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Tag Archives: victim

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

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Very many criminals and other wrongdoers are victims. Many have had a dreadful childhood or have committed crimes while in fear of someone. It is right to be sympathetic but it is wrong to excuse them completely. We have developed ways of dealing with different levels of responsibility; lesser charges can be laid or lenient – perhaps suspended – sentences can be applied. It is, however, wrong to ignore completely crimes committed under duress or being an accessory to crime while under duress. This is because duress is variable and requires judgement. It is expected that a person with integrity will stand up to duress and do the right thing but it is also accepted that duress may be so extreme that no one could be expected to resist. Each case calls for judgement.

The case of a mother who was silent or who facilitated the rape of her child must be examined and judged.

The following appeared in the Irish Times in relation to the conviction of Fiona Doyle’s father for rape. “The problem most people have when stories like Fiona’s come out is that everyone wants to know about the mother – why she didn’t intervene – and it takes the focus off the father and the abuser,” says Paula. “But, in most cases, the mothers are as much the victims.” (i)

Certainly nothing should happen to divert attention from or dilute the guilt of the rapist but to say that “in most cases” the mothers of child victims of rape are “as much the victims” diverts attention from the seriousness of rape and undermines the child’s particular and terrible grievance.

Another Irish Times piece on the same page argues that it would be very wrong to blame the mothers in such situations. (ii) That might appear progressive and decent at first sight but it suggests that all are blameless.

It is worthwhile to consider a further wrong committed against Fiona Doyle in which duress might be the defence.

The following is from another piece in The Irish Times. “Rape survivor Fiona Doyle has said no alarm bells rang when as a child she was treated for a sexually transmitted infection. ‘I was brought to the doctor . . . and the doctor told my mother I had warts and they were that bad that I had to go to hospital to have them lasered off. But I didn’t know until I was in my late twenties that I had an STI,’ she told last night’s Late Late Show.” (iii)

The doctor and those at the hospital who remained silent having treated a child for an illness that was sexually transmitted, bear some responsibility for subsequent rape attacks on the child. The duress which motivated their silence would be of a different type and a much, much smaller degree than that faced by the mother but the medical staff, like the mother, have questions to answer.

The point is this: The time to have sympathy for those who under duress participated in or facilitated a crime is after their behaviour has been examined and the extent of the duress established.
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i. This is Rosita Boland quoting Paula Kavanagh, another victim of a father’s sexual abuse. http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/weekend/2013/0126/1224329285532.html
ii. The piece is by Kitty Holland and it appears on-line at the same URL and follows on from Rosita Boland’s article.
iii. http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/ireland/2013/0126/1224329304072.html

Here is an article by Eileen O’Brien in The Irish Times of May 22nd 2012. http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/features/2012/0522/1224316501691.html

She is a teacher troubled by her past, “To every child I struck when I was teacher … sorry.” She invites victims to contact her so that she might offer individual apologies and “to open some sort of dialogue on the subject.” The intention here is not to make little of her public contrition. What she has done is brave and sadly unprecedented. There is, however, a problem with what she says.

The article could be naively accepted as a decent woman apologising for her participation in brutal behaviour which was permitted by the state. She is claiming not only that she regrets what she did but that what she did was permitted. The truth is that in this article she admits violating the rules governing her performance as a teacher and she should face sanction.

Firstly, she refers to her activities in the 70s and 80s. It needs to be established just how far into the 80s she went because corporal punishment has been prohibited in schools since 1982. Interestingly, teachers’ immunity from criminal prosecution was not removed until the passing  of the Offences Against the Person (Non-Fatal) Act in 1997, article 24 of which states: “The rule of law under which teachers are immune from criminal liability in respect of physical chastisement of pupils is hereby abolished.”

Secondly and on this there is certainty, she explicitly admits to breaching Department of Education rules. She describes keeping her stick available as a threat and for use on children. This despite a clear Department rule: “No teacher should carry about a cane or other instrument of punishment.” (The other rules re corporal punishment can be found here: https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2012/04/21/rewarding-guilty-teachers/)

It is usual for teachers who beat children to offer in their defence that it was common and approved at the time. It was certainly common but equally certainly it was highly regulated and those regulations were violated. It would be preposterous to accept by way of explanation that teachers weren’t aware of the rules; anyone in any job has an obligation to be aware of the regulations governing their post.

It is unacceptable that any public servant who flouted state rules should remain in employment or remain in receipt of any pension attaching to their job.