By William Fisher
The arrests of The Miami Seven - accused of conspiring to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago - revealed yet again the love affair cable news anchors have with bumper stickers.
Following the announcements of the indictments and arrests in a three-city press conference extravaganza led by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, the phase "home-grown terrorists" was repeated hundreds of times in the next 24-hour cable news cycle.
It was a convenient phrase, because five of the seven suspects are U.S. citizens, one is a legal U.S. resident, and one is an illegal immigrant. And the phrase was familiar to viewers because it's the same one used to describe the London and Madrid bombers.
But one of the downsides of having such a quick and easy bumper-sticker description is that it can rob the story of context. The only context cable news seemed able to provide were a few references to "home-grown terrorist" Timothy McVeigh, executed for the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, and a few passing references to the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, now serving a life sentence for mailing pipe bombs to some folks he had beefs with.
But this hardly qualifies as context. And news without context is stenography.
So what is the context for this story? There are a few.
One of them is that America has a long and ugly history of "home-grown" terrorism - a fact that seemed to elude cable television and most mainstream print media. Between 1882 and 1968, at least 4,743 American citizens were lynched. Many of these acts were carried out the Ku Klux Klan -- "home-grown" terrorists wrapping themselves in Christianity in the same way today's terrorists purport to represent Islam. Today's Muslim terrorists are described as "Islamists"; maybe we should have called the KKK "Christianists."
The "Christianists" had quite a following. At their peak in the 1920s, their Klan had millions of members -- about 15% of the entire population of the nation. People attended hangings in broad daylight in town squares as entertainment, and took photographs as souvenirs. World War One's black soldiers still in uniform were among the victims.
After years of "home-grown terror," President Ulysses S. Grant and Congress passed the Anti-KKK Act of 1871. That allowed authorities to declare martial law in some counties in South Carolina, where the Klan was the strongest.
While the KKK's popularity eventually waned, it was born again in the early 20th century, and later experienced its "button-down" renaissance led by more respectable-sounding people like David Duke.
The Klan was pretty much driven underground by the efforts of courageous people like lawyer Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center and by the lawyers of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. The civil rights legislation of 1964 and 1965, vigorously enforced by the Justice Department, administered the coup de grace.
But it would be fanciful to think "home-grown terror" has gone away. And that's the second piece of missing context.
This kind of "home-grown terror" is still very much alive and well, with active white supremacist "armies" committing little-reported "hate crimes" against the persons and property of African-Americans, Jews, gays and lesbians, and now Muslims. The Justice Department says hate crimes are increasing and are a major category of their criminal prosecutions.
In their Miami press briefing, government officials didn't quite call the suspects "Muslims," but the Attorney General said the men were "inspired by a violent jihadist message." Using an Arabic word to describe The Seven conveyed the impression they were Muslims.
But the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the largest advocacy group for Muslims in the U.S., lost no time in urging the government to stop confusing the public by using Arabic terminology in referring to the case.
"Given that the reported beliefs of this bizarre group have nothing to do with Islam, we ask members of the media to refrain from calling them 'Muslims,'" said CAIR spokesperson Ahmed Bedier.
The New York Times reported that "at least some of the men were in a religious group called the Seas of David that appeared to mix Christian and Muslim beliefs. The group wore uniforms bearing a Star of David and met for Bible study, prayer and martial arts."
Nonetheless, some of the early TV news accounts of the story described the accused as "Islamists."
At its own news conference in Miami, CAIR called on police departments nationwide to protect mosques and other Islamic institutions from any possible backlash prompted by the mistaken linkage of this case to the American Muslim community. That's backlash from "home-grown terrorists."
So if cable news anchors can't call The Miami Seven "Islamists," whatever are they to do?
My guess is they'll just go on talking about "home-grown terrorists." But it might be helpful if viewers understood that this phenomenon didn't start with The Miami Seven.
There's a final piece of context missing from most of the reporting on The Miami Seven. It's the broader issue of what exactly they are guilty of. At the DOJ's well-publicized news conference, an FBI official said the activities of The Seven were "more aspirational than operational," by which I think he was trying to explain that The Seven conspired to do bad things, but never actually got around to doing them.
So, as this story unfolds, it might be a good idea to remember that since 9/11 the Justice Department has developed this habit of summoning every reporter on the planet to hear and report dire charges that somehow never quite find their way to court.
Jose Padilla is, of course, the poster-boy for this kind of legal sleight of hand. When his arrest was announced - at another well-attended press conference - the DOJ told us this American citizen planned to blow up buildings and bridges with a "dirty bomb." But when he was finally charged - after three years in largely incommunicado military detention - the "dirty bomb" charge was nowhere to be found.
Padilla is not alone; this kind of pre-trial hype has become something of a pattern at the Justice Department. So we'll just have to wait and see what these people are finally charged with and whether the government can prove their guilt.
Meanwhile, cultivate your own home-grown value: patience.
And watch this space.