COMMENTS: Fort Dix Pizza Delivery Death Plot Alleged

The arrest of six New Jersey men for a plot to launch an attack on the Fort Dix army base was the Story of the Day. All three networks led with charges brought against the Moslem sextet--three Albanian brothers and three friends--after an FBI sting purported to sell them assault weapons.

The plot, as described by prosecutors, was so outlandish that it could not fail to attract headlines. The six were accused of trying to buy AK-47s and M-16s so that they could infiltrate the army base disguised as pizza deliverymen and shoot soldiers. The pizza idea allegedly was hatched because one of the six delivers pies to Fort Dix for Super Mario's.

So far so good as a yarn. As quality journalism, however, much of the networks' coverage was substandard. We have two major complaints: loose terminology and lack of fairness. Both are exemplified by this from ABC's anchor Charles Gibson: "Today we learned of another terrorist plot that has been foiled."

First terminology: to describe this alleged plan as a "terrorist" plot is a misnomer since "terrorism" refers to violence against civilian targets for political aims. CBS' Bob Orr, for example, called the accused "a homegrown terror cell." It is hard to escape the conclusion that "terrorist" is used as a sloppy synonym for "Moslem gunmen." They first aroused suspicion, according to prosecutors, when they were spotted on videotape at a firing range in the Pocono Mountains shooting guns and shouting Allah Akhbar.

Second fairness: the details of the charges against the six were recited as if the plot were a fact not an allegation. CBS' Orr stated as fact that "the foreign-born Islamic radicals told informants of their plans to attack Fort Dix." None of the six was able to present his side of the case or claim the presumption of innocence. "The group's leader said he wanted to kill at least 100 soldiers," asserted ABC's Brian Ross (no link), without qualification. The burden of proof rests with federal prosecutors to prove their charges and, in the meantime, the plot is alleged not proven. The mere farfetched nature of the scheme--six pizza deliverymen taking on 14,000 soldiers--should have made it seem implausible even as a set of charges.

To his credit, CBS' Orr included this soundbite from Israa Schnewer, a sister of three of the suspects: "The Poconos? It is a vacation. They go there for vacation…They shoot a little in the shooting range. They want to have fun. I mean--they are guys." And NBC's Pete Williams was scrupulous with his "officials say…" and "the FBI says…" and "federal prosecutors say…" and "court documents say…" and so on.

Also hats off to CBS' Armen Keteyian who put the charges in context. So often in the so-called War on Terrorism, sensational initial allegations made with "lots of fanfare" have not been borne out by subsequent proof at trial. He cited statistics from New York University's Center on Law and Security that 550 "larger, bolder terrorism cases" since 2001 have resulted in 387 "lesser crimes like fraud and immigration violation" and only 163 terrorism prosecutions.

Let the viewer have fun with the pizza plot--but be wary of its veracity.

UPDATE: at CBS' Public Eye blog Brian Montopoli (text link) asks reporter Bob Orr about his use of "terror." Orr replied: "I think you're talking about guys that surveiled targets, trained with weapons, and stated more than once that they wanted to kill Americans…So at a minimum they were terrorist wannabees."

Leaving aside whether they actually did what Orr said or are merely accused of it, Orr's definition of "terrorist" seems far too broad. A murderer, like Seung-Hui Cho at Virginia Tech, for example, can want to kill Americans but is a common criminal not a terrorist, because his motive was personal not political. Similarly, attacks on the US military in Iraq have the goal of killing Americans, but are not acts of terrorism--they are acts of warfare.

"Terrorism" is such a loaded word and a term of art in political debate so should be used with precision. The Bush Administration, for example, insists that the attacks of September 11th, 2001, were so heinous precisely because they targeted civilian workers and airline passengers going about their daily lives.

Soldiers are not in the same category: they are trained to defend themselves; they expect to be targeted by enemies; society grants them much more leeway than civilians to use lethal force. For an army base, preparing itself against infiltration and attack (even by pizza deliverymen) is a routine part of a day's work. Such threats are neither surprises nor sneak attacks.

Even if federal prosecutors sloppily expand the definition of "terrorism" to include military targets there is no reason for journalists to be imprecise…in fact all the more reason to resist imprecision.

UPDATE: conservative media monitor Brent Baker (text link) at criticizes Armen Keteyian's story on CBS for citing the New York University study that contrasted initial charges in War on Terrorism cases and eventual convictions. Baker does not find fault with the Center for Law and Security's data, only with its agenda, about which, he says, Keteyian should have alerted viewers.

Baker has a problem with CL&S's executive director because she formerly worked for financier George Soros' Open Society Institute and has published about torture and abu-Ghraib. He criticizes CL&S for giving a fellowship to Sidney Blumenthal, "infamous Clinton sycophant and conservative-basher." Baker notes that a member of the CL&S board is Dana Priest of The Washington Post, whose reporting covered the CIA's extreme rendition of suspects to secret prisons, although he does not say what is wrong with that.

A last black mark for CL&S in the eyes of is a speech entitled The Hidden Roots of War given at the center by Vanity Fair's Craig Unger. Unger examined whether there is an alliance between neoconservatives and born-again Christian supporters of Israel.


Your points about assuming guilt are well taken and appropriate.

But I'm not quite sure what your issue is with regard to the use of the term "terrorist". On the one hand you seem to argue that a terrorist must have political motive, and then argue against the use because the target was a military installation. Neither of these seem at all relevant to me.

Regardless of the current political and media use of the word, in my opinion a terrorist is one who intends to invoke terror in a group of citizens. Therefore I consider these individuals to be terrorists. Perhaps the actual attack (were it carried out) would have had military implications, but it would also have had societal implications due to the location. What the motivation was is somewhat irrelevant, except to indicate who was behind it and if it was part of a larger more planned series of events that we might expect more of.

I can assure you firsthand that the philosophies and motives of John Muhammad and Lee Malvo were only causal to their shooting rampage in the Washington, D.C. area. Their ACTIONS resulted in 3 weeks of varying degrees of terror for the local citizenry.

Premeditation and motive may be more of what you have an issue with. But regardless of those, "if it walks and talks like a duck ..."

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