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With no evidence except ethnicity, media declared Nice attack terrorism

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If the slightest doubt remained that Western media defines “terrorism” solely as violence committed by people of specific ethnic groups and cultures, the reaction to the lorry attack in Nice, France, should have completely erased it.

On Thursday, July 14, the people of Nice were enjoying the promenade that stretches along the shores of the Mediterranean on the inner edge of the city’s crescent bay. At about 4:45 PM EST, during a parade for Bastille Day, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel drove a white truck onto the boardwalk and drove for almost two miles through the crowd, eventually killing over 80 innocent people.

News media was quick to jump to the conclusion this was an act of Islamic terror on social media. Without any indication of the motives, identity, or allegiance of the driver, international and national news media:

Then, after his name- and only his name- was revealed:

And on and on. Fox News just went ahead and called its rolling coverage liveblog “Nice terror attack” and was done with the pretense of objectivity and fact gathering.

Yet by 9:07 AM EST on July 15 at the latest, some 16 hours after the attack, it was apparent that Lahouaiej-Bouhlel’s motivations were unlikely to be related to religious fundamentalism. As The Telegraph reported:

Bouhlel is believed to come from a town close to Sousse called Msaken and has not travelled back to Tunisia in four years.

BFM TV reports that he was a divorced father-of-three who had become depressed following the breakdown of his marriage, reports Camilla Turner.

He was known to the police for assault with a weapon, domestic violence, threats and robbery but had no previous convictions for terrorism.

At 11:30 AM, The Huffington Post said that l’Expresse was citing sources saying that Lahouaiej-Bouhlel’s was apparently motivated by his anger and insecurity:

Another neighbor, also from Tunisia told L’Express: “On the Thursday night he was drinking with a colleague and they argued. His pal said ‘you’re worth nothing’ and he replied: ‘One day, you’ll hear about me.’”

By 3:23 PM, The Daily Mail was reporting that Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was at the very least not an observant Muslim and instead that he fit the profile of an abusive, angry man:

The 31-year-old – who wreaked terror on the Nice seafront as he turned an evening celebrating Bastille Day into a night of terror in which he murdered 84 innocent people – drank alcohol, ate pork and took drugs.

He never prayed or attended a mosque, and hit his wife – with whom he had three children aged five, three and 18 months – and was in the process of getting a divorce.

It’s hardly the behavior of a radical religious extremist.

Further muddying the waters, no Islamic group had claimed responsibility for the attack on the 15th (ISIS released a vague statement calling Lahouaiej-Bouhlel a “soldier” on Saturday). There was no indication at all that Lahouaiej-Bouhlel had any connection with any extremist groups, nor that he was in any way religious.

The BBC reported that French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said that Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was a “terrorist without doubt linked to radical Islamism in one way or another.” However, as The Guardian pointed out, “Valls said that he “probably” had some a link to extremism, but admitted the investigation has no evidence at this point.”

But that lack of evidence hasn’t stopped multiple media outlets in the west from continuing to report the incident as a terror attack.

  • The Daily News told readers at 2:08 PM that “Car-ramming tactic used in Nice terror attack simple to pull off”
  • Mother Jones wrote at 2:10 PM that; “One day after a terrorist attack killed at least 84 people in Nice, France, French authorities announced that the man who carried out the attacks had never been suspected of terrorist sympathies.”
  • The LA Times asked “How many terror attacks can France withstand?” at 2:26 PM
  • A New York Times analysis posited that the “Attack in Nice, France, Represents Terrorism’s New Reality” at 5:19 PM and subsequently adjusted the headline to “Terror’s New Form: A Threat That Can Be Managed, but Not Erased” by 8:47 PM

All these reports came in after 2 PM EST, well after it had been established that the attacker was not religious and had no known ties to religious extremism; nor was there any evidence he was politically radicalized.

So what is a terror attack to today’s media? What can we gather from the reaction to the Nice attack and the labeling of the event in the absence of any verifiable evidence of extremist religious views?

By process of elimination, we can reasonably assume the media’s definition of “terror” does not mean a mass killing of innocent people on western shores; if it did, the media would have called the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary and Aurora Colorado terrorism.

We can reasonably assume “terrorism” does not mean acts of violence taken out against the west for political reasons; if it did, the media would call Andrew Joseph Stack’s suicide attack on an IRS building in Austin, Texas, in 2010 an act of terror.

We can reasonably assume that violence done in the name of religious fundamentalism does not meet the standard for being defined “terror” by the media; if it did, the attacks on Palestinians by Israeli settlers in the name of Judaism would be called terrorism.

We can reasonably assume that violence done against people of a particular race or ethnicity does not meet the standard for being defined “terror” by the media; if it did, Dylann Roof and Micah Johnson would be called “terrorists” and not deranged gunmen or shooters.

No, the media definition of “terror” is quite clear: it means when an individual from the Global south with a Muslim name commits an act of violence against the West. As Jim Naureckas writes in FAIR:

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that… when the suspect is an Arab—Lahouaiej Bouhlel was a Tunisian immigrant—then allegations of terrorism require no evidence whatsoever.

That’s exactly right. That’s the rule. Religious extremism, even religious belief, political radicalism- they have nothing to do with it.

The action of “terror” is defined purely by the ethnicity of the actor.

Update: Even in a Times article dated July 17, the paper found it impossible to objectively look at the facts. In an article acknowledging the very facts we’ve just covered, the Times used language that was vague at best when describing Lahouaiej Bouhlel’s motivations:

The authorities in France are still trying to piece together what direct ties, if any, Mr. Lahouaiej Boulel had to the Islamic State.

Notice that even in an article that describes the total lack of evidence of extremism or ties to terror groups, the Times is incapable of objectively allowing that. The missing ties are only the “direct” ones, says the Times, implying that there were indirect ones.

This piece originally appeared on Eoin Higgins’s website.

Eoin Higgins

Eoin Higgins is a writer and historian from upstate New York. He is a graduate of the Masters in History program at Fordham University's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. His writing can be found at Follow him on twitter @EoinHiggins_

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11 Responses

  1. John Douglas on July 19, 2016, 5:15 pm

    To be thought a “terrorist” is today an automatic condemnation of the worst kind. The word carries with it immense negative emotion that makes the word’s manipulation inevitable, and too appealing not to be employed. A thought experiment: Suppose the word was banned from all media for one month. How would the news read and sound then? Rather bland certainly, in comparison. More than that, without the word, it would be difficult for Israel and the west to project its almost unquestioned moral superiority. “Today a Palestinian killed an Israeli with a knife.” “Today US bombs in Iraq killed twenty civilians.” Hmm. Not much clout there for the propagandists. Almost sounds like moral equivalence, can’t have that. Even worse, suppose the word was required to be used to describe state actors (armies) rather than at present non-state actors. Fair? No. Clarifying? No. But neither is the present use, for example the way the word obscures the moral similarities between death by terrorism and death by careless/intentional collateral damage. World affairs would be far more accurately and ethically reported if the word “terrorist” and its cognates were to disappear. Or as a start, by putting “so-called” in front of “terrorist”.

  2. Theo on July 20, 2016, 10:34 am

    When ein idiot, regardless of his religion or national origin, takes a huge truck, drives it into a promenade that is closed for cars and purposfully kills 84 humans and injures over 100, what other name should be applied beside a terrorist? A traffic accident? Or perhaps he mistakenly took the wrong turn?
    His purpose was to kill and terrorise the unbelievers, including several small children. By calling him a mass murderer we do not do justice to his deed, he wanted to leave a mark after his death, punishing the local population for wrongs done against him, real or not.
    The real terrorists were Bush and his crowd who destroyed the middle east countries, killed hundreds of thousands and destroyed towns and cities. That is the source of the IS and other terrorist organisations, we opened Pandoras box and let them out. You can ask most any iraqi, libyan or syrian, they wish the old dictators back. The life was under them nicht perfect, however if you kept your mouth shut you had a decent life and your house was not bombed.
    What is the difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter?
    The terrorist kills and bombs our allies, the freedom fighter does the same to our adverseries!
    This is just the beginning, it will get worse before it ends. In Europe, aspecially in France, there are millions of moslems living in ghettos, with no job and no future. Those terror attacks were not done by ISIS, but local citizens, who are revolting. Perhaps the US should take a good look, we have here also about 6 million moslems and they are verbally attacked on every single day. Trump is a good example, if he becomes the President what will be his policy towards these people?

    • Theo on July 20, 2016, 10:56 am

      Our politicians misuse the word terror to create angst in the population.
      We have a war against terror, it has the same meaning as war against bad weather or the good old war on drugs.
      You cannot wage a war on an idea or acts by a person or persons, we must alleviate the reason people commit those acts. Give them peace, freedom, jobs, education, not tanks and mashineguns.

    • Mooser on July 20, 2016, 2:08 pm

      “Trump is a good example, if he becomes the President what will be his policy towards these people?”

      That will be up to the Vice-President. Oh, and Trump’s in-laws.

  3. JLewisDickerson on July 21, 2016, 4:05 am

    RE: “With no evidence except ethnicity, media declared Nice attack terrorism”

    CHOMSKY argues that since the end of the Cold War (1945–91), anticommunism was replaced by the “War on Terror”, as the major social control mechanism.*

    * FROM WIKIPEDIA [Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media]:

    [EXCERPTS] “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media” (1988), by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, is an analysis of the news media, arguing that the mass media of the United States “are effective and powerful ideological institutions that carry out a system-supportive propaganda function by reliance on market forces, internalized assumptions, and self-censorship, and without overt coercion”.*[1] . . .

    Editorial bias: five filters

    Herman and Chomsky’s “propaganda model” describes five editorially distorting filters applied to news reporting in mass media:

    Size, Ownership, and Profit Orientation: The dominant mass-media outlets are large firms which are run for profit. Therefore they must cater to the financial interest of their owners – often corporations or particular controlling investors. The size of the firms is a necessary consequence of the capital requirements for the technology to reach a mass audience.

    The Advertising License to Do Business: Since the majority of the revenue of major media outlets derives from advertising (not from sales or subscriptions), advertisers have acquired a “de-facto licensing authority”.[4] Media outlets are not commercially viable without the support of advertisers. News media must therefore cater to the political prejudices and economic desires of their advertisers. This has weakened the working-class press, for example, and also helps explain the attrition in the number of newspapers.

    Sourcing Mass Media News: Herman and Chomsky argue that “the large bureaucracies of the powerful subsidize the mass media, and gain special access . . .acquiring […] and producing, news. The large entities that provide this subsidy become ‘routine’ news sources and have privileged access to the gates. Non-routine sources must struggle for access, and may be ignored by the arbitrary decision of the gatekeepers.”[5]

    Flak and the Enforcers: “Flak” refers to negative responses to a media statement or program (e.g. letters, complaints, lawsuits, or legislative actions). Flak can be expensive to the media, either due to loss of advertising revenue, or due to the costs of legal defense or defense of the media outlet’s public image. Flak can be organized by powerful, private influence groups (e.g. think tanks). The prospect of eliciting flak can be a deterrent to the reporting of certain kinds of facts or opinions.[5]

    Anti-Communism: This was included as a filter in the original 1988 edition of the book, but Chomsky argues that since the end of the Cold War (1945–91), anticommunism was replaced by the “War on Terror”, as the major social control mechanism.[6][7] . . .

    SOURCE –

  4. wondering jew on July 21, 2016, 4:24 am

    I would not label this post as silly, because it made me stop and think. But now after a little thought I think that this post is anti human. of course the media is not merely human, as in frail enough to see patterns where they DO exist, but exploitative. The question is not the media, but the individual and i think the individual would be better off not reading the papers or viewing the media, but if the individual is part of the world community to the extent of following the news, that it is natural and scientific to consider murders by muslim immigrants in a category by itself. if you prove to me that killings of more than 5 strangers in france or the US is not disproportionately Islamic. then you will have proven to me your point. but in fact, mass killings of strangers are disproportionately Muslim in the US and France, so this post is cause to pause and think but then to reject.

  5. Naftush on July 21, 2016, 9:31 am

    Yonah, it’s rarely a problem to find fallacies in MW pieces; the challenge is to find them fast. Here I think the challenge is met as follows: Supposing the, um, incident in Nice traced solely to the factors that the author states. Even so, the media that allegedly leaped before they looked did it under the inspiration of scads of earlier attacks that had proven Islamism-related motives, and the need to confront these motives retains its validity even if the Nice atrocity was motivated differently. I do wonder why you referred to attacks in the US and France but not to those elsewhere, e.g., the airport in Istanbul and (shh….) Israel.

  6. MHughes976 on July 21, 2016, 4:15 pm

    As to the scads of evidence – given that someone has committed mass murder several probabilities are indeed raised, in current circumstances, concerning the perpetrator – that he sympathised with Islamic State, that he had suffered some perceived personal humiliation, that he was an American, that (as Yonah says) he followed the news media. This rise of probability exists genuinely even if in some cases we can rule one, or even all, of these factors out. Conversely, more than one of them may apply.
    Commentators may still go wrong by inverting the probabilities without good cause. The probability that someone, given that (s)he is human, will commit mass murder is extremely small and the probability hardly rises at all given a Yonah-style interest in news media. The probability of committing mass murder can rise only a teensy amount given that one is a Muslim, may even turn out to fall if the overwhelming majority of Muslims are distinctively peaceable. It may rise a little more given Islamic State sympathies, though even then only a little, because of course there will be many of these who are all talk.
    One possibility that gets overlooked is that someone should sympathise with IS on political grounds but have little time for their religion.

  7. Theo on July 22, 2016, 12:24 pm

    To put an end to any question if this terrible deed was an islamic terrorist act or not, the french police cought five associates of that killer who spilled the beans; they were planning this attack since months!!!!!
    What can the french accept from the future, when they have 3 or 4 million such persons in the country, many of them with no future or job. How much does it take to turn them into terrorists?

    • Mooser on July 22, 2016, 1:01 pm

      “What can the french accept from the future, when they have 3 or 4 million such persons in the country”

      Not to mention 66,030,000 other people, too!

      • gamal on July 22, 2016, 7:49 pm

        Mooser some time ago al imran came up, and you know you a musician and i have been foolish enough to imply … well god himself intoned Al Imran to us

        he just reads always that astonishing power and precision latent

        before you exterminates us remember it will have to be to the last one and enjoy the tune, the family of Amram as god reads it from his script.

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