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Commentary: Words matter

Journalists need to be fair when describing acts of terror.


  • Gazette / file

Timothy McVeigh was a white nationalist, Turner Diaries-reading terrorist. He used a Ryder truck full of ammonium nitrate to kill 168 men, women and children on April 19, 1995, at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City. 

As we approach the 24th anniversary of this massacre of our neighbors, friends and family, I am becoming increasingly aware that current college students and recent military recruits only know this anecdotally. They can choose their own adventure into a fact-based reality or a quasi-factual alternate reality built on an odious set of beliefs that validate McVeigh’s mindset and actions.

I do not have that luxury. I spent over two weeks of my life in the shadow of that building’s ruins, reporting as rescue operations became recovery operations. The families and friends of those 168 lost lives, the people who survived the attack and those of us who bore witness cannot choose to ignore the truth.

I am a watchman in the language police. I look for news stories that identify a white attacker as an “extremist” but an attacker of color as a “terrorist.” After the March 15 killing of 50 people at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, I read stories in publications such as USA Today that did not name the suspect, 28-year-old Brenton Tarrant.  Some outlets referred to Tarrant as a white extremist but not as an alleged terrorist.

This is a distinction with a difference.

This month, an independent investigative collective called Unicorn Riot hacked the messaging app Discord, a chat client that is a favorite among white nationalists and, in particular, the white nationalist group Identity Evropa (IE). This is the group that has been stickering its logo around Oklahoma City, particularly in Midtown, 16th Street Plaza District and, most recently, Deep Deuce.

In August 2018, a Discord poster identifying himself as “Dannion Phillips from Oklahoma” made arrangements with the “local coordinator” for IE to pay his dues. Two months later, on Oct. 13, he posted several photos of IE stickers in the Plaza District.

Then, on Jan. 3, 2019, the day a column I wrote about IE’s stickering/flyering campaign published in Oklahoma Gazette, “Dannion Phillips from Oklahoma” posted the following:

“This is a tweet from an author at the Oklahoma Gazette who penned a smear piece against our flyering operations in Oklahoma City. This tweet has a picture of the article and he references us as racists.”

The post included the hashtag “#cyberstrike.”

On March 18, Huffington Post published a story identifying seven members of the military as members of IE. Airman First Class Dannion A. Phillips, who was stationed at Tinker Air Force Base as recently as last month, was one of those named members. It is entirely possible that the person posting as @DannionP on Discord is not this U.S. Air Force airman. His identity could have been appropriated by someone else. Yes, this is a possibility; I am a firm believer in “allegedly.”

Regardless, whoever this is tried to initiate a cyberstrike against me. The person posting as @DannionP is an extremist. Is he a terrorist? Not yet and, possibly, not ever.

The attack in Christchurch is most assuredly an act of terrorism. Whoever committed this act against humanity is a terrorist and if alleged attacker Tarrant is found guilty, then he is a terrorist.

Words matter, including the words posted on Discord. But when we discuss acts of terrorism in the media, their appearance or race should not slant whether they are just extremists or full-blown terrorists. It is their actions that determine who and what they are. 

George Lang is editor-in-chief of Oklahoma Gazette and began his career at Gazette in 1994.

Opinions expressed on the commentary page, in letters to the editor and elsewhere in this newspaper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of ownership or management.

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