Terrorizing the Masses

Identity, Mass Shootings, and the Media Construction of «Terror»

by Ruth DeFoster (Author)
©2017 Textbook XVI, 234 Pages


Why are some crimes identified as acts of terrorism, while others are not? How are critical terms like «terrorism» and «mass shooting» defined and understood in the 21st century? What are some of the causes of the unique American epidemic of mass shootings and gun violence? Terrorizing the Masses considers the invisible role that the media play in shaping the way we think about terrorism, gun violence, fear, and identity. This book explores media coverage of five mass shootings over a 20-year period, examining the role that race, religion, and gender play in framing some of the most high-profile crimes of American society. The results of this research show that the use of «terrorism» is uneven and inconsistent. Indeed, on a practical level, «terrorism» is an almost meaningless word – it is slippery and ephemeral, and its utility is largely in propaganda. This book succinctly analyzes what «terror» means in the 21st century, how news media use the term, and how journalists can cover tragedy without falling prey to the pitfalls of sensationalism, fear, and contagion. This book is a useful text for courses on media ethics, crime and public policy, political science, terrorism studies, and communication studies.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Tables and Figures
  • Acknowledgments
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Introduction
  • Research questions
  • Methods
  • Chapters
  • Notes
  • Chapter 1: Terrorism in the Mass Media: The History of a Slippery Term
  • Government and Policy Definitions
  • Scholarship on Terrorism
  • Global History of Terrorism
  • Post-1968, Pre-September 11: The Advent of Modern “International Terrorism”
  • Post-September 11: The Current Era
  • International and Domestic Terrorist Groups Today
  • Media Coverage of Terrorism
  • Media Coverage of Terrorism before September 11
  • Media Coverage of Terrorism After September 11
  • Notes
  • Chapter 2: Mass Shootings in the United States: Mass Media and the Columbine Effect
  • Columbine
  • Defining Mass Shootings
  • History of American Mass Shootings
  • Media Coverage of Mass Shootings
  • The Columbine Effect
  • Identity and Coverage of Crime
  • Nationality, the Military, and “Us” vs. “Them”
  • Mass Shootings and American Identity
  • Notes
  • Chapter 3: “Nuttier Than a Fruitcake”: William Kreutzer and the Fort Bragg Shooting
  • Gun Violence and Terror in the Mid-1990s
  • The Shooting
  • Broadcast Media Coverage of the Shooting
  • Nationalism and Patriotism
  • Weapons
  • Mental Illness in the Military
  • Lessons of Fort Bragg
  • Notes
  • Chapter 4: Camp Liberty, John Russell, and the “Theater of War”
  • Gun Violence and the Iraq War
  • The Shooting
  • Broadcast Media Coverage of the Shooting
  • Nationalism, Patriotism, and the Primacy of the Military
  • Combat Stress
  • Absence of Military Policy/Weaponry
  • Lessons of Camp Liberty
  • Notes
  • Chapter 5: Nidal Hasan and the Fort Hood Shooting: Soldier or Terrorist?
  • Violence and Mass Shootings in Killeen and Fort Hood
  • The Shooting
  • Broadcast Media Coverage of the Shooting
  • The Preeminence and Nobility of the American Military
  • “Terrorism” or “Mass Shooting?”
  • Orientalist Tropes in Coverage
  • Lessons of Fort Hood
  • Notes
  • Chapter 6: “Terror” or “Tragedy?” Charleston, Orlando, and Mass Shootings in the Age of Trump
  • The Orlando Shooting and “Radical Islam”: A Partisan War of Words
  • The Charleston Shooting and the Fight Over the Confederate Flag
  • Analyzing Coverage of the Orlando Shooting
  • The Charleston Shooting
  • The Orlando Shooting
  • Framing the Two Shootings
  • Broadcast Coverage of the Charleston Shooting
  • Violating the Sanctity of the Black Church
  • The Shooting as an Unforeseen Tragedy—and the Question of How to Categorize It
  • The Confederate Flag and the American Legacy of Racism
  • FOX Coverage—A Narrow Vision of Racism and Responsibility
  • Broadcast Coverage of the Orlando Shooting
  • Terror in Orlando and the Prism of September 11
  • The “Lone Wolf”: Expanding the 21st-Century View of Terror
  • The Orlando Shooting as a Symbol of Anti-LGBT Bigotry
  • “If You’re Too Dangerous to Get on a Plane, You’re Too Dangerous to Buy a Gun”
  • Anti-Immigrant and Anti-Refugee Rhetoric on FOX
  • Lessons of Charleston and Orlando
  • Notes
  • Conclusion: Capital-T Terrorism and a Crisis of Toxic Masculinity
  • Identity and Capital-T Terror
  • The September 11 Effect
  • Supporting Our Troops: The Military Media Complex and Scrutiny of Policy Lapses
  • Covering the Military Base Shootings: Causes and Consequences
  • Covering Weapons: Questioning Gun Procedures and Policy
  • One of Us, Gone Astray, or Not One of Us at All: Outliers and National Identity
  • Context Matters: The Role of Venue in Camp Liberty and Charleston
  • Camp Liberty and the “Theater of War”
  • Charleston and the Nobility of the Historic Black Church
  • Redefining Terrorism—Lone Wolves and Instability
  • How Media Define—and Enable—Terror
  • Moving Forward: Covering Mass Shootings and Large-Scale Violence
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

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I could never have finished this book without the support of my village. I am immeasurably grateful to the many friends, colleagues, and family members who offered their love and support while I worked on this project.

Much of the research for this book began at the University of Minnesota, where I was fortunate to be surrounded by exceptionally talented and supportive colleagues and scholars. I’m particularly grateful to Brian Southwell, Mary Vavrus, Shayla Thiel-Stern, Heather LaMarre, Nora Paul, Kathy Hansen, and, of course, Catherine Squires, whose kindness and mentorship have almost singlehandedly inspired a new generation of emerging female scholars. I am privileged to count myself among them, Catherine, and yours is still the voice I hear in my head when I find myself doing something inane like scrubbing shower grout or organizing my spice shelf as a mindless writing-avoidance tactic: “Your house is too clean, Ruth. Less cleaning; more writing.”

To my colleagues at Murphy Hall and in the Silha Center, who reminded me daily what an enormous privilege it was to spend our days writing, studying, and teaching others about our passions: I am grateful for the many wonderful conversations we had, and for the ways you challenged me. I still think fondly of our long discussions and debates over drinks at Sally’s or the Kitty Cat Klub, watching the sun go down over Minneapolis in the spring. My years at Murphy Hall stand out among my very brightest and warmest memories. ← xi | xii →

Over the course of the four years I spent doing the research for this book, I taught two dozen classes, wrote and published many shorter studies and papers, and gave birth to my second and third children. Academic life is often inhospitable to women who choose to prioritize children and families alongside their careers. I entered graduate school as a single parent to a toddler and finished with a husband and three children, which presented many challenges. I am therefore immeasurably grateful to the many friends and colleagues who offered support, guidance, and flexibility in the midst of my high-risk pregnancy, the birth of my twins, and the very difficult months of recovery that followed. It is no coincidence that every professor on my doctoral committee was a woman with children. I could not have made it to this point without the support of these amazing women—and the many friends who stepped in to bring me meals, hold the babies while I caught brief bits of sleep, or help with housework when we were in the trenches of twin babyhood.

My church community at CityLife offered so much support and love these past few years—I am so very grateful for all of you. My incomparable LifeGroup, in particular, has been such a source of warmth, strength and wisdom. Vanessa, Georgia, Andrew, David, Stephanie, Andrew, Jessica, Katie, Peter, Tyler, Lani, Riva, and Brielle—you have lifted me up when I was at my lowest points. Thank you for modeling true friendship and love.

To my parents, Steve and Gail—thank you for your enthusiastic support, for your investment in my education, and for raising me in a home full of books. I am so thankful for the wonderful example you set for me. My in-laws, Lori and Marty, have also been a source of support and strength throughout these past several years. Thank you for your love and all your help—I really won the in-law lottery.

Many colleagues and friends read drafts of the research for this book. Catherine Squires, Peter Polk, Sara Cannon, and my brilliant editor husband, Matt—thank you for your feedback and advice. And thank you to my dear friends who kept me sane (and listened to me talk endlessly about this very grim research) over these last few years—Emily Fisher, Larina DeWalt, Tasha Swalve, Melody Hoffman, Ivy Sendrijas, Sara Cannon, Mikki VanEps, Faduma Elmi, Stephen Bennett, and Melissa Thompson. There may be a thousand miles between us now, Melissa, but I am grateful for your friendship every day. Someday portal technology will catch up to us.

Because of the aforementioned three children, who are wonderful but very noisy, solidly three-quarters of this book was written at two coffee shops ← xii | xiii → in St. Paul: Caribou Coffee and Groundswell. Thank you for the caffeine, and for the warm and pleasant space to work.

I was lucky to work with an exceptional editorial team at Peter Lang—Mary Savigar, who first saw the potential in this project, and Mary Stuckey, Michael Doub, and Kathryn Harrison, who guided it ably to completion. Kathryn, thank you for your prompt, warm and attentive guidance on matters big and small. Thank you for always taking the time to thoughtfully respond to my endless avalanches of questions.

Endnote, index and general editing wizardry was aided by the expertise of Henry Whitehead, Keith Jones, and Tasha Swalve (my fellow Knight of the Interdisciplinary Round Table). Thank you.

My students and colleagues at St. Catherine University consistently inspire and move me. I am lucky to have stumbled into such a warm, supportive environment of mutual respect and empowerment. My students’ passion, tenacity and hunger for knowledge are awe-inspiring. These women are the leaders and innovators that we need in the 21st century. The future is female, ladies. You give me hope.

To my smart, funny, endlessly patient husband, Matt—thank you for your tireless support and love. I am a better woman for having met you.

And finally, to my sons, Calvin, Dominic and Anthony: May you grow into men who are powerful, fearless advocates for justice, mercy, and peace in a broken world.

This is for you.

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When I was a little girl, if you had asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, I would have earnestly replied that I wanted to become an assistant district attorney and prosecute mob bosses under the RICO Act. (I watched a lot of Law and Order at my grandparents’ house in Westchester in the 1990s.)

Today, when people ask me what I do, and I tell them I study media coverage of terrorism and mass shootings, there’s usually a period of prolonged, uncomfortable silence. Terrorism and mass shootings do not make for pleasant party talk. But the way we talk about tragedy, and the stories we tell about ourselves in the process, matter enormously. The specter of terror casts our national identity into sharp relief, revealing unspoken truths about who we are, what we value, and the things we fear.

The truth is that I’ve always been interested in crime, and the kinds of large-scale moments of tragedy that unite and define us as Americans. I spent my childhood in New York, and in the 1990s, New Yorkers idolized Rudy Giuliani for ostensibly cleaning up the city. As a U.S. Attorney in the 1980s, Giuliani prosecuted (and convicted) eight prominent organized crime bosses, striking a devastating blow to “The Commission,” a once-powerful organizing body in the American Mafia. And Giuliani’s aggressive “broken windows” approach to policing as mayor of New York City was credited for ← 1 | 2 → the enormous decline in violent crime in the city over the course of the 1990s (although subsequent research has found little evidence to support the idea that this approach was actually the cause of the decline—or of the simultaneous massive nationwide decline in crime that swept the country).1

Crime, and stories about crime, were a big part of the cultural iconography of the New York of my childhood. My father and maternal grandfather, the son and grandson of immigrants, fueled my interest in history by telling me stories about the crime syndicates that helped shape the city in the early 20th century, especially the “Five Families” of the Sicilian-American Mafia.


XVI, 234
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (July)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2017. XVI, 234 pp.

Biographical notes

Ruth DeFoster (Author)

Ruth DeFoster holds a Ph.D. in mass communication from the University of Minnesota. Her published research focuses on terrorism, crime, identity and mass shootings. She currently teaches communication studies at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota.


Title: Terrorizing the Masses