Compound Interest

When you’re not quite a suspect

In the wake of the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a commercial jet, we were introduced to a new term.

An announcement from the Transportation Security Administration said that “every individual flying into the U.S. from anywhere in the world traveling from or through nations that are state sponsors of terrorism or other countries of interest will be required to go through enhanced screening.”

A “country of interest,” apparently, is one where terrorism is known to be “incubated,” but is not as evil as Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria, which are on the official state-sponsored-terrorism list. In other words, the U.S. views a “country of interest” as a sort of threat, something to be watched closely. And so the people who travel from or through those countries become “persons of interest.”

When a police department labels someone a “person of interest,” it is usually quick to add that the person is “not a suspect.” The underlying message is: “We’re watching you, but we’re not accusing you of anything. At least not yet.”

But news reports—and law enforcement agencies— often treat the “person of interest” as a suspect anyway, especially in high profile cases. And it does seem as if many of the “persons of interest” are eventually charged.

A 2006 article in the American Journalism Review quoted a prominent defense attorney on the use of the term: ‘“The reporter should be on notice that it is a vague term that has no real understandable definition,’ says Gerald B. Lefcourt, a New York defense attorney and past president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. His advice to journalists: ‘You have to ask the police what they mean.’”

“Person of interest” was used extensively after the 1996 bombing at the Atlanta Olympics, in reference to Richard Jewell. We all know how well that turned out, yet no lesson was learned, and the uses of “persons of interest” have only increased.

The first use of “persons of interest,” interestingly enough, may have been in reference to what nowadays might be called “domestic terrorism.” A New York Times article in late 1970 disclosed that the government had started to keep dossiers on “persons of interest” in the antiwar and civil rights movements. The article said: “The phrase is an agent’s euphemism for ‘suspects’—those among the law-abiding community as well as those among lawbreakers whose militance in opposition to the war in Vietnam, on Negro grievances or on other matters that marks them as possible inciters of violence or harm to officials.”

The terms “person of interest” or “country of interest” imply suspicion, if not downright accusation, and should be avoided. Instead of a label, provide description or action: “Police said they had the woman’s husband under surveillance”; “The TSA said people traveling from certain countries would be subject to increased scrutiny.”

But if the euphemism expands even more, beware the next national E. coli outbreak, when spinach is labeled a “vegetable of interest.”

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.