The terror and panic felt by many residents of the Austin area finally came to an end when Mark Anthony Conditt, the “Austin serial bomber,” committed suicide by detonating a bomb in his car to avoid getting apprehended by law enforcement.
A debate is brewing regarding whether Conditt should be labeled a terrorist. To a large degree, this debate is purely an intellectual one.
Regardless of whether he is officially deemed a terrorist doesn’t change the fact that Austin-area residents were terrified. Parents had to talk to their children about not going near packages and backpacks, and some people avoided shopping online to minimize the chance that they would get a suspicious package. Therefore to many, he was clearly a terrorist.
But the debate about how criminal acts are labeled, perpetrators and victims are portrayed, and how motives are discussed is not a new one.
There is evidence that race has a lot to do with how criminals and victims are described and portrayed by law enforcement and the media. In an analysis of headlines about white perpetrators of violence and black victims of crimes, many headlines mentioned positive attributes of the white criminals and negative information relating to the black victims that many times is speculative.
Some argue that the hesitancy to label Conditt as a terrorist is because he was a white man. However, the FBI definition of domestic terrorism defines it as an act “perpetrated by individuals and/or groups inspired by or associated with primarily U.S.-based movements that espouse extremist ideologies of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature.”
One could argue that there is not enough evidence to “officially” label his acts as domestic terrorism yet because law enforcement officials still haven’t found a connection to a movement or extremist ideology.
Even so, the label of “terrorist” may not feel right for some people because the Austin serial bomber does not match the stereotype or mental picture that people tend to conjure up when they think of terrorists.
When people think of terrorists, they tend to picture someone who is Muslim, Middle Eastern and/or foreign. The information is processed more slowly if it is not stereotype congruent. There is research evidence that shows that many people associate the term “American” with being white. For many, a “white American terrorist” does not seem likely or in line with their belief systems and expectations.
Although the Austin serial bomber killed two people and injured five others, he was not demonized once his identity was made known. For instance, interim Austin Police Chief Brian Manley referred to Conditt as a “a very troubled young man,” which is obviously true but still a very mild descriptor to use that seems to be a mismatch with the seriousness of his crimes.
Further, some of the first media reports that presented pictures of Conditt used an old high school picture in which he appears serene and smiling. Information about how he was home-schooled, earned college credit in high school and was generally civil slowly contributed to the narrative that emerged in the hours that followed. This narrative was all designed so that one asks, “How could this nice, seemingly normal young man do such a thing?”
When ethnic minorities commit similar crimes, they do not get the same treatment. There is not a search for nuanced perspective to explain motives. They don’t get the same benefit of the doubt that something went severely wrong in their upbringing or that they were troubled themselves.
The city of Austin and its surrounding areas are starting the healing process, and law enforcement officials are still trying to determine Conditt’s motive for his horrendous crimes. Although we may not ever learn the motive, we need to examine how we think and talk about victims and perpetrators of crimes. Would we make the same attributions if the person were from another racial group?
Perhaps more importantly, we should remember that Anthony Stephan House and Draylen Mason had lost their lives to Conditt’s package bombs. Mason, 17, had been accepted to The University of Texas at Austin to study music. He was the GOOD kid we should be talking about here.
Germine Awad is an associate professor of educational psychology at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Houston Chronicle.
To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.
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