P.O.V. No.20 - Terrorism and Film

A Note on "Terror(ism) and the Media"

Øystein Gaasholt

Quite by accident, at the initial stages of forming some ideas about how to honor a promise to contribute an article on terrorism and the media to this journal, I happened across a short piece on that same subject in one of the student newspapers at the University of Oslo, Samfunnsviter'n (02/05). Written by Brit Eli Nybakken, reporting on a guest lecture by an Australian scholar, the article is one of the clearest on the subject I have had the pleasure to read. It starts by noting that there is no necessary connection between terrorism and the media, but for many terrorists the kind of publicity that only the mass media can provide is essential. Thus, terrorist acts are often designed as theatre - as spectacular events with a dramatic content that spellbinds an audience, precisely the kind of story that attracts the media. Asking what interests they serve - the interests of society or the interests of terrorists - when, seemingly unencumbered by any concern other than reporting on the terrorist acts as fully as humanly and technically possible, and thereby turning these acts into irresistible theatre, the article closes with this reminder from Katherine Graham:

Publicity may be the oxygen of terrorists. But I say this: news is the lifeblood of liberty. If the terrorists succeed in depriving us [the press] of freedom, their victory will be far greater than they hoped and far worse than we had ever feared. Let it never come to pass.

It is, then, hardly a matter of contention that terrorists, as that term has become widely understood and used in recent years, in many cases are dependent on the media in order to catch the imagination and bring fear into the hearts and minds of the general public in the societies the terrorists wish to hurt. And along with Katherine Graham, I take it for granted that the services thus rendered by the media to terrorists are a price liberal democracies have to pay if they are to remain liberal democracies.

Israels' handling of the media during the recent evacuation of the Gaza strip and, also, settlements in the West Bank, provides supportive evidence of the claim that a free press is, on balance, always to the good. On the insistence of Miri Regev, the officer in charge of the media operations, journalists were given free access to the scenes of confrontation between settlers and soldiers assigned the task of removing them. As a result even Arabic media brought reports on the human side of both settlers and soldiers (Aftenposten, Aug. 25, 2005). And, certainly, empathy and reasonableness across lines of conflict has a greater chance of survival where the press can operate freely.

Here I wish, however, to call attention to a different problem. But before doing so, I find it necessary to take a closer look at our key terms: "terrorism" and "the media."

Terrorism certainly is more than 9/11 in New York. 3/11 in Madrid, and 7/7 in London. (Cf. Kumm, 2003.) Terrorism is a broad concept with fuzzy, not to say open, boundaries, and it arguably is a recurrent phenomenon in human history. None the less, at a very general level of agreement, terrorism is acts of violence, motivated by political goals, often intentionally aimed at civilians (e.g., Rasch, 2005: 11). A somewhat more elaborate and precise definition, but not substantially different from the one above, but emphasizing the audience, is that of the U.S. Department of State: "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience (U.S. Department of State, 2003: xii, quoted in Evju, forthcoming). Personally I do not find it difficult to subscribe to these definitions. Still, I will point out one problem. In both definitions motive and intent are defining characteristics. Thus attention is taken away from terrorism's most central feature, which is terror, in favor of the perpetrators - "the terrorists." This is, of course, politically convenient for governments and their military forces fighting terrorism. It reserves the concept to acts initiated or carried out by "terrorists." But certainly, to the innocent victims of terror it makes little difference to what extent the acts that bring about their death and destruction or suffering are intended and politically motivated. Therefore the parenthesis in the heading of this essay.

Now, "the media," which is an equally broad concept. Technically it spans from the traditional printed press to the Internet. It also represents all the major languages and many of the minor languages in the world. And politically it spans the entire spectrum of ideologies and world views. With regard to the latter, and for the present purposes, the gap between Fox News and al-Arabiya is illustrative. It follows that I am in no position to make any claims about how "the media" in all their variety report on "terror(ism)" in all its variety. Therefore I will focus on how the mainstream US media report or, rather, fail to report, on what is happening in Iraq. And ironically, my claim is to a major extent based on what I get from the US media - and most especially The New York Review of Books. What follows, then, is for the most part culled from two articles in NYR, both in the December 16, 2004 issue: Chris Hedges, "On War" and Michael Massing, "Iraq, the Press & the Election."

The problem concerning terror(ism) and the media I have in mind is the underreporting of terror brought upon civilians by the troops engaged in the fight against terrorism. Commenting on this problem I will refrain from the conceit in which criticism often is anchored - not the least, perhaps, in the case of European intellectuals - and simply point to some uncomfortable facts of life that speak for themselves.

Western journalists covering the occupation of Iraq are typically "embedded" - that is, dependent on the military for food and transportation as well as security. Hedges writes:

The embedded reporters [] have a natural and understandable tendency, one I have myself felt, to protect those who are protecting them. They are not allowed to report outside the unit and are, in effect, captives. They have no relationship with the victims, essential to all balanced reporting of conflict, but only with the Marines and soldiers who drive them through desolate and mud-walled towns and pump grenades and machine-gun bullets into houses, leaving scores of nameless dead and wounded in their wake. The reporters admire and laud these fighters for their physical courage [] And the reporting, even among those who struggled to keep their distance, usually descends into shameful cheerleading.

Also, in an environment where bullets and grenades that kill may come at the soldiers from out of nowhere, they are frightened. Massing writes: "Most of the soldiers in Iraq are young men who can't speak Arabic and who have rarely traveled outside the United States, and they have suddenly been set down in a hostile environment in which they face constant attack. They are equipped with powerful weapons and have authority over dark-skinned people with alien customs." And retelling an eyewitness account, Massing gives us an illustration of the terror fed by fear combined with arrogance and ignorance:

Rosen [an Arabic-speaking American reporter] described how a unit he accompanied on a raid broke down the door of a house they suspected of dealing in arms. When the man, named Ayoub, did not immediately respond to their orders, they shot him with non-lethal bullets. "The floor of the house was covered with blood," Rosen wrote. "He was dragged into a room and interrogated forcefully as his family was pushed back against their garden's fence." Ayoub's frail mother, he continued, pleaded with the interrogating soldier to spare her son's life, protesting his innocence. "He pushed her to the grass along with Ayoub's four girls and two boys, all small, and his wife. They squatted barefoot, screaming, their eyes wide open in terror, clutching one another as soldiers emerged with bags full of documents, photo albums and two compact discs with Saddam Hussein and his cronies on the cover. these CDs, called the Crimes of Saddam, are common on every Iraqi street and, as their title suggests, they were not made by Saddam supporters. But the soldiers couldn't read Arabic and saw only the picture of Saddam, which was proof enough of guilt."


Aftenposten, August 25, 2005.

Evju, Anders. Al-Qaida-ledelsens fiendebilde. Masters thesis, Universitetet i Oslo, forthcoming.

Hedges, Chris. "On War." The New York Review of Books, December 16, 2004.

Kumm, Björn. Terrorismens historia. Lund: Historiska media, 2003.

Massing, Michael. "Iraq, the Press & the Election." The New York Review of Books, December 16, 2004.

Rasch, Bjørn Erik. "Innledning." In Rasch, ed., Islamistisk terrorisme. Oslo: Abstrakt forlag, 2005.

Samfunnsviter'n 02/05.

U.S. Department of State. Patterns of Global Terrorism, 2003.

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