It’s common to hear people say that the number of people killed by terrorists is a fraction of those killed in car accidents or even bath drownings. They say the threat of terror is dramatically inflated, a threat that we pour too many resources into.
But this misses the point. Terrorism isn’t just a means to take the lives of an enemy. Rather, terrorism is an extreme extension of politics, with its use being deployed simply as a means to make noise.
Noise is important in a world that never stops talking. In this era of hyper connectivity and the 24 hour news cycle, saying that terrorism is not the threat that it once was is a misguided. There is no one cause for terrorism. It is a technique available to different people pursuing different objectives, and terrorism is in no way unique to Islam.
The ways in which the media influences our perceptions of terrorism is significant. Perhaps the growing view that terrorism is a bygone threat stems from the fact that domestic terrorism is often not as newsworthy, despite the fact that it accounts for a large number of terrorist acts.
For Jerrold Post, director of political psychology program at George Washington University and author of the book The Mind of the Terrorist, “terrorism is basically a media phenomenon.You can look at it as psychological warfare waged through the media.” What this means is that while we know terrorists influence the media, the media also influences terrorists.
“The larger terrorist organisations have, in effect, a vice president for media relations,” Post says. “We have captured handbooks with instruction on how to gain maximum media attention.” This can be observed in the Northern Ireland bombings, where the attacks spiked between the hours of 5 and 6pm on thursday evenings. This was because the deadline for the Friday editions of newspapers was 6 – planning the attack just before the deadline left little time analysis, and the story was reported on simply with a sensational headline.
The history of terrorism and the media can provide us with lessons for the coverage of future related events. According to Post, during a Trans World Airline hijacking, the BaBC reported that “there is reason to believe that the terrorist’s will is slacking and that this will peacefully be resolved.” Perhaps in response to this statement, hoping to prove the report wrong, the hijackers shot the pilot and threw his body from the plane. Following the Boston Bombings last year, when Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s uncle, Ruslan Tsarnis came out and said that his nephew was a “loser,” the inflammatory effects of this on Tsarnaev can only be imagined.
Whilst the media could hardly control what Tsnarsi would say, there are certain situations where control exhorted by the media could prevent the escalation of an attack. For Post, this includes not giving a terrorist an “opportunity for an interview,” and “if there is security information, say a SWAT team approaching, a building where hostages are being held,” coverage should be delayed. “You don’t want to show that live. Because the suspect could be watching.”
Take the 1977 attack on the B’nai B’rith International headquarters in Washington D.C. This attack included the takeover the of building with hostages inside. When the media reported that some hostages had managed to escape, and were sending in supplies to the remaining hostages, the perpetrators saw the report and quickly recaptured all who had escaped.
The question of whether media coverage of these stories inspires copy cats is more difficult to answer. “It does happen,” according to author of Mass Murder in the United States: A History, Grant Duwe, “but it is one of those things that is difficult to address empirically.”
The number of criminals who cite media coverage of another killing behind their motives is relatively low. Having said that, Duwe notes that Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho specifically referenced Columbine.
It is also important to note that the media is in many ways merely responding to the demand from its consumers. For Duwe, “the truth is, in order to survive in a competitive industry like journalism, you have to present news that sells.” Also, that “history has shown that the public is generally more interested in crime which is usually more dramatised and something that is violence and occurs infrequently.” But this doesn’t excuse the media from reporting these stories responsibly.
Even the word ‘terrorist’ at its core is contentious. The decision to label a crime as terrorism has serious legal implications for how the criminal is charged and tried. Recent debates over gun control are marred by this dilemma.
Perhaps even more significantly, the term itself goes hand in hand with publicity. According to one common definition, “terrorism is violence or the threat of violence against either innocent victims or non combatants in order to have an impact on a wider audience.” The need for audience is at its core, it is perhaps the biggest thing that separates terrorism from other crimes. This means that labelling something as an act of terrorism implicitly results in more attention, potentially aiding its owner’s objectives. Because of this there have been calls for the term to be replaced with words like ‘cowardice.’
Essentially terrorism is “an intensely media specific phenomenon,” and for Post, “when [the media] uncritically respond, they are serving as the agents of the terrorists, the megaphone of the terrorists.”