TERRORISTS RECEIVE ALL THE PUBLICITY THEY WANT
By Brigitte L. Nacos
(Author of the just published book “Terrorism and Counterterrorism: Threats and Responses in the Post-9/11 World”
(Longman) and “Mass-Mediated Terrorism (Rowland & Littlefield).
In the aftermath of the devastating 7/7 (July 7, 2005) bombings of London’s transit system and a failed follow-up attempt two weeks later, shocked Britons and observers elsewhere wondered how home-grown young Muslims came to be infected by
the terrorist ideology of Osama bin Laden
and/or like-minded extremists. There was no mystery. In the age of global communication and international media, the messengers of hate and terror are no longer impeded by national borders; they spread their powerful words and images around the globe and condition impressionable young men and women for recruitment into their violent causes. Internet sites and at least one global TV network (
Al Manar, established and run by the Lebanese terrorist organization Hezbollah) have proven especially potent in
spreading the virus of violence and hate. Whether by glorifying suicide terrorists as “martyrs,” offering free downloads of militant Islamic Hip Hop music with Jihad lyrics, or selling violent computer games (some
made in U.S.A.), the terrorist propaganda scheme, via media they control, seems to work increasingly well.
Add to this the traditional news media (television, radio, newspapers, and newsmagazines) that, for
the time being, remain the most important sources of information. While nobody would suggest that the press in the United States and comparable democracies looks forward to yet
another terrorist spectacular, the fact is that this sort of political violence offers precisely what the contemporary media craves most—sensational, shocking, frightening, and tragic events.
Locked in permanent battles for audiences and thus for advertising dollars, broadcast media and print press prefer news that increases the audience size and circulation. To be sure, in liberal democracies the number one responsibility of a free press is to inform the public. The issue here, therefore, is not, whether or not to cover terrorist incidents and their aftermath at all, but rather,
how much to report and how to report.
There is no doubt that terrorists strive for publicity, when they
commit their violence. More than a century ago, the anarchists characterized their brand of terrorism as “propaganda by the deed.” While throughout history, few
terrorist groups realized their ultimate, political ends, most, if not all, have been very successful in getting the attention of the press and of the societies they targeted. Given
today’s instant global communication, contemporary terrorists manage to hijack the news around the world, whenever they strike or merely threaten to strike.
Take the recent attacks on London’s transit system. While well planned in advance, the architects of the quadruple bombing picked a date that coincided with an important G-8 summit meeting in Scotland. By striking at the outset of that summit, the terrorists captured the news and swept the leaders of the eight most powerful countries off the
television screens and front pages. Just take the New York Times
the day after the London bombings as a typical example: The front page was mostly devoted to the 7/7 attack, the execution of the Egyptian ambassador to Iraq by a bunch of terrorists made page one as well, but the G-8 summit did not. What a publicity success for the perpetrators of terror! In the weeks thereafter, refueled by the failed follow-up attack in London, the terrorist threat continued to dominate the news as did counterterrorist measures in the U.K., U.S., and elsewhere.
Moreover, there were alarming reports about expert warnings, how easily other sites could be attacked by terrorists. It is known that terrorists are well informed
about a variety of targets, but is it necessary to provide them with a laundry list of vulnerable sites?
Again, while the public needs to be informed and alerted to react to obvious threats, nothing is
gained by fueling the public’s fear day-in and day-out by “breaking news” even in the absence of new facts and development. The only winners here are the terrorists
who aim at spreading fear and anxiety in the societies they target and at encouraging the authorities to overreact in their counterterrorist measures.
There is no doubt that the terrorist threat is real without media hype. Therefore, media personnel and politicians are well advised, to keep the right perspective. 9/11 in New York, 3/11 in Madrid and
7/7 in London were tragedies for the victims, their families, first responders, and whole countries. For the terrorists, these events and the periods thereafter were most of all publicity and propaganda successes
which reinforced their claim that they can hurt even the most powerful nations on the face of the earth. As television networks play and replay the images of terrorist strikes
against the mighty, as the print media publish again and again prominent visual and textual accounts of reactions in victimized nations, they contribute to the “propaganda by the deed” and its beneficial effect on
terrorists’ recruitment efforts.
Why do the media devote a great deal of air time and column inches each time the Department of Homeland Security
raises the color-boded terrorist threat alert level but barely, or not at all, report, when the threat level is reduced?
Good reporting is needed. Over-reporting and hyping the news is not
Copyright 2005 Brigitte L. Nacos
The author is Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Columbia University
. Before she began teaching at Columbia, she was a correspondent for newspapers in Germany. She is the author of several important books:
"The Press, Presidents, and Crisis"
(Columbia University Press, 1990)
"Terrorism and the Media: From the Iran Hostage Crisis to the World Trade Center Bombing"
(Columbia University Press, 1994)
"From Bonn to Berlin: German Politics in Transition" (Columbia University Press, 1998)
"Mass-Mediated Terrorism: The Central Role of the Media in Terrorism and Counterterrorism"
(Rowman & Littlefield, 2002)
ALSO BY PROFESSOR NACOS:
LAW ENFORCEMENT AND TERRORISM
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