Terrorist or militia member, where is the line?
So let's take a moment and compare Jose Padilla, America's once-notorious "dirty bomber," to David Brian Stone, the "Hutaree" leader now residing in a Michigan jail.
Padilla first. He's an American citizen who converted to fundamentalist Islam in his 20s. He's been widely described here in the U.S. as an "Islamic terrorist."
The former attorney general himself, John Ashcroft, announced Padilla's arrest in 2002: "We have captured a known terrorist who was exploring a plan to build and explode a radiological dispersion device, or 'dirty bomb,' in the United States," Ashcroft told the nation.
The media went nuts, especially the cable networks. WAR ON TERROR banners crawled across every news alert.
Despite his citizenship — he was born in Brooklyn and raised in Chicago — Padilla was designated an "illegal enemy combatant" and held without trial for three and a half years in a military prison, where he says he was tortured.
Given the ensuing revelations of secret White House torture guidelines, that is at least a plausible claim.
Finally, he was transferred to civilian courts, where no charge relating to a bomb was ever filed. Instead, he was found guilty of conspiring to participate in a foreign jihad and sentenced to 17 years in prison.
That is serious stuff, but not even in the same league as exploding a dirty bomb. Padilla is appealing.
Now, David Brian Stone.
He's also an American citizen and a fundamentalist, too, but with a big difference: He's a Christian.
Stone and several members of his so-called Hutaree militia are charged with planning to slaughter as many police officers as they could, using a bomb. (Hutaree is apparently a word Stone invented to mean Christian warriors.)
Unlike Padilla, Stone and his friends had explosives, according to the indictment, and were practising with them.
But the Hutarees haven't been designated illegal enemy combatants, despite their avowed hatred of the U.S. government and their desire to topple it.
Instead, they are being held in a civilian jail and have the right to a timely civilian trial. They almost certainly won't be tortured.
The group has generated considerable media coverage and its members do face some pretty serious charges — seditious conspiracy, attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction and carrying a firearm during a crime of violence.
They aren't being called terrorists, though. Certainly not "Christian terrorists," despite the accusation that they intended to carry out mass murder in the name of Jesus.
In some accounts, they've been made more to sound more like clumsy idiots, which they well may be —dressing up as soldiers, running around in the woods with guns, conducting "covert reconnaissance exercises" and preparing for the arrival of the Final Offensive of Big Government, or whatever.
A specific plan
But they did, according to the U.S. Justice Department, have a specific plan.
Because they regard the government as evil, and police as its "foot soldiers," they intended to execute a police officer and, then, when the inevitable big official police funeral took place, they intended to bomb it.
In raids last week, police recovered, among other things, 13,000 rounds of ammunition and 46 guns, including two powerful .50-calibre weapons.
And yet no media hysteria. No clanging terror bulletins.
Fox News Channel has been relatively silent. I haven't heard a word about the Hutarees from Sarah Palin, either, and her terrorist radar is always on full alert.
Even the mainstream media, which has made "terrorist" one of the most-used words in the news lexicon in recent years, has for the most part referred to the Hutarees as "militia members."
You probably see where I'm going here, but let me spell it out: It's a safe bet that if "Hutaree" was instead coined to mean "the faithful bearded brotherhood of Allah," or something like that, it'd be a different story altogether.
Let me put it another way: The right-wing adage that all Muslims aren't terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims might not be entirely accurate.
One man's terrorists
Or just let me ask this: Is it possible Muslim groups have a point when they complain they are singled out for unfair stereotyping in this country?
Now, at the risk of sounding smug, I wouldn't describe the Hutarees as terrorists, either.
But then I have never described anybody as a terrorist in any CBC report I've authored, for what I think is a very good reason: It spares you the tricky task of deciding who is a terrorist and who isn't.
Like most reporters at CBC, I tend to call bombers "bombers," and shooters "shooters," and people involved in political violence "extremists." Or "militants," depending on just how extreme they are.
Many of our readers and viewers don't like that policy and say so. They want to hear the word "terrorist." In fact, they sometimes seem to crave hearing it, or at least they do if the bad guy's cause, or his God, isn't theirs.
But once you've bought into the word, you've bought a problem. Such as: What to call the Hutarees?
What, for that matter, to call the loose affiliation of militant anti-abortion activists, some of whose supporters have killed doctors who perform these procedures?
Surely that qualifies as violence intended to advance a political agenda, which is the generally accepted definition of terrorism.
Or, what do you call those "civilian contractors" — the Blackwater types — who trampled around Iraq in the service of American diplomats, at times killing innocent locals, immune the whole time to Iraqi justice?
Or all the other murderous paramilitaries who have, over the years, been useful to the U.S. and countless other foreign powers?
The response is often that old chestnut about how one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.
But that answer is the refuge of dull thinkers. "Freedom fighter" is just as useless a term as "terrorist." It means only what the user wants it to mean.
I should say here that the American media is not entirely un-self-aware. There has been some reflective discussion here along these lines of late.
But nowhere in the Times piece, which digressed into a scholarly history of the word "terrorist," was there any mention of how the Times had referred to the Hutarees ("militia members") in its news reports.
Because terrorists are always them. Never us.