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Complaints that news coverage of terrorist attacks generally fails to give much idea of context – i.e. the longer history, the grievances, the circumstances that led to the bloodshed – are by and large justified and the complaints ensure that that particular context is at least mentioned. There is, however, another context which tends to be utterly ignored. Terrorist attacks exist not only in the context of their particular struggle but also in the context of terrorism itself – i.e. its history, the many organisations, their methods, successes and failures.

In order to appreciate concerns about the neglect of context, it is necessary to mention “framing”. News is a product created by media workers and all news stories are told within a frame chosen by those workers. They might decide to relate an event as good news or as bad news. An easy example would be the reporting of increased numbers of air travellers; this could be framed as good news for the tourist industry or it could be framed as bad news for the environment. News staff decide how it will be told, framed. Looking to the audience, the citizen who wants full information in order to form a considered viewpoint wants all frames, while the citizen with little interest in public affairs would like it kept simple.

Another choice when it comes to frames is whether to relate events as isolated episodes or as events in a much larger theme. In the early 1990s Shanto Iyengar argued that for the most part news stories are presented as unconnected events – episodes – rather than as incidents best understood in a longer process or theme. This, he argues, depoliticises them – prevents their being the subject of effective political controversy.* News reduces great controversies to a series of anecdotes, e.g. the likes of inequality might be reduced to isolated stories about poverty.

So too with the reporting of terrorism, the complaint is that it is reduced to stories of carnage ripped out of their political context, or – as Iyengar would put it – episodic framing is preferred to thematic framing. The citizen with little interest in politics is served at the expense of the thoughtful, participative citizen.

Journalists, presenters, researchers, editors, producers etc. are of course well aware of the choices to be made and sometimes decide to place events in context often in a longer special report or even a current affairs programme. Almost inevitably, the choice is to place the attack or series of attacks in the context of the struggle from which they emerged. While this is an enormous service to the thoughtful citizen – one which may have commercial consequences as less interested citizens tune out – something is still missing: that other neglected context of terrorist attacks.

When media staff decide to place current attacks in context, they usually opt again for a degree of isolation that limits political discussion. That is to say, a terrorist attack or campaign is seldom considered in the context of decades of similar attacks and campaigns mounted by different groups in different countries. Recent Jihadi attacks are treated as new and unprecedented when the reality is that they are part of a recurring and developing tradition stretching back decades into the twentieth century.

This is not the place to develop a history of terrorism. Suffice it to say that adequate consideration of the latest terrorist attack or campaign of attacks depends as much on understanding their commonality with earlier attacks and campaigns as it does on understanding their particular context. Putting it more plainly but provocatively, the context to Jihadi attacks on Western civilians includes the IRA and others.

This is where it gets controversial and where something akin to censorship appears. There are people – almost certainly the majority of people – who would regard such attacks on civilians as crimes against humanity and who would want perpetrators, commanders and facilitators hunted and brought before the courts. There are also people who are selective, who think that targeting civilians is sometimes justified. Now should anyone but especially a producer of media present jihadi atrocities in the context of earlier struggles, those selective citizens will go ape. They will demand a degree of censorship; they will demand that coverage of terrorist attacks never be framed in a context which includes the killings of which they approve. It would take brave journalism to defy them.

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* During the 1980s Shanto Iyengar analysed US coverage of socio-political issues – poverty, unemployment, crime – and found that news was biased towards events rather than their context. He labelled the difference “episodic framing” as opposed to “thematic framing”. The former reduced complex issues to anecdotes and hindered public understanding of controversial issues. (Shanto Iyengar, Is Anyone Responsible?: How Television Frames Political Issues, University Of Chicago Press, 1994)

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When I taught Political Communication at UCD, one of the topics that students found most interesting was, “Terrorism: Violence as Communication”. It was based on a well-established approach within the study of terrorism which emphasised communication as a key defining feature. A popular way of putting this was that terrorists wanted a lot of people watching rather than a lot of people dead.*

The recent murders by beheading of James Foley, Steven Sotloff and David Haines remind many people of the similar murder in 2002 of Daniel Pearl. There are different ways to approach these murders.** Firstly, they could be discussed as evidence of a change in the status of journalists who until relatively recently were not targeted by terrorists. Secondly, the murders could be located within a history of beheading particularly within Islamist tradition. Thirdly, they could be viewed as part of the “genre” of statement or confession before violent death. A fourth approach, however, would be to see the murders as old-style terrorism, i.e. violence as communication, and much like the modus operandi of the likes of the IRA (killings to suit the news cycle and supported by professional media relations), the Unabomber and the Oklahoma bombers (killing to get media coverage of a message), and indeed the perpetrators of 9/11, the most spectacular and expressive murder-for-media.

It’s worth noting that the difference between the 2002 and 2014 murders by beheading is due primarily to changes in technology. When Daniel Pearl was murdered, the web was young and the murderers were reliant on older technology to distribute their horror video, and on journalists and editors (gatekeepers) to publicise it. Technical advance has made coverage of the murders of James Foley, Steven Sotloff and David Haines different, and not just in terms of superior sound and vision. The net has liberated his murderers from traditional mass media gatekeepers; now the audience can access the horror message directly and it can be stored, copied and multiplied with ease.***

There remains, however, a fundamental similarity between the killings and it is this that categorises them along with the older 20th century terrorism or rhetorical violence. The grisly, scripted, stage-managed murder – from introduction through slaughter to aftermath – guarantees attention. The complex message or messages can then reach the desired huge audience and the smaller support or potential recruit audiences. Job done but in the welter of communication something radical is being said of the victim.

The victim is central to the production but has a peculiar unchanging value. Living, dying and dead the victim is never a person but rather a component part of the medium, as necessary and disposable as USB memory sticks, magnetic tape or paper. This is worse than slaughter; it is beyond the reduction of a living creature to meat. At no stage is the victim other than material used to make a point. The point remains after the body parts are cleared, after the media equipment moves on, and as the managers of the killers consider their next production.

Beheading is particularly gruesome, medieval and exotic. The killers and their media managers know this; that’s why it was used. It would be a mistake however to consider them more depraved than those who bomb. The victims’ deaths serve no strategic purpose; neither can they be described as an unfortunate consequence of hitting a target that might be considered important. Whether by blade or bomb the calculated reduction of people to the level of disposable newsprint is depravity beyond war criminality.

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* To make study possible a great deal of effort goes into defining terrorism. This is because it is a contested term. It has been reduced first to a term of abuse (“If you call me a terrorist, I’ll call you a terrorist.”) and then to a synonym for bad (“We need to say who are the real terrorists.”).

** http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2014/08/20/from-daniel-pearl-to-james-foley-the-modern-tactic-of-islamist-beheadings/

*** There’s been some thoughtful work done on the theatrical killing of Daniel Pearl, which could now be reviewed in the light of the murder of James Foley. Davin Allen Grindstaff & Kevin Michael DeLuca, The corpus of Daniel Pearl, Critical Studies in Media Communication Volume 21, Issue 4, 2004, pages 305-324. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0739318042000245345

A sensible and democratic approach is to treat Islamic dress as public argument. It can then be defended as free speech which invites counter argument, and it can be banned in schools to shelter children until they mature as citizens.

It is very hard to find a plausible argument as to why an adult cannot dress any way they like. Comparisons with motor cycle helmets, balaclavas and hoodies make no sense. Yes, it’s true that if you search, you’ll find that a male criminal evaded the police by dressing as a woman but that’s a world away from claiming that these masks make the control of criminality more difficult.

When journalists have bothered to ask women why they dress in this way, four reasons seem to emerge. Firstly, they are forced to do so. Secondly, they just like it. Thirdly, they believe it to be a command from God or that it pleases God. Fourthly, they are expressing a belief about the nature of people – especially men – which is determined by gender.

If a woman can be forced to dress against her will, it is likely that she is oppressed and unfree in many unpleasant ways but there is no way of knowing by dress alone what is going on.

If a woman simply prefers to dress in this way, nothing can or should be done. She’ll have to expect ordinary respect; the same as that due to any style minority, say, Goths.

However, if she is saying that God wants women covered up either because of divine petulance or because God shares the sexist views of some of Her followers, then the dress is an argument. The term “sexist” is used to refer to a belief that one’s character, behaviour etc. are determined by gender.

Now, at the extreme this is akin to wearing a sandwich board or carrying a placard saying that all men are rapists or the familiar, all men are bastards. At its mildest it is saying that men are driven exclusively or primarily by sexual desire prompted by the sight of a woman’s body, face or hair and that a woman is responsible for controlling this lust by covering up.

The question now arises as to whether the clothes, sandwich board or placard should be permitted? Of course, they should. It is a matter of free speech. However, fellow citizens who disagree are duty bound to engage them in argument. Leaving public order issues to one side, this suggests that anyone dressing in this way in public should expect to be confronted by argument in public in the same way as if they had mounted a soapbox and presented a speech or carried a controversial placard.

Very few people argue for unqualified freedom of expression and most people become conservative when it comes to children. Adults can and must make informed judgements based on argument and information. Children develop and need to be protected from noxious doctrines until they are mature enough to examine them, hear counter arguments and make decisions. If sexism (and, its consequent inequality) is considered a noxious doctrine, its expression in dress should not be allowed in a school.

 http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/weekend/2010/0807/1224276368541.html

http://www.nwci.ie/publications/fulllist/making-our-voices-heard/