How Governments and the Media Help Terrorism Be More Effective
Posted on August 2, 2016
By grandstanding and keeping terrorism constantly in the news, governments and the media become and integral part of the terrorist’s armamentarium.
This article first appeared in the Huffington Post
Terrorism works through creating fear and the impression of ever present danger. By creating spectacles of destruction, terrorists provide the media with opportunities to fill pages and pages with graphic detail and endless analysis of terrorist activities. Terrorism becomes the daily news feed creating the impression that danger is ubiquitous and affects the lives of every citizen. In doing so, the media become an integral part of the terrorist’s armamentarium. Panic and insecurity spread through society.
But the reality is different. Horrible and barbaric though terrorist acts are, the danger they pose to the general public is relatively small. For the average Western citizen, the statistical chance of falling victim to terrorist activity is lower than the risks associated with driving a car, crossing a busy road or any number of daily activities in which we happily engage. Yet it is perceptions not actual risk that matter and perceptions are stoked by the media frenzy.
Governments too play their part. They grandstand with talk of a war on terror and with vows of stamping out terrorism – something that they know full well to be impossible. They use the threat of terrorism to take more powers for themselves. Terror is used as the shield to give the state more powers of surveillance, greater powers of detention and so forth. The message sent to the public is that the scale of the danger is such that it justifies eroding some of the fundamental principles that underpin our democratic societies. And no leader wants to be painted as being ‘soft on terror’ or of letting some major catastrophe happen on his or her watch without being seen to have done everything possible to prevent it. It is an unusually brave and honest politician who can resist these pressures and provide a measured reaction, as Germany’s Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziére recently did in an interview with Der Spiegel: “That there are such excesses of violence is, unfortunately, a fact of life. We do everything we can to prevent something like that, but to a certain extent, a society must endure it — as bitter a pill as that may be to swallow.“ He made clear that no constitutional democratic state can ever be in a position to stop all crime.
And there is a further, very real and very visible downside to the posturing of our elected leaders. It drives the success of extremist politicians. Why? Because once the fear has been spread it starts to drive voting patterns. And mainstream politicians can never hope to compete with the extremists in the steps they profess themselves willing to take to combat the terrorist threat. Terrorism and the media’s and government’s own role in increasing the fear that it causes are to extremist politicians what the latest attempted Turkish coup was to President Erdogan – in his own words “A gift from God.” The media, governments and their security agencies all become one big megaphone that amplifies the terrorists’ activities and thereby makes them more effective.
Is there a solution?
For Britain, terrorism is not a novel experience. The British public had to endure IRA terrorist acts for decades. But the differences between the public mood then and now is striking. Then, the prevailing public emotion was that the terrorists would not be allowed to win by forcing us to change our way of life. Government got on with its business of intelligence gathering, containment and, where possible, prevention. But they did so modestly and quietly, with as little disruption to people’s lives as possible. There was little if any grandstanding and empty rhetoric. The official position encouraged the public mood – they will not win and we will carry on with our lives and be faithful to our values. It was more reminiscent of the spirit of the blitz than of the widespread fear – and fearmongering – we see today. We saw a brief revival of that spirit following the Bataclan tragedy in Paris but it hasn’t lasted. Continued terrorist acts have undermined it and will continue to do so. And the terrorists understand this dynamic perfectly. The more effective the amplification of their barbaric acts, the more they will successfully undermine the liberal democratic model that they despise. And their determination to do just that is strong, resilient and long lasting.