This article was originally published on the News Hub and can be found here.
March, 2012. Mohammed Merah, the man responsible for a string of terror attacks in Toulouse which killed seven people, sits alone at a computer. He compiles images of his killings into a 20 minute video, copies of which he sends to media outlets including Al Jazeera. His final act, a desperate plea for attention.
Engulfed in what has been described as an epidemic of terrorism, Europe re-lives this story again and again. The murder of a priest in Normandy, filmed by terrorists preaching over his body. The Bataclan attackers forcing their hostages to call TV stations to relay the explicit horror of the scene. And the attacks on a Jewish supermarket in Paris, during which the perpetrators took a pause from killing to recount their motivations to journalists. Each a repeat of the previous; violent narcissists engaging in a twisted PR campaign, demanding attention via the brutality of their self-proclaimed martyrdom.
Our instinctive response is to indulge this sick exhibitionism. First, curiosity. Followed by horror, an immediate fear for our own safety and then, grief. Unthinkingly, we gift terrorists the reaction their strategy depends on. Terrorism; to inflict fear through violence, in order to seek a political, religious or ideological goal.
While we are vigilant towards the latter part of this aim – anyone suggesting a political motivation behind an attack risks being labelled a“terrorist sympathiser” – rarely do we consider our role in the other key objective of a terrorist, to instil fear into our everyday lives. Rather than resist, we embrace the terror of these events.
Media reconstructions detail the precise movements of terrorist attackers, describing with crystal accuracy how victims were cornered, hostaged and threatened. Daring stories of victims hiding in freezers, under boxes or in toilets feed a narrative not dissimilar to a horror film, while the last words of victims – immortalised in text messages – are made available for our viewing pleasure. Underlying it all is the thought that makes terrorism so successful – this could have been anyone.
Our eager engagement hands terrorists a final, posthumous victory, vindicating the lengths they go to in making their murders as gruesome, horrifying and shocking as possible. We begin to think twice about entering crowds or catching public transport. In an interview with the Guardian, one youngster offered a response typical of a generation which has a grown up amid a media narrative of a continent under attack. “I will certainly be wary of people with rucksacks for some time to come” he commented. “Nowhere does one feel safe anymore” reported another, “getting on the train triggers an uneasy feeling”.
Faced with relentless coverage of terror attacks, the best we can hope for is a cautious hesitancy about engaging in public life. But at its ugliest, our response can ignite a latent racism and xenophobia. Even among the most liberal-minded this remains a problem. “I’m a bit scared, I’m ashamed to say, as to what my reaction might be if someone approaches me who does not look obviously German” admitted one 23-year old in the wake of Europe’s recent attacks. This is the ingenuity of terrorism. It can inspire racial profiling and an irrational resentment towards communities in a way which only a visceral response to tragedy can. With no hope of winning support in measured debate, it is fear and violence which a terrorist relies on to achieve their goals.
No accident then, that following the terrorist events in Germany were calls on Angela Merkel to alter the country’s migration policy. Modern terrorist groups loathe the multiculturalism Western Europe enjoys, their attacks a recruitment strategy for Isis as much as anything else. Indeed, it is the extent to which these murderers have shaped our discourse, demanded our attention and instilled fear and division into our communities which marks the success of their attacks. And for this, we are all culpable.
The truth is that when a terrorist attack takes place, we all become agents in a cycle of terrorism. Powerless to alter death tolls, it is our intrigued response which escalates the terror we experience. Just as the decision by French media to stop printing the personal details of terrorists – which allegedly encouraged copycat attacks – recognised that journalists could taper the cycle of terrorism, so must we readers. But beyond filtering the name and photographs of perpetrators, we should ignore their spectacles themselves.
It may seem callous to ignore the barbarism of terrorism, but we should not pretend that our captivation with these events comes only from sympathy. Far more innocent civilians die each year from road traffic accidents, heart disease or health inequality – all of which are easier to avert by policy interventions than sporadic, lone-wolf terror attacks. Rather than an emotional response to tragic loss of life, it is the brutality, the spectacle and the disruption to normality which fixates our attention to terrorism.
Nor does our obsession stem from a respect for the victims’ families. The ritualistic mourning process we engage in after each attack – in which we offer hashtags or status updates to “remember” all of the victims we never met – is a relic of a religious tradition in which we’d pray for a soul’s passage to the afterlife. Yet our modern-day secular equivalent does nothing other than indulge in meaningless public displays of how much we care, and how sorry we are. No family takes comfort from their relative becoming a celebrity in death – especially when it is not their life which the media celebrates, but images of their bloodied corpse strewn across promenades or concert venues.
Worse still, our “thoughts and prayers” – whether shared on newspaper front-pages or social media profiles – offer an omnipresent platform which terrorists could once have only dreamed of. With social media now a routine part of daily life, profile picture filters and status updates provide a constant reminder of the danger we are all seemingly faced with, cementing our collective victimhood and vulnerability.
To defeat terrorism, we must develop a resilience to a media industry which profits from the fear that terrorists ignite. Governments, keen to gain ever more powers of surveillance, likewise do little to foster a sensible approach to terrorism. You wouldn’t know it from their rhetoric, but the number of deaths from terrorist attacks in Western Europe today are a fraction of what they were in the 1970s and 80s.
So why engage? Why watch TV bulletins detailing terror atrocities or read articles speculating how a terrorist planned their attack? Why share news stories from Mi5 which do terrorists’ work for them, by repeatedly reinforcing the “threat level” we should be fearing? To avoid this coverage is not to live in blissful ignorance – it is to apportion terrorism the level of attention it deserves. As long as we obsess over the grotesque attention-seeking of these events, we remain an agent in a cycle of terror. We indulge the narcissists.
What separates terrorism and massacre is that terrorism is an attack on the mind. It may be true that we are powerless to prevent the recent violence which the European community has become subject to, but we don’t have to fall victim to the terror it creates.