Campus.ie writer Paul Gorby discusses the reality of terrorism in this opinion piece.
Two years ago following a terrorist attack in Tunisia, then-UK Prime Minister David Cameron made the claim that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) poses an “existential threat” to the West and to Western values. It is interesting that in a world rocked by massive inequality and poverty, threatened by impending and world-altering climate change, and a world order shaken more by the impact of elections than attacks, that Cameron chose terrorism as the primary enemy of Western civilisation. In fact, it seems to me that the threat posed by terrorism is massively exaggerated in the news media.
In the wake of any terrorist attack, the suffering of the victims in unparalleled and unimaginable. However, the impact of these attacks in the social sphere could actually be very limited were it not for their over-coverage in the news. The number of people who die annually in the West in terrorist attacks is miniscule compared to those who die of health issues, for example, or of more trivial things such as slipping in the shower or being crushed by vending machines. And yet, news agencies spend entire days on the details of terrorist attacks that in only minor ways impact the lives of the vast majority of those who learn about them.
Of course, this is not to say that terrorist attacks should not be covered at all in the media, but rather when they are, they should be treated to no more coverage than they deserve. While we may think of terrorist attacks as military actions, they are really more like extreme acts of criminality. The media needs to treat terrorist violence the way they treat gang violence (because really, what is the difference?): something to be concerned about, not obsessed with.
The danger of over-coverage of terrorist attacks is twofold: for one thing, it plays into the hands of the terrorists by granting them a veneer of evil greatness and insidious ubiquity; secondly, it leads to a degeneration of politics in Western countries, making defence the primary talking point despite the fact that there are bigger issues that need dealing with. Again, this is not to say that terrorism and defence are unimportant, but that they are proportionally less important than the likes of healthcare, poverty or environmental protection.
Terrorists actively seek out greater media coverage for their acts, knowing that they instil fear in opponents and motivate supporters. After several terrorists attacks claimed by ISIS, the number of new recruits the organisation gains can increase significantly, and there is a strong correlation between the number of recruits they gain and the amount of news coverage their latest attack has had. Little wonder then that ISIS have claimed publicity to be their most powerful weapon.
In fact, the usefulness of news coverage is so great for ISIS that they have even claimed responsibility for attacks they were never even involved in. Often they will claim to have “inspired” attackers simply because, when it is shown that those attackers had no direct contact with ISIS, they can still take some credit for their actions, inserting themselves into a story of which they have no right to be a part. The time it takes to prove or disprove connections with the group means that by the time the instigator of an attack is confirmed to have been acting alone, the news cycle will have moved on and all people will remember is ISIS’ claim of responsibility.
The fact that the media spends so much time covering terrorism has had a negative impact on politics in the West as well. Far-right and xenophobic groups have come to the forefront of the political scenes in most countries, basing their ideologies around defence of the nation against foreign terrorists, and blurring the lines between terrorist and refugee. Something not often discussed is the fact that Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign was not his first attempt to become president: in 2000, a year before the 9/11 attacks, he ran only to fail to obtain even a third-party nomination. Using xenophobic rhetoric, the same man who was so thoroughly rejected 16 years earlier became the leader of the free world. A lack of healthcare kills far more Americans each year than terrorism, but the fact that there is not round-the-clock coverage of the healthcare crisis means that fewer people are as well-informed or concerned, and this leads them to vote accordingly.
Terrorist attacks are serious issues, ones that deserve serious analysis and discussion. Nonetheless, the intense focus given to such attacks in the media today can do more harm than good through spreading fear, giving the perception that terrorists pose a greater threat than they do, and by altering political discourse so that all other issues are treated as secondary.
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