In a recent column on the Mumbai attacks, Mark Steyn offered the stunning observation that major British newspapers called the terrorists "suspected gunmen" in captions describing photographs of the assault. Those delicate labels are in the grand tradition of Reuters using quotation marks around "terrorists" when referring to the 9/11 attackers. No need to jump to conclusions, they warn us.
Since Steyn did not illustrate his comment or include links to the photographs, I decided to do some sleuthing and see them for myself. Steyn's lament is, alas, exactly right.
In Britain's leading papers, we find pictures of gun-toting terrorists, in the midst of grisly killings, called "suspected" gunmen. No delicate sensibilities are offended, as they might be if the gunmen were plainly called terrorists en route to taking hostages and killing civilians.
Since the pictures are protected by Reuters' copyright, I will describe them and provide links. They are close- and medium-range photos of a one person, not crowd scenes. They clearly show a gunman with his finger on the trigger of an assault rifle, ready to fire at any moment.
- The Daily Mail's picture is a frontal photograph. The terrorist is gripping the assault rifle with two hands, one of which is on the trigger. The rifle is pointed horizontally, toward anyone walking near the gunman. The newspaper ran this anodyne caption: "A suspected gunman walks outside the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in Mumbai on Wednesday night"
- The Telegraph's picture is part of a slide show and is the sixteenth picture. It shows a gunman walking through the Mumbai train station, holding an assault rifle with one hand. His finger is on the trigger. The newspaper caption reads, "A suspected gunman walks in the premises of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus or Victoria Terminus railway station in Mumbai" The seventeenth pictures in the slide show features an Indian security official and follows the same hyper-sensitive characterization: "A commando fires at suspected terrorists holed up in the Jewish centre." On Monday, long after the "suspected terrorists" murdered their hostages, the caption remains unchanged.
Calling these terrorists "suspects" in the midst of the carnage they so obviously perpetrated is worse than the usual banality of mainstream journalism. It is craven. Faced with the visible image of terrorists at work, these newspapers responded with the insipid posture of professional neutrality.
Nor can these photo captions be excused as one person's mistake. They passed through too many hands for that. They ran in prominent locations in several British papers and must have survived multiple editors. They remained posted, captions unchanged, long after the mass slaughter became known.
What do these captions tell us about British news organizations, beyond their misguided sense of professionalism? First, they show that the papers see terrorism primarily as a legal issue. That's why terrorists are called suspects, even when they are caught in the act. With the zany pretentiousness of a Monty Python character, they take the honored Western legal presumption of "innocent until proven guilty in a court of law" and apply it, willy nilly, to acts of war and terror.
In doing so, they recapitulate the fundamental flaw of the Clinton Administration's anti-terror strategy. Under Clinton, the Justice Department and FBI treated potential terrorism the same way they did any other criminal activity. For them, the central goal of law enforcement agencies was not to prevent terror or catch potential terrorists before they could act but to apprehend them after the fact and produce evidence of their crimes that would be admissible in court.
The British newspapers' captions show that they are trapped in the same mindset, determined to presume everyone innocent until they have been duly convicted in a fair trial. The effect is to label those responsible for mass killing with the same delicate language that is (rightly) applied to someone accused of stealing orange marmalade from Harrods's.
Following this logic, they would caption this World War II photo: "Alleged kamikaze pilot attacks USS Columbia in January 1945. A Honolulu grand jury is expected to meet soon and consider evidence about the pilot."
To label gun-toting terrorists-seen with weapons in hand, fingers on the trigger-as "suspected gunmen" is a reductio ad absurdum of political correctness. But it worse than misplaced legalism, journalist error, or exquisite sensibility run amok. It is, at bottom, moral cowardice. It reveals a chattering class bereft of its ethical compass, so fretful about offending that it is no longer willing to assert and defend the core values of civilized life.
Charles Lipson is a professor of political science at the University of Chicago.