We honor the victims of mass killings equally. Why can’t politicians and the press?
December 4, 2019
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This article was originally published for Religion News Service.
Knife crime represents 39% of all murders in the U.K. and has reached its highest level since the Second World War. In 2019, attacks — typically involving robbery or violent assault — in London have reached a seven-year high.
Yet none of these crimes have been international stories, until this weekend when a man named Usman Khan, who was out on parole with a previous terror conviction, stabbed innocent civilians indiscriminately on the London Bridge. The first victim to be lost was an outstanding young man, Jack Merritt, who had been advocating for prison rehabilitation, which would obviously benefit a convict like Khan.
But criminals like Khan have no shame or sense of who they victimize in acts of political violence. Nor do politicians like Boris Johnson, currently running to keep his position as prime minister, who, before the victims could even be buried, took out a front page ad to argue that Londoners ought to vote for him to keep themselves safe from terror.
Never mind the fact that Merritt’s father asked that the murder of his son not be weaponized for cheap political points, instead hoping that the cause his son worked so passionately for would not be forgotten.
But for the press and politicians it is just too tempting and too easy to use this attack to fan the flames of fear that Islam is haunting the West. The only way to save yourselves, they tell the public, is to continue to elect Islamophobic politicians who vow to be your saviors.
Here in the United States, major media outlets covered the attack obsessively, unlike any of the other knife attacks that had taken place this year. They also quickly dropped any mention of the knife attack in the Netherlands on the same evening once it was determined that there was no “motive of terror,” which usually ultimately translates into it not being a Muslim perpetrator.
Where Islam is not involved, the message goes, there is no need to be alarmed.
It’s the same twisted logic that portrays white supremacist terror attacks, which account for most mass shootings in the United States, as less scary. It’s as if getting attacked by a guy screaming “Allahu Akbar” instead of “Trump, Trump!” is more alarming.
This double standard of reporting isn’t some Muslim conspiracy theory or a figment of an imam's imagination. Earlier this year, researchers at Georgia State University and the University of Alabama found that terror attacks by Muslims receive an average of 357% more media coverage than those by other groups. Politicians like Johnson will obviously exploit that discrepancy to score cheap political points. But at what point do we demand that media outlets do better, and that their coverage consist of more than demands for Muslims to issue endless condemnations?
As an experiment when I speak at different events, I ask the crowd if anyone can recall the names or images of the terrorists from the worst mass shooting in the history of the United States, in Las Vegas, or the worst shooting at a place of worship, in Sutherland Springs, Texas. No one ever can. Nor can they remember the names or images of the terrorists who attacked the synagogues in Pittsburgh or San Diego, or a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, not too long ago.
But I often find audiences can name Omar Mateen, who committed the heinous attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and other killers with Muslim names and supposed Islamic agendas.
As a horrible attack occurred in London this weekend, let’s remember the victims and recommit ourselves to fighting violence of all causes. But let’s not forget that another mass shooting just happened in New Orleans this weekend, with over 10 people wounded, and it didn’t get nearly as much attention as a knife attack thousands of miles away, even though mass shootings seem to occur in America every single day.
The media need to do a better job covering these issues proportionately. Politicians need to be called out when they exploit these false narratives shamelessly. And we all need to confront the ills that rob us of beautiful people like Jack Merritt and the victims of all mass killings equally.