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Jeremy Corbyn is making a silly, unforced error in the way he looks to the wider context of the attack in Manchester, and it is the same error that saw him used by the IRA and SF.* There are two motivations for looking at context and JC simply must make it clear that his is one and that the other is reprehensible.

What happens before an outrage like that perpetrated in Manchester is that someone selects the target and then their associates participate to a greater or lesser extent. That is to say, there is deliberation leading to intention to cause civilian casualties. A military or industrial target could be selected but isn’t; the decision is to kill civilians. In short, there is a wilful choice to commit a crime against humanity. Because this is a matter of immediate target selection it cannot be justified, lessened or even explained by reference to context, circumstances or a wider struggle.

Now, there are thinking people who want to explore the wider context in which the act is situated and they most certainly should not be criticised – never mind condemned – for doing so. However, if they want to avoid the crude ridicule of feral bigots, they must be aware of the trap set for them.

You see, decent, thinking people are not the only ones looking at context. There are others looking and not in a thoughtful way but in a calculating way. The intention of these others is not to understand. Rather, they want to use context to deflect attention and responsibility away from the deliberate commission of mass murders. They want to so muddy the water that there is no difference between an attack on armed soldiers and bombing a concert hall, pub, restaurant or public place. Their objective is selective approval of some crimes against humanity. They know full well that they cannot hope for the support of anyone who holds that there is a categorical difference between a soldier/combatant and a war criminal.

A war crime cannot be explained away by reference to the cause of the war. Jeremy Corbyn can of course make this clear but his condemnation of an act or acts goes nowhere near making it clear. Neither is it enough for him to argue that for the sake of peace one must talk to one’s enemies because this implies negotiating with an honourable foe rather than the sort of person who would bomb a pub or would support such foulness. Of course one must talk and try to achieve an end to killing but Jeremy Corbyn like any decent person also has to reject explicitly the perverse doctrine that in conflict anything goes and that all civilian casualties are equally regrettable. There is an enormous difference between condemnation or saying that civilian casualties are regrettable and saying clearly that the targeting of civilians is always a war crime/crime against humanity.

In brief, it’s like this for Jeremy and indeed for everyone else: whether you are talking to them, trying to understand them or discussing their place in history, you must stand resolutely opposed; you must always be unambiguously on the side of rudimentary civilisation against ALL those who would ever consider that targeting civilians is other than the most shameful barbarism.

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* http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/staggers/2017/05/jeremy-corbyn-speech-terrorism-and-foreign-policy-full-text

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)

When those men went into a Paris workplace and gunned down the staff, they committed a crime against humanity. Yes, in that they reduced human beings to mere messages, they were terrorists but it was also a crime against humanity – an act so vile that no talk of war, blasphemy, recent or ancient wrongs can be allowed into consideration.

Too much of the subsequent discussion focussed on freedom of expression, its defence and its limits in a democracy. Part of the discussion revealed some sympathy if not for the gunmen themselves, then for their perspective. This part was anxious to talk about the level of abuse a well-off elite might be permitted to direct at a minority or to what extent religion might be permitted to put topics beyond public discourse or ridicule. With all this in full spate there was little explicit mention of the chasm between expression and blood soaked flooring but at an intuitive level that seems to have been grasped and made clear in the willingness of people who would never utter an offensive word, to express themselves, “Je suis Charlie!”

In other words, faced with a crime against humanity, decent people were prepared to side with vulgarity, insult and profanity. It may not be discussed very often but the majority of people know that there are transgressions so heinous as to offend humanity, so heinous as to exclude nationality, race, religion, conflict and even war from consideration.

Robert Fisk wrote that he knew from the outset that Algeria would figure in this atrocity.* However, he called it for what it was, a crime against humanity, a crime beyond justification but linked to the Franco Algerian War of the 50s and 60s and the Algerian civil war of the 80s. While he emphasises the struggle with imperialism, he reminds the reader that those years were marked by crimes against humanity including the French bombardment of villages. Many of the perpetrators and their associates are likely still living and not on anyone’s wanted list.

There’s been a considerable amount of “whataboutery” too from those either supportive of the murderers in France or anxious to characterise media and people in the developed west as selective in their condemnation. While this is a familiar tactic of those anxious to spread the blame, make light of the offence by pointing to something worse or undermine the hunt for perpetrators and their accomplices, it does highlight something that needs to be addressed.

Many crimes against humanity are not covered by world media. That does not mean, however, that humanity has no interest in pursuing the guilty. What it does is point to the need for an international institution to which a citizen of any country can bring for investigation a crime against humanity.

Far too often the victims of crimes against humanity are forced back into festering resentment in local identity or religion. This will be their only course unless humanity can intervene to make it clear that the crime was against every living, breathing person and that the perpetrators, their commanders and supporters will be hunted for the rest of their lives. They may be protected within their country or by a peace agreement but humanity – as represented by the wider world – wants them in the dock and when possible will have them arrested.

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* http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/charlie-hebdo-paris-attack-brothers-campaign-of-terror-can-be-traced-back-to-algeria-in-1954-9969184.html?origin=internalSearch

There is a courtroom scene in the movie, The Wind That Shakes the Barley. It shows an IRA court operating during the war of independence. It’s probably accurate. That’s how they did things. The sentences ranged from rough to death.

The IRA justice system operates by excluding existing state personnel from an area or a “community” as it’s more usually called these days and making the citizens who reside there dependent for their security on SF/IRA volunteers/staff.

This is what Gerry Adams was talking about when commenting on the scandalous IRA treatment of rape victim, Mairia Cahill. He said that during the “troubles” the IRA was the police force in many nationalist communities in Northern Ireland. He is referring to their success in excluding the police (RUC) and setting up a rival to the state’s system of justice.

Leaving the question of legitimacy aside, there are problems of course with this kind of justice. Obviously, without the state law, institutions, personnel and expertise which are built up over centuries, the penalties imposed are bound to be quick, cheap and often brutal. However, victims and others seeking justice would also fall foul of the shambolic system. Both problems are well illustrated in recent SF statements.

Firstly, Gerry Adams is revealing in attempting to find virtue in brutality. “In an article published on his blog, Mr Adams outlined how republicans dealt with allegations of child abuse, saying that the IRA on occasion shot alleged sex offenders or expelled them.” – http://www.rte.ie/news/2014/1020/653455-mairia-cahill/

Now, it’s remotely possible that Gerry Adams is being clever in cynically using this scandal to cement the support of right wing voters who would favour corporal and capital punishment. It is almost certain, however, that he is being genuine. That is to say, he really does think that shooting offenders is evidence of a serious concern over sex abuse.

Secondly, SF explicitly uses the incompetence of the IRA investigators/judges to explain the dreadful treatment of sex abuse victims. Dessie Ellis, the Sinn Fein TD, says that while the IRA carried out criminal investigations, “To be honest they were not qualified to deal with something like sexual abuse.” – http://www.herald.ie/news/sinn-fein-td-ira-held-internal-probes-into-serious-crimes-30673144.html

Apart from the similarity here to the Catholic Church’s response to sex abuse, and the sordid implication that they feel they were competent when sentencing citizens to beating, maiming or execution, they seem to be at least aware that their justice system had its limitations.

It is also likely or at least plausible that their system never had as its objective the delivery of justice but that like terrorism its purpose was to convey a message to the state that its writ did not run in certain areas and to the people that there was a new authority.

Incidentally, some anti-water meter activists have learned from the IRA’s alternative-state approach. They want to alienate citizens from their police force (An Garda), portray the “community” as in conflict with the state, and insinuate “activists” as the voice of and leaders of the community. – https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2014/10/14/citizens-need-to-talk-about-a-contentious-suggestion-which-is-reported-regularly-by-an-uncritical-media/

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