Is the media becoming terror’s unwitting associate?

By Nick Connor

Thursday 20th April saw a story hit the press whose course has unfortunately become all too familiar. A lone gunman, with a history of ISIS connections, took to the streets of Paris and opened fire upon a police van, killing an officer and injuring multiple others. The national response was rapid and severe. Multiple French politicians cancelled their campaigning plans, and the centre of Paris entered a state of lockdown. An early statement of Francois Hollande following the attack was, typically of such incidents, a declaration that the violence likely was terror-related. In the eyes of the media, Europe was on the defensive once again.

The frequency of such incidents renders the murder of innocent people in otherwise peaceful city streets no less of a tragedy. As with all recent attacks, the victims remain close to our hearts and future vigilance and precaution are wholly justified in the prevention of further violence. It is clear that this attack will not be the last. Nevertheless, it has become increasingly evident over the course of recent incidents that there remains a fundamental problem with the way in which we react to terrorism. Following each incident can be seen a media response greater and more frenetic than the last.

What must be remembered is that terrorism is not an invisible enemy, but a strategy. It is an attempt to provoke a response, and terrorism would not be terrorism at all were it not accompanied by the panicked response we see from the media every time such an attack occurs. Like a child prodding an animal in a cage, every act of violence drives the media into a frenzy that simply rewards the attacker and encourages more such acts. The narrative following an attack is all-too-often repeated; statesmen and women seek to label attacks as ‘acts of terrorism’ as soon as possible. The face of the attacker is bandied about news commentaries for days following the attack, every minute detail of their past and character brought under public scrutiny.

To a political cynic, it would be clear why the media would be so keen to call out terrorist attacks as such; right wing, anti-immigration press thrives upon the often-unjust, bad publicity such attacks give to migrants. Similarly, exaggerating the importance of such events in the grand scheme of European politics plays into the hands of groups such as Marine Le Pen’s National Front. The French politician began calling for French borders to be reinstated within hours of the attack. Terrorism is, of course, a similarly powerful political weapon for those on its receiving end.

The London attack was handled impeccably by security forces. The calmness and maturity with which the Met Police and their associates sought to deal with the incident and its aftermath; avoiding naming the attacker for some time following the attack and attempting to put down wild speculation, demonstrated how such an incident should be handled. The Met sought to celebrate the bravery of their fallen comrade and do justice to his memory rather than preach the name and backstory of the attacker. This is how it should be.

If we are to prevent such attacks, and end this cruel bloodshed, it is vital that we change the way we respond to terrorism. The first response to violent attacks should never be to hurriedly label them as acts of terror. While it is these attacks that set out the premise that the general public is facing a great and imminent danger, it is the media that turns such a suggestion into popular opinion. Telling people as such that they ought to be frightened is a frankly appalling attitude to take. I would even go so far as to question whether the attacker in such incidents and their allegiances should be named at all. The gusto with which Islamic State claims responsibility for each terror attack and welcomes the attacker as one of their own, regardless of any actual connections, shows how such a response to attacks simply panders to terror groups. Giving the attacker, and his misdeeds, such enormous media time is the greatest form of free publicity Islamic State could ask for.

Future attacks, motivated by political ideology and religious extremism, need to be treated more as crimes than as terror. They should certainly not be underplayed – to dismiss the appalling nature of recent events would be shameful cowardice and would do great injustice to the victims of such acts. However, the way in which the media and political figures exaggerate the nature of terror attacks and grant vast publicity to the attackers panders to those groups which seek to use fear as a weapon. We must recognise that the way we have been reacting to terrorism is what makes it such an effective method in the first place.

If we stop calling terrorism ‘terrorism’, it simply becomes murder. Only when we stop describing such attack as terror can we say, with confidence, that we are not afraid.

Photograph by Marine Le Pen via Flickr and Creative Commons

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