When is a terrorist not a terrorist? When he’s a white non-Muslim

Real-life scenario No. 1: A man with a weapon strides into a military medical office in Texas and opens fire, killing 13 people and wounding 29 before he is stopped and taken into custody. In the ensuing news media coverage and public discussion, the incident is widely viewed as an act of terrorism.

Real-life scenario No. 2: A man with a weapon shows up at a public gathering inside a supermarket in Arizona and opens fire, killing six (including a U.S. district judge) and wounding 13 (including a member of the U.S. House of Representatives) before he is stopped and arrested. In the ensuing media coverage and public discussion, the incident is generally not characterized as terrorism.

The difference? In the first scenario – the 2009 Fort Hood shootings – the perpetrator, Nidal Hasan, was a Muslim of Palestinian ancestry. In the second – the 2011 Tucson shootings that left Rep. Gabrielle Giffords gravely wounded – the perpetrator, Jared Loughner, was non-Muslim and white.

So it goes, according to new research by a terrorism prosecutions expert in Portland, Ore., when it comes to public perception of what constitutes terrorism. An analysis by law school professor Tung Yin of Lewis & Clark reveals that race and religion strongly color portrayals of terrorism, to the point where crimes of a similar pattern – political motivation, mass destruction, indiscriminate killing, etc. – tend to be characterized differently in this country when the perpetrators are Muslim or of Arab descent.

USA Today, 10 June 2012