Media complicity in Mumbai terror

BY Sunil Adam| IN Media Practice | 07/12/2008
The visual media and terrorism have a mutually reinforcing relationship, which needs to be broken to the detriment of the latter,


The terror strategists who orchestrated the diabolical attacks in Mumbai have apparently decided that global audiences have become inured to images of suicide missions triggering spectacular explosions and mass killings.


Their altered tactic -- to stage a protracted carnage at high-value venues that guarantee greater number of victims and help create a psychological state of siege disproportionate to the actual scale of the violence -- has paid off handsomely.


By injecting a "human" element into the violence – allowing victims to have "face-time" with the perpetrators, and, vicariously, with millions of television viewers, the strategists have managed to amplify the coldblooded nature of their mission. In contrast, as Brian Jenkins of the Rand Corporation said recently citing intelligence reports, the Jihadist terrorists have come to regard the remote triggering of IEDs and suicide bombings as too impersonal and not "manly" enough.


But what ensured the stupendous success of the Mumbai terrorists was the saturated coverage by international television networks, fueled by a weak news cycle over the Thanksgiving weekend in America. It was "propaganda by deed" at its best, considering that the actual organization behind the attacks didn’t bother to claim credit or make demands or issue a communiqué.


The success of this strategy is likely to motivate terrorists to stage similar attacks, possibly in Europe, if not in the United States. It will not be farfetched to imagine suicide attackers targeting, say, different venues of the Cannes Film Festival, killing dozens of international celebrities and stars -- a feat that would assure them unprecedented media attention.


Curiously, while media coverage has always been central to terrorists’ strategy, it has never been factored into counterterrorism policies of targeted governments. Unlike conventional violence, which involves a perpetrator and a victim, terrorism is a triadic tactic involving a perpetrator, a victim and an audience. In other words, a terrorist needs targets as well as objects of violence. The former has no value without the latter.


For instance, without underestimating the trauma caused by the terrorist attacks on 9/11, it is plausible to assume that the impact would have been very different had the TV networks not endlessly broadcast the images of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers. Because there were no images of the downing of United Flight 93 in Pennsylvania and no dramatic footage of the plane crashing into the Pentagon building, they are not etched in popular memory the same way as the attacks and collapse of the Twin Towers are.


It is pertinent here to note that the media coverage of terrorism also has a bearing on the response of the governments. In his seminal work, "Mini Manual of the Urban Guerrilla," Brazilian terrorist and thinker Carlos Marighella says the whole idea of staging spectacular attacks is to make the target government "overreact."


The greater the media coverage, the greater the pressure on the government to demonstrate that it is in control, which invariably results in excessive measures that cause inconvenience to and harassment of ordinary citizens. Worse still, overreaction transforms a political situation into a military situation, as Marighella envisages.


That is precisely what the Indian government needs to resist as it contemplates its responses to the Mumbai terror outrage and that is what the Bush administration did not factor in when it declared "war" against the perpetrators of 9/11 attacks. If anything, President Bush compounded the situation by waging a war against Iraq in the mistaken assumption that a demonstration of overwhelming military power against a renegade state will send a message to the nonstate actors.


Counterterrorism’s conceptual lacuna of not factoring in media coverage becomes all the more glaring when we take into consideration that there are no foolproof ways to prevent each and every act of terrorism, let alone suicide attacks that are virtually indefensible.


No amount of intelligence gathering and monitoring of "chatter" or erecting security barriers to secure vulnerable targets can stop every planned attack. Not if all target-rich democracies are potential theaters of terrorist operations. The only option is to neutralize the efficacy of terrorism as an instrument of propaganda.


Nearly 40 years ago, when the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) assembled 60 international television networks and blew up three hijacked, but empty, Boeing aircrafts at Dawson airfield in Amman, Jordan, it became obvious that without the media coverage of terrorism would be reduced to what it actually is: a low-intensity and indiscriminate violence perpetrated by a small number of non-state actors with limited resources and reach.


Yet, no effort has ever been made to curtail media coverage on the plea that it would be an affront to the freedom of the press and amount to an undemocratic measure of censorship.


But that wouldn’t be the case, if there is a voluntary effort by the media itself. After all, over the past two decades, and certainly since 9/11, citizens, institutions and businesses in every country that has been a target of terrorism have made sacrifices and accepted restrictions on their freedoms, in an effort to prevent terrorist attacks.


It is only the Fifth Estate that seems to be exempt from contributing to this global effort. If anything, the visual media, particularly the American television networks that broadcast globally, have profited from greater viewership, thanks to the coverage of terrorist activities that have gone up exponentially in recent years.


The visual media and terrorism have a mutually reinforcing relationship, which needs to be broken to the detriment of the latter.


As for the issue of press freedom, the news media, particularly in America, are not unfamiliar with either self-censorship in the interest of national security or entering into deals with the local, state and federal governments for specific purposes in the larger interest of the audience they serve.


Even if one should consider Islamic terrorism as a generational phenomenon that will dissipate when the conditions that breed it change for the better -- not unlike the radical terrorism of the 1960s and 1970s – terrorism as a weapon of political struggle will remain, in this media-driven global village, an attractive option for future subnational actors with new causes.


Liberal democracies cannot afford to let the freedom of the press continue to serve the forces that seek to undermine them. Perhaps, it is time for an international conference of leading media organizations to discuss and consider guidelines for an appropriate embargo on terrorism coverage.


Sunil Adam is the editor of The Indian American, a general-interest magazine published from New York. He has been a commentator on issues related to international terrorism for nearly two decades.


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