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“Terrorist” v. “Troubled”: How media labels spree killers depending on ethnic origin

Today,  the nation mourns and reflects on the tragedy that occurred overnight when a 24-year old recent University of Colorado PhD student, James Holmes,shot and killed 12 and injured 38 at an Auora, Colorado movie theater. Protected by a bullet proof vest and a gas mask and dressed in tights with a red hair, Holmes reenacted a scene from the trailer for Dark Knight Rises, the much-buzzed about last Batman movie in the trilogy from director Christopher Nolan. He came in through the exit door, threw in tear gas and returned to randomly shoot at patrons running for their lives toward exit doors. Police arrested him in the parking lot and he was armed with an automatic weapon, a rifle and two shotguns.

As all search for answers as to what would make a person do such a horrific act, it may be useful to consider that these types of acts happen all the time, but usually across the ocean in the Middle East and other areas where there is hostile and contentious conflict. We call it terrorism, but when it happens at home by one of our own, we, especially those in the media are hesitant to call it terrorism.  Instead, many in the press are more apt to use more sympathetic phrasing and verbiage.  I noticed it today, too. Within minutes of the news breaking, some outlets dismissed it as a terrorist act and referred to Holmes as a “troubled” individual.

As in other recent cases, such as with the January 2012 Chardon High School Ohio shooter T.J. Lane and the January 2011 Gabby Giffords shooter Jared Lee Loughner, their senseless and violent acts are quickly assigned  an empathetic reasoning. They were loners, bullied, troubled or misunderstood. We get snippets and sound bites from relatives and friends describing them as quiet, nice and who kept to themselves.

By doing this, members of the US media are essentially almost giving the killers a pass on their bad acts and in a way asking the audience to share some of their empathy they may have for the victims with the shooter – who too should be looked upon as a victim as well.

It has a bit to do with the age of the shooters. When they are older white males, it is often said they snapped and “went Postal.”

Going “postal” has come to mean a disgruntled ex U.S. Post office employee going on a random shooting rampage which includes him killing co-workers and bosses and perhaps ultimately himself.

It might have started with the 1984 massacres carried out by funeral worker James Huberty. Afterwards, that tragic incident spurred on a series of copy cat crimes, ironically, mainly at post offices.  The first on August 20, 1986 at Edmond, Oklahoma, a U.S. Postal Service worker named Patrick Sherrill used a pair of .45-caliber Colt 1911A1 pistols to kill fourteen employees and wound an additional six before committing suicide. Then, on October 10, 1991 at Ridgewood, New Jersey, another U.S. Postal Service worker named Joseph Harris shot and killed two employees at his workplace after killing his former supervisor and her boyfriend at their home. A month later, on November 14 at Royal Oak, Michigan, yet another U.S. Postal Service worker named Thomas McIlvane used a Ruger 10/22 rifle to kill four employees, then himself. Finally, on the most well-known occasion, a man named George Hennard committed a massacre similar to that of Huberty’s on October 16, 1991, opening fire at a Luby’s restaurant in Killeen, Texas, with two semiautomatic pistols, killing 23 and injuring 20. According to TruTV, Hennard was actually motivated to do so after watching a documentary about Huberty.

No doubt, there is a stereotype assigned to spree killers.

Of the serial spree and mass murder killers listed on the Criminal Minds wiki page , 2 are Asians, 1 Native American, 4 African Americans, 4 women and the remaining 64 white males.

If you trace back the coverage about the majority of these killers, you may be troubled by the fact that the press often describe them as disturbed, troubled or mentally unbalanced, almost immediately after it is determined who committed the violence.

I don’t know about you but I thought anyone who would randomly take out innocents and have many running fearful for their lives should be classified as a sociopath. Clearly, what they do can easily be characterized as terrorism in its modern form, but for some reasons folks who look like and have names like this:

ARE the only ones that can be described as TERRORISTS….full stop.

but those who look like and do this:


are DISTURBED, TROUBLED, UNBALANCED, LONERS, with personality disorders or who just maybe snapped under undue pressure. 

Get it? Good.


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Jeneba “JJ Ghatt”,is editor at Jenebapeaks.com, an online hub where she helps social media butterfly who empowers digital entrepreneurs and professionals to create great things online at her online learning platform Digital Publishing Academy.  She is an editor of tech blog Techyaya.com and founded the annual 200 Black Women to Follow On Twitter List. Read her bio, then get all of her online & digital biz startup advice and tools in one spot here!

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