind about not having a girlfriend and thinking everyone else was ‘crazy’,” WSJ reported. A police official also explained that the mother of the 26-year-old gunman Christopher Harper-Mercer told investigators he was struggling with some mental-health issues. Who doesn’t?!
An Arab/Muslim who committed a lesser crime and maybe motivated by the loss of his land, family and his neighbourhood, is characterised by the media as a terrorist, jihadist, Muslim extremist, or better yet a Taliban. These labels are only reserved for misbehaving Muslims. But when white Americans misbehave, commit mass murder, there’s a different version, a different media coverage; as presidential hopeful Jeb Bush said “stuff happens” in response to last week’s shooting.
Ben Carson, another republican presidential candidate who happens to be neurosurgeon, had a Clint Eastwood-make my day-reaction during a Fox News interview. “I wouldn’t just stand there and let him shoot me,” he bragged with smirk on his face.”I would say: ‘Hey guys, everybody attack him. He may shoot me, but he can’t get us all.'”
After all, it actually takes a brain surgeon to be an idiot!
Ahmed Tharwat is host of the Arab-American TV show Belahdan. His articles are published in national and international publications. He blogs at Notes From America, on www.ahmediatv.com. Follow him on Twitter @AhmediaTV