Friday, November 11, 2005

An Unholy Trinity?

I thought I'd write a little more about terrorism. Well, I'm actually mostly just going to quote from a book I own on the subject. The book is Political Terrorism (2nd edition) by Grant Wardlaw. It was published in 1989 and was required reading for Honours students studying terrorism at Aberdeen University in 1997 (which is why I own a copy). You might get the idea that it's no longer relevant to "this new" terrorism but much of it is still very relevant indeed. The threat of nuclear, chemical and biological terrorism is discussed as is the danger created by the rise of increasingly nihilistic terrorist ideologies. International terrorism, and state involvement in it, is also covered. In fact, the only significant way in which it has dated is in an over-emphasis on kidnapping and hostage taking. In the 80's this was a greater problem for Western countries than it is today.

The chapter I'm going to quote from, chapter 9, concerns the relationship between terrorism and the media.

Terrorism and the Media: A symbiotic Relationship?
(or ' Don't shoot. We're not on prime time')

It is well recognised that some form of symbiotic relationship exists between the news media and perpetrators of spectacular terrorist incidents. One of the most important aims of a terrorist attack is to gain publicity for a particular cause. In some cases, publicity is the sole aim. The presumed primary aim of the news media is to inform. However, it is at least as important in practice to entertain, shock, amuse, or otherwise affect the emotions of the audience, This is particularly true of the medium of television. Competition between media organisations seems to heighten the necessity to focus on the emotion-generating as opposed to the purely informational aspects of news reporting. Terrorists are well aware of this phenomenon and consciously script what have been termed 'live-action spectaculars' - news events which cannot be ignored by the media.
It's worth bearing in mind that when this was written there was far less competition between media organisations than there is today, especially with regard to television news. The relatively recent appearance of a multitude of 24 hour news channels has added considerably to this phenomenon. It is undoubtedly a serious problem. The book then lists a number of ways in which media coverage influences terrorism and our perception of it. For the purposes of this post, I'll just highlight one.
The competitive nature of news gathering places an undue emphasis on the sensational aspects of terrorist events and makes entertainment of public violence rather than performing a public duty to inform.
Before anyone questions the "entertainment" aspect, consider the bold "War on Terror" captions, the breathless reports from the scenes, the use of computer graphics, and the endless repetition of the footage of terrorist incidents. A form of entertainment? I'd say so, even if it is a ghoulish one. It might be considered to be one step beyond watching a really scary horror film.

In this way, by playing to the viewers emotions and emphasising the most shocking aspects, the media distorts terrorism in a way which is not beneficial to the public good. A level of fear is created which is out of proportion to the size of the threat. Terrorism and the media can therefore, in some sense, be said to be two sides of the unholy trinity mentioned in my title. But what's the third?
The response of many governmental and law enforcement officials to these charges is to suggest various forms of restrictions that should be placed on the media reporting of terrorist incidents. These suggestions run from self-imposed industry guidelines to governmental regulation amounting to strict censorship. The spectre of censorship casts long and dark shadows in democratic states and it is therefore necessary to examine both the evidence for the charges which could lead to censorship being imposed and any alternative measures short of censorship which could meet any well founded objections to current media presentation of terrorist events.
Bear with me. In the case of "this" terrorism, the government has shown no inclination to suggest restrictions on media coverage of terrorist events. Now that's partly because the media would vehemently resist such a move (even the Scum, which would probably lead the outcry, no doubt pretending all the while to be unaware of the blatant hyprocisy this would entail). But there's another reason why our government shows no desire to tackle this problem. It's demonstrated in the next passage.
In pursuing these questions we must not indulge in a facile belief that only the media and the terrorists seek to exploit terrorism for their own ends (one for increased audiences and profit and the other for publicity for their cause). Governments, too, are sometimes eager to over-emphasise the seriousness of the 'terrorist problem' to justify increases in the public security apperatus and incursions upon civil liberties. It is an old and well tried trick to divert attention from economic and social problems to focus attention on an ill-defined and frightening 'enemy'. In many parts of the world today, terrorism is such a diversion. In fact, it is possible to imagine governmental officials doing more to destroy democracy in the name of counter-terrorism than is presently likely to be achieved by terrorists themselves.
Does that sound at all familiar? The important point is that "we must unite against the common enemy" is a very old population control technique; it certainly pre-dates democracy itself. There's no real mystery or conspiracy to it. It happens. Often (historically speaking). That's the third side of the unholy trinity, the government itself. It has manipulated and over-stated the terrorist threat to further its own agenda and increase its hold on power.*

There are a couple of points I'd like to make clear before I finish. The government may well be behaving in this way for reasons it believes are entirely justified. Partly, it's undoubtedly driven by a desire to stay in power. Mnay governments have gone down this path, for what they thought were good reasons, only to discover that it leads somewhere very, very unpleasant.

Also, some people might argue that the threat from terrorism is far greater today than it was in 1989. This is debatable but I accept that it is probably true to some extent, and certainly in terms of scale. As such, Mr Wardlaw's warning about government's being the greater threat to democracy might no longer hold. But, try to imagine a process whereby the terrorists are able to damage democracy in this country. Or, if you want a real challenge, try to imagine how the terrorists might "win". How would it happen? Are we expecting our government to surrender to the terrorists at some point? The idea is pretty far fetched. The scale of the terrorist attacks would have to be on a hugely unprecedented scale for it even to begin to be a possibility. From a purely rational standpoint we know that the terrorists could kill a great many more people without doing the slightest damage to the democratic process of this country.** The government, on the other hand, can damage it very easily indeed.

* Again, just to be clear, I'm not claiming that the terrorist threat isn't real. What I'm saying is that democracies have an inbuilt tendancy to over-emphasise the threat faced by terrorism and that this can be a dangerous phenomenon in itself. This is especially true when a government deliberately manipulates public opinion using fear of the "evil enemy".

** The harsh reality is that people die in unexpected ways every day. Far more die in other ways than at the hands of terrorists. That applies for this year, last year, and any other year you care to mention. There are no indications that this is likely to change significantly in the years ahead. Terrorists threaten the lives of our citizens but they do not currently threaten our national security. We should remain vigilant because they may do one day. Crying wolf now though, really is a very dangerous business.

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