By Sophie Smith
Last month Austin, Texas found itself in the midst of a mysterious nightmare. Six bombs, sent as packages in the mail or left on streets, detonated around the city over the course of nineteen days. The attacks killed two people and injured five more.
Because both men killed by the bombs were black, the motives of the attacks seem clear: these were racial hate crimes, or, to be more concise, terrorism. Three of the five bombs were detonated in Austin’s east side, populated mostly by black and Hispanic residents. This thinking became muddled when another bomb went off in a largely white community, injuring two white men. Despite this, many people still believe race played a role in the bombings.
Several American media outlets already ruled out the possibility of racial motives. Instead of focusing on the victims of the crimes, the news has averted its attention to the bomber himself, Mark Conditt.
Little is known about Conditt’s motives. Police found a confession tape the young man filmed, but the video does offer why he conducted the bombings or how he chose his victims. Further answers are not likely to come, since Conditt was killed on March 21 when he detonated another bomb in his car during a police chase.
The media has resorted to grappling for possible motives. Reporters have swarmed Pflugerville, the wealthy Austin suburb where Conditt lived, collecting descriptions of the bomber from community members.
Few reports actually portray Conditt as the murderer he was. Several news outlets, particularly the New York Times, use delicate terms to describe Conditt. The Times has written about his “tight-knit, deeply religious family” and his “white clapboard house, where an American flag hangs from the front porch.” What purpose does this serve? Murdering two people and injuring five others negates any positive attributes Conditt once had. He lost the right to be normalized.
Including details like this, while it may seem like thorough reporting on an important topic, are harmful. When hearing these reports from Pflugerville, Americans identify with Conditt, perhaps even pity the horrific turn his happy life took. These reports, so distanced from the crimes Conditt committed, have come to dominate the narrative about the bombings.
Even law enforcement is portraying him as the victim, with Austin police chief Brian Manley saying Conditt was, in his confession tape, “talking about the challenges in his personal life that led him to this point.” If Conditt were Muslim, he would not receive such a forgiving description. Instead, he would immediately be named a terrorist, a label which leaves no room for empathy in America.
Recently in the United States, a semantic narrowing of the word ‘terrorism’ has occurred. The popular meaning of the word has narrowed from its denotation – violence used to any political purpose – to a more specific connotation. Now, ‘terrorism’ is synonymous with Islamic extremism, separate from Christianity. Terrorists are those guys in ISIS, right? A Christian kid from Texas can’t be a terrorist! Because Conditt had the privilege of being white, therefore detached from the frightening notion of terrorism, the media is able to portray him as an all-American kid who made a few bad decisions.
One step has been made in the right direction. This weekend Chief Manley announced he now considers Conditt a “domestic terrorist,” which bodes well for the investigation’s future.
There are countless problems in the way the media is reporting on Austin, but each contributes to one larger issue. Stories about Conditt overshadow those of his victims. Distracted with the macabre and mystery of Conditt, we have come to forget about two men at the core of March’s events: Anthony Stephan House, a husband and the father of an eight year-old girl, and Draylen Mason, a high school senior, classical musician and aspiring neurosurgeon whose future promised greatness. Both killed in their homes by bombs Conditt mailed. By going on a goose chase to find trauma in Conditt’s privileged life, media outlets have neglected to share the stories of people whose lives the bombings affected most, thereby diminishing the severity of Conditt’s crimes – yet another way the media protects white terrorists.