Sunday Political Brunch - The Politics of Words—October 8, 2017

Sunday, October 08, 2017
Mark Curtis, GoLocalProv Contributor

Mark Curtis
The recent mass killings in Las Vegas have left us in a quandary. With no clear-cut motive at hand, and no apparent religious or political bent (at least that we now know), then what do we call this, other than “mass murder”? The question for now is whether the Las Vegas massacre should be called an act of terrorism. Let’s “brunch” on that this week.

“Let’s Go to the Dictionary” – Miriam-Webster offers a number of definitions - some vague, some more precise. has a legal definition: “the unlawful use or threat of violence especially against the state or the public as a politically motivated means of attack or coercion.” It also offers a definition for students: “the use of violence as a means of achieving a goal.” Under the first definition, Las Vegas would not rise to terrorism because - as of now - there is no evidence it was politically motivated. On the other hand, it would clearly be terrorism under the student definition, because the violence was a means to the goal of killing people.

“And, There Are More Contradictions” – The picture doesn’t get any clearer when we look at statutes. Nevada state law defines terrorism as "any act that involves the use of violence intended to cause great bodily harm or death to the general population." That makes the Las Vegas massacre sound like a domestic terrorist act to me. But when you look at the FBI definition, it has the added caveat, “to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.” Well, if there is no political objective, then maybe this isn’t terrorism after all. We clearly have contradictions.

“Different Standards” – If there is a mass bombing in the Middle East and if ISIS or Al-Qaeda claims credit, it’s immediately called an act of terrorism. But even back in 1995, when the Oklahoma City Federal Building was blown up killing 168, people were not that quick to call it terrorism. Part of that reluctance, I think, is the discomfort that people have in recognizing an act of “domestic terrorism.” Maybe our national pride includes a kind of denial mechanism which insists that “such things don’t happen on our soil.” Of course, in the Oklahoma City case, the motives and suspects were not clear at the start; but when it became clear that this was attempted revenge for the federal government’s siege at Waco, Texas, exactly two years prior, the bombing was officially labeled “domestic terrorism.”

“So, What Is This?” – For starters, I labeled the Oklahoma City bombing a terrorist attack from day one. Why? Well, the target was a United States District Courthouse; the result was mass-casualties that frightened the immediate community and the entire nation; and a weapon of mass destruction was involved. The same was true for the Olympic Park bombing at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, an event which I covered firsthand. Yes, in Las Vegas, they are still searching for a political motive (and may never find one), but based on the Oklahoma City and Atlanta benchmarks, I’d label Las Vegas as domestic terrorism.

“Stretching the Imagination” – The other night on NPR I was listening to journalist Masha Gessen, who takes the opposing view from mine. She does not believe Las Vegas should yet be described as a terrorist act. I respectfully disagree. Gessen also disputes that the Boston Marathon bombings, (another tragedy I covered), were an act of terrorism. How she can conclude that is beyond my imagination. The Tsarnaev brothers were self-radicalized and certainly had a political bent, with the goal of killing innocent Americans for their cause. They need not have been actual members of ISIS or Al-Qaeda, but their motives lay with the political sympathies and ideology of those organizations. Gessen said calling them terrorists aggrandizes and elevates them beyond being mere criminals. I couldn’t disagree more. They were terrorists, period!

“Illegal; Undocumented; or Unauthorized?” – Words have nuanced meanings. I get that. Sometimes arguing semantics can have profound (and unintended) consequences. A case in point is the debate on how to describe immigrants who are in this country in violation of the law. For many years, they were simply described as “illegal immigrants,” but then came a backlash. Their advocates chastised the press for calling them illegals, when they have been convicted of nothing. The preferred term became “undocumented.” The problem with that is that many people who are in the U.S. unlawfully have plenty of documents - from school report cards to medical insurance cards - all because they have been granted many of the benefits of legal status. I never liked the term “undocumented.” Now, I hear a compromise description, “unauthorized immigrants.” I can live with that, even though I still believe “illegal” is an accurate, non-judgmental description. Look, you are either here by legal authority, or you are not. It can’t be both.

“Why These Debates Matter” – In the world of journalism, accuracy and clarity are among the highest goals. If someone enters this county without going through proper channels, that’s a violation of the law (albeit a civil statute). Is that person a criminal? Not necessarily. (Think of a 6-year-old child brought here by a parent, who is “illegal,” “undocumented,” or “unauthorized.”). But that person is here illegally. Here’s an analogy. I get alerts in my car if I hit 80 miles per hour (as I did the other day) where the speed limit was 70 miles per hour. Did I do something illegal? Yes. Am I a criminal? No, probably not, unless I was caught, convicted of a crime, and sanctioned. But, yes, I was in fact driving illegally.

“Thoughts” – I am in no way trying to equate what happened in Las Vegas with an illegal border crossing or a speeding ticket. What I am trying to illustrate, though, is a daily newsroom battle over what to call and how to describe events, and, yes, how things get labeled. While I sharply disagree with fellow journalist Masha Gessen on how we define terrorism, I appreciate the debate and thoughtful context, as we try to bring clarity, accuracy, and fairness to our audience.

What are your thoughts? Do journalists get caught up in nonsensical hair-splitting word games, or are these debates important? Just click the comment button at

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    Kate Coyne-McCoy - In baseball, they call them all around superstars - five tool athletes.

    McCoy, who once ran for Congress, is a strong political organizer for EMILY’s List, a proven fundraiser for Raimondo’s PAC, strong with the media, and is a top lobbyist.

    She is manages to balance being a partisan with her all-around effectiveness. McCoy can do it all.

  • Effective Insider

    Lenny Lopes - Whether you’re looking for someone to navigate the halls of the State House, manage your public relations image, or execute a contract, Lopes can do it all.

    The affable and well-liked former Chief of Staff to then-Attorney General Patrick Lynch (and prior to that, Legal Counsel to Lt. Governor Charlie Fogarty) had joined forces with Pannone Lopes Devereaux & West before striking out on his own with The Victor Group, taking on such heavyweight clients as Lifespan and online gaming behemoths Fanduel and DraftKings, and more niche healthcare accounts — including the medical marijuana Rhode Island Growers Coalition. 

    Lopes was tapped this past spring following the tourism debacle by Havas PR to help navigate their way through the Rhode Island waters, and ultimately defend their performance and reputation to stave off their contract cancelation for now. If you’re hired to be a PR firm’s de facto PR brain, you must be on your game.

  • Two Coast Operative

    Matt Lopes - With more than 20 different lobbying agreement Lopes has emerged as a premiere influencer in Rhode Island. His clients range from Dunkin’ Donuts to Amgen to the Rhode Island Airport Corporation.

    While managing one of the biggest lobbying practices he is often on the West Coast -- he is a nationally recognized Special Master for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, overseeing prison reform and compliance.

    He plays with the big boys on both coasts. Easy for a guy who was a star athlete in high school and at Dartmouth.

  • Gambling Man

    Don Sweitzer - IGT (formerly GTECH) super lobbyist plays the game at most every level, with big ties to the Clinton organization that go all the way back to Sweitzer playing a key role with Clinton-Gore in 1992.

    Sweitzer’s contacts span the political spectrum - despite his Democratic pedigree, don’t count him out if Donald Trump wins the Presidency as Sweitzer worked for Paul Manafort back in the early 1990s.

    Reportedly, Raimondo asked him to serve as her chief of staff - he gracefully declined.

  • New School

    Segal, Bell and Regunberg - These three young Brown grads are emerging as the leaders in progressive causes in Rhode Island and across the United States. David Segal, who served on the City Council in Providence and as a State Rep, failed in a 2010 effort for Congress losing to David Cicilline in the Democratic primary. 

    In 2016, Segal along with Aaron Regunberg emerged as a powerful force in trying to kill of the Super-Delegate structure in the Democratic primary.

    Sam Bell is leading a major effort to re-calibrate the Democratic party to the left the election season. We will know just how good Bell is after September 13’s Democratic primary - Bell is overseeing more than a dozen progressive candidates' campaigns.

  • Old School

    Goldberg, Walsh, Ryan and Murphy - These four veteran lobbyists know the pass codes to just about every private office in the State House. For decades they have been the go-to guys. Regardless of who is in power Bob Goldberg, Joe Walsh, Mike Ryan and Bill Murphy are always in vogue.

    Only Ryan was not an elected official. Murphy ran the House for a decade, Goldberg had pulled off one of the greatest political coups when he lead a small band of GOP senators and split the Dems to take power, and Walsh was the almost Governor of Rhode Island in 1984. 

    Combined, they have the lion's share of premier clients and have collected the millions in fees to prove it.

  • Urban Innovator

    Nicole Pollock - The new Chief-of-Staff for Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza certainly has big shoes to fill, with the recent departure of both Chief Operating Officer Brett Smiley and outgoing Chief of Staff Tony Simon but Pollack has gotten off to a strong start.  Following the recent summit on Kennedy Plaza co-hosted former Mayor Joe Paolino and Elorza, Paolino told GoLocal, “[Elorza’s] new Chief of Staff, I’m very impressed with.”

    Pollock had joined the administration in February 2015 as Chief Innovation Officer and then served as Chief of Policy and Innovation for the administration before being tapped for the top post. Pollock had previously served in a policy and communications role for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. A graduate of Brown University, Pollock currently serves on the Board of the West Broadway Neighborhood Association and the Providence Plan.

    The city has no shortage of pressing issues to tackle, from devising a plan to handle the ongoing panhandling, homelessness, and drug use issues in Kennedy Plaza, to the ever-looming issue of the protracted legal battle with the Providence Firefighters that could have monumental financial implications for the city, depending on the outcome. 

    Photo: LinkedIn

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    Matt Bucci - The up-and-comer on Governor Raimondo’s staff was in the mix for Chief of Staff or another promotion this summer, but may chose to take his skills and join the world of lobbying or grab another private sector position.

    Made news when he was tied to Governor Raimondo’s ill fated and ultimately canceled trip to Davos Switzerland. Raimondo was going to spend a weekend with the beautiful people and raided the non-profit URI Foundation’s scholarship dollars to fund the trip.

    The former staffer to Senator Jack Reed is widely respected. Look for news about Bucci in the near future. Too talented to not make a leap soon. 

  • Seasoned Pro

    Chris Hunter - The strategy wunderkind has morphed into a well-established operative in his own right in veteran lobbyist Frank McMahon’s public affairs shop, Advocacy Solutions.   

    The long-time government and public relations manager for the Providence Working Waterfront Alliance, Hunter is equally adept at the State House, having snagged emerging industry client Lyft and engaged in the hand-to-hand combat that comes with lobbying for the Rhode Island League of Charter Schools. 

    Election seasons in particular are where Hunter’s know-how comes in handy, having managed a number of successful bond referendum in the state. Hunter is a constant presence networking around town, whether it’s hobnobbing with the Providence Committee on Foreign Relations or serving on host committees for key candidates - he’s the combination of both “who you know” and “what you know."

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    Nick Hemond - None may be more unabashedly and relentlessly ambitious than Hemond, who landed as an associate at powerhouse DarrowEverett in 2014. 

    The President of the Providence School Board lobbies at City Hall for high-profile real estate clients including Buff Chace and High Rock Management (i.e. the ownership of the Superman Building) and at the State House for labor interests (RI FOP, RI Carpenters Local Union 94), Big Health (the Hospital Association of Rhode Island) and rounding it out with such interests as AAA, the Hospital Association of Rhode Island, and infrastructure firm AECOM.

    If that doesn’t sound like a full load, toss in a slew of crisis communications clients in the way of bars and clubs in varying degrees of trouble (read: stabbings, shootings) before the Providence Board of Licenses. Having so many fingers in so many pies (and some of which could appear somewhat conflicting) has raised eyebrows, but in the meantime if Hemond is winning, the checks keep coming. 

  • Veteran Professional

    Leo Skenyon - The seasoned political operative is the man behind the man. Serving as Chief of Staff to Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello, Skenyon helped navigate a more than treacherous legislative session which saw Finance Chair Representative Ray Gallison resign, Representative John Carnevale found ineligible to run at his purported address in Providence, and a slew of financial and ethics issues for a number of Democrats. 

    The Speaker however emerged from the session having tackled the thorny issue of community service grants, and what had seemed up until this year a nearly impossible task, putting ethics reform — and oversight of the Assembly by the Ethics Commission — before voters this November.

    Skenyon has weathered many a political season before, having been the former Chief of Staff to then-Senate Majority Leader Jack Revens in the 1980s, and then a former top aide to Governor Bruce Sundlun and U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell.  Now, his boss faces both a Republican and Independent challenger in the general election in November.  



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