The Nov. 28 attack on Ohio State’s campus sent many students, faculty and staff into a state of alarm and confusion. Media reports on the connection between the attacker’s motive and a terrorism varied from outlet to outlet.
The FBI has yet to declare the attack committed by Abdul Razak Ali Artan, a third-year in logistics management, an act of terrorism. The FBI has, however, said Artan might have been inspired by the now-deceased al Qaeda-linked terrorist Anwar al Awlaki or Islamic State, which has claimed responsibility for the attack.
Dakota Rudesill, a professor at the Moritz College of Law who specializes in national security, said while the FBI has not labeled the incident an act of terrorism, there is some circumstantial evidence that might point in that direction, though it’s not possible to say with the current information available.
“Certainly, some of the early indications do point in the direction of this being a terrorist attack,” Rudesill said. “We have data points in the form of an individual with a Muslim sounding name … a male … and the attack was carried out against what we would call a ‘soft target,’ hitting civilians going about their day-to-day lives.”
He emphasized that men are not the only ones committing such acts, but in general, men tend to carry out violent acts at a greater rate than females. Rudesill also said the act was carried out by a civilian in a public place, adding to the common model in the West of individuals becoming self-radicalized through the Internet and carrying out an attack.
However, Rudesill said the data points used to help determine the motive and label on such an attack do not always mean the attack is terrorism.
“I think it’s helpful to think about analyzing potential terrorist attacks and potential crimes kind of in the same way that physicians do when somebody comes to see them,” he said. “So let’s say somebody goes to the emergency room and they have a raspy cough and they’re looking to get better. The first reaction could be, ‘Well, they’ve got pneumonia.’”
Rudesill stressed that in order to correctly determine a cause or motive, there must be a thorough investigation. He praised the gathering of evidence by the local and national law enforcement in the days following the attack.
Gerald Kosicki, professor in the OSU School of Communication, teaches a course which examines the nature of terrorism and its relationship to mass communication, which examines current events and the relationship between the two groups. He said measuring the media response to an attack can be complicated.
“I don’t know that there’s a normal response,” Kosicki said. “I mean, one of the things about it is when something happens, the (media) there do the best they can.”
Kosicki said the coverage of breaking, violent events varies every time a different news staff reports on something. And given the rarity of terrorist attacks, experience in those situations, or situations like them, can be hard to come by.
“It’s not like the institution doesn’t care, but unless you did regular training about this, the lessons will be dissipated over time,” Kosicki said. “So that’s not to say you’re going to fall into the same trap again, but, there are lessons that might have been learned that are then somewhat forgotten.”
One common issue that occurs during an event like Nov. 28’s, however, is mass confusion of the community involved, which can be spurred on by technology.
“It’s that old game of telephone where you tell one person, and by the time it gets to the other end, it’s a whole new story,” Kosicki said. “Now it’s like on steroids with social media, the Twitter-verse and all the other things that go on that there’s just a lot of possibilities for making stuff up or getting things wrong inadvertently.”
Kosicki said that during a breaking news event, new information often arises quickly, so it’s important not to overreact.
“We certainly don’t want to overreact,” Kosicki said. “Labeling until all the facts are in is somewhat counterproductive, especially in the heat of the moment.”
Editor’s note: Gerald Kosicki is on the School Publications Committee.