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Tag Archives: jihadi

All too often journalists support the view that ISIS killers come from a dark, incomprehensible savagery and that they are utterly unlike the ordinary decent terrorists we used to know in the 20th century. After the 2017 murder of the children at the Manchester concert there was a harking back to the IRA bomb in 1996 which had fewer casualties but did more infrastructural damage.

Possibly the most egregious expression of this vile nonsense came from Stuart Maconie, writing in New Statesman.* He sees “no credible comparison” between the jihadi attack of 2017 and the IRA attack of 21 years earlier. Whereas the intentional selection of civilians as targets is an unambiguous war crime/crime against humanity, he clearly does not agree or he regards such crimes as sometimes understandable.

Certainly the likes of the IRA killed differently to ISIS but the argument that one is better or more acceptable than the other rests on two propositions that are utterly unacceptable. One refers to the respective methods of killing; the other to justification.

Firstly, it is argued by Maconie in common with many others that giving warning of a bombing and expressing regret afterwards is a preferable course of action. The proposition is that, having planted a bomb in a public place, giving the potential victims a sporting chance of escape and then expressing regret over the casualties, somehow makes those responsible a better class of perpetrator.

Secondly, there is the proposition that the opprobrium attaching to the selection of a civilian target should be proportional to how reasonable a cause the attackers espouse. Now, this is a thoroughly disreputable and selective form of outrage; it seeks the acceptance of war crimes in pursuit of a favoured end. Maconie is quite explicit. He argues that, while the IRA did not have the support of Manchester’s large Catholic and Irish population, their attack was not so bad because that population would have been familiar with the claims of Irish nationalism. He puts it thus:

These families and pubs and streets may not have sympathised with the IRA but their aims and their struggle would have been a familiar thread of family life and local culture. Those aims did not seem unreasonable to many: a united homeland, free of an occupying military colonial presence.

The ISIS attack on civilians, he reckons, was worse not because of the numbers or ages of the victims but because no “sane” person understands them:

By contrast, it is hard for anyone sane to comprehend what Isis or its deranged “lone wolf” sympathisers can possibly want beyond their own martyrdom and an end to what we think of as civilisation. It is a new dark age.

Certainly the ISIS mindset is dark, foreign and medieval. They don’t ever express regret and their bizarre methods of torture and killing in the Middle East alienate and frighten Western citizens. However, when it comes to bombings and shootings directed at civilians, they are precisely the same as the IRA.

All combatants select targets. They choose military, infrastructural or civilian targets. Civilians often die when a military or infrastructural target is attacked. They become in that awful phrase collateral damage. However, when civilians are targeted, an unmbiguous war crime is committed. When a public place is targeted, a perverse argument can be offered, pretending that it was a commercial target, that civilian casualties represent collateral damage and are regretted – and in any event a warning was given so that they had a sporting chance of escape. That’s complete bollocks. A developed country is rich in commercial, infrastructural targets often miles from human habitation. Targeting a public place is a carefully considered decision and it is a war crime.

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* New Statesman, 26 May – 1 June 2017, pgs. 26-27

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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)