Losing His Religion: A Pentagon terror scare and a media taboo.



There was a terror scare at the Pentagon this morning. As CBS News reports, it started when the U.S. Park Police “came upon” 22-year-old Yonathan Melaku wandering around Arlington National Cemetery, which was closed. “The Park Police then launched a search for a vehicle, which was found near the Pentagon.”

A search of the car turned up “no suspicious items,” but Melaku told the cops “that he was carrying explosive materials.” They checked his backpack and “found what appeared to be an unknown quantity of ammonium nitrate,” a chemical “that is widely used in fertilizers and can be used in explosives with the correct concentration.”

We learn from the CBS story that Melaku is a lance corporal in the Marine Reserves. The Associated Press adds that he is a naturalized American citizen, originally from Ethiopia. CBS also reports that “Melaku was carrying a notebook that contained the phrases ‘al Qaeda,’ ‘Taliban rules’ and ‘Mujahid defeated croatian forces’ when he was detained,” but “that the suspect is not thought to have been involved in a terrorist act or plot.”

All of which raises an obvious question–but one that goes unanswered in the reports from CBS and AP, as well as others from ABC News and the Washington Post. We could only find one news organization that had the answer: Fox News Channel, which reports that Maliku is Muslim.

Now, it’s possible that Fox simply got a scoop here, but our guess is that this fact was omitted from the other reports because of the politically correct taboo against making a connection between Islam and terrorism. It’s analogous to the case we cited Monday in which the Chicago Tribune refused to mention the race of the members of “groups of youths” who had been attacking people in a downtown neighborhood, but it’s worse. Whereas race is not necessarily relevant to the motive of the Chicago attacks, religion almost always is when a Muslim commits an act of terrorism or a related crime.

These politically correct strictures are not applied in a consistent or reciprocal fashion. If Maliku were a Christian and had been arrested outside an abortion clinic, you can bet his religion would have been widely reported. And the press sensationalizes “hate crimes” by whites against blacks or non-Muslims against Muslims.

One possible explanation is the man-bites-dog theory of news: that those types of crimes get more attention because they’re unusual. But that doesn’t hold up. Remember last August when a Muslim taxi driver was stabbed in New York? It was a sensational story that the New York Times used to further its narrative that anti-Muslim bigotry was behind opposition to the Ground Zero mosque. But the Times deeply buried the real man-bites-dog element: The suspect turned out to be a volunteer for a nonprofit that supported the mosque.

The typical justification for declining to identify criminal suspects as Muslim or black is that it is an effort to counter invidious stereotypes. We’re not sure it is even effective at that. The day after the 2009 Fort Hood massacre, we were at a lunch when we received a news-alert email that eight people had been injured in a shooting at an Orlando, Fla., office building. We mentioned this to our table mates, and one asked: “Was it a Muslim?”

The email didn’t say, but it turned out the attack fit a different stereotype: the disgruntled former employee going postal. When news organizations evade facts that fit what they see as undesirable stereotypes, they train news consumers to fill in the blanks even when the stereotypes do not apply.

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