Sunday, July 10, 2005

Terrorism as Communication

Originally posted July 6, 2005
I don't know if this is a banal observation, but if it is, I certainly haven't heard it trumpeted very loudly in the MSM: Terrorism seems to operate more often as a form of communication, i.e. as an instrument of indirect influence, than as a force for direct change. The secondary effects of 9/11, for example, far overshadowed the 3,000 deaths of that day, tragic as they were. These effects included longer wait times at the airport, the color-coded terror alert system, the invasion of Afghanistan, and a long-overdue reorganization of the US intelligence services. But perhaps more significant than the political consequences were the changes wrought in the minds of the American populace. I'm talking about the vague sense that "the world has changed" for the worse, the mistrust and prejudice against people from the Middle East, and most importantly the climate of fear that fostered far and wide the opinion that terrorism is the most important issue facing America today.

Al-Qaeda undoubtedly anticipated many of these secondary consequences. I believe they chose to attack the WTC not because their ultimate aim was to maximize death and destruction, but because doing so was the best way to strike fear into the hearts of all Americans. But they couldn't accomplish that goal by themselves: they needed help from the media, which thrives on suffering and spectacle. And the media did its duty, reporting on every angle of the 9/11 story and permanently burning the image of the second plane colliding with the south tower into the collective American consciousness. They could hardly have done anything less; after all, 9/11 was probably the single most significant news story since the fall of the Berlin wall. But in depicting only the raw story of the 9/11 attacks with scarcely any context or interpretation, the MSM may have done the American people a grave disservice.

The goal of a commercial enterprise is to make money, and the goal of a democractic citizenry is to make the best decisions possible based on available information. When it comes to the media's coverage of terrorism, these two ends may be irreconcilable. The media rightly contend that they give the people what they want: the straight story, told in bloody, first-person detail; in short, what the people want is to be shocked, frightened, appalled. Media outlets are as beholden to the laws of the market as any other free enterprise, so their capitulation to their customers' wishes isn't surprising. But the lurid spotlight aimed at politically motivated violence is too bright; it creates a disproportionate impression upon the average citizen's mind. Taken together, the barrage of reports on terrorist activities generates the illusion that such activities are far more dangerous than they actually are. Without the benefit of contextual information about the history and likelihood of terrorist attacks, the motivations of terrorists, or other nations' experiences with terrorism, fear builds up to a fever pitch among the electorate. And when people are frightened, their ability to make rational decisions suffers significantly.

So it would seem, then, that under these circumstances the imperatives of democracy and free enterprise stand at cross purposes. I don't think this insight is trivial; we Americans like to believe that our values go together like peaches and cream. It's often been observed that the free market is strong while democracy is fragile, so I'm not surprised to see the former mop the floor with the latter. But if the media doesn't start shelling out a few bitter pills soon, we just might run our nation right over a cliff in our frenzied flight from swarthy, bearded, artificially inflated boogeymen.