MINI-SERIES: TERRORISM IS WHAT WE MAKE IT
How me, you and Western media empowered ISIS
& Co. and fueled the Trumps of this world
PART III of III
Of Muslim Victims, White Terrorists and Faceless Strangers Perishing Unconsidered
how we overlook the real victims and perpetrators of terrorism
Disclaimer: This article is the third part of a mini-series titled “Terrorism Is What We Make It”, consisting of three pieces to be seen as a whole. The idea is to show how skewed our Western view on terrorism oftentimes is, what psychological and public phenomena are responsible, and how our emotional reaction deals right-wing populists into play. The way many of us use the term “terrorist attack” nowadays is in itself terribly flawed, which is further elaborated within this article. For the sake of argument I will use it for now, as it is commonly used: Jihadist terror killing Western civilians on Western soil. I want to touch on three misconceptions (dedicated one article each), and while I’m sure there are many more, these seem most crucial to me.
When I first got started on this mini-series, which was supposed to be only one article originally, I titled it “Just Another Day Without Terrorist Attacks”. But only within the obliviously narrow range of my blinders it was that. A first break from writing that day revealed the dark yonder beyond my Western horizon. I scoured the news and indeed it would take me awhile to come across the ISIL attack that did take place on the 21st of November 2016.
That’s because the scene was lackluster Kabul and the death of 30 people in the capital of a land as war-riddled as Afghanistan has long ceased to be of particular interest to Western media. A lot of publications didn’t cover it at all; some others banned it to a second or third (online) page behind local politics and sports. The best spot it had on BBC, where the onslaught was given enough limelight to co-star right next to Kanye West’s interrupted tour, after a reasonably small scrolling-effort. Interestingly, if you were to check for the attack now, news agencies from Reuters to Al Jazeera couldn’t tell you the exact number of fatalities. No one seems to count anymore in Afghanistan, not in the messy aftermath of an explosion, nor when the smoke has cleared. Can you imagine a terrorist attack in Europe or the US perishing into silence without anybody even knowing how many lives were claimed?
If we don’t question and choose our media-poison wisely, we’re prone to perceive a wholly skewed picture, only ever depicting Westerners as the victims of terrorist assailants, when this could hardly be farther from the truth. Such a biased understanding of the phenomenon leads in return to dire decision making processes; like electing the Trumps of this world, who tell us dark tales of arcane evils in the Levant targeting Western civilians.
But who is this malevolent enemy we’re after really, and who are its true victims?
First of all, let’s backtrack here for a moment to the definition of terrorism. According to the Oxford Dictionary it is this: “The unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.”
In its original sense the definition is much better suited for groups like the IRA or ETA, whose violence actually pursues political aims as opposed to Islamic terrorist organizations who have foremost a religious agenda. Noteworthy in this context is also that European terrorists are responsible for many more attacks in Europe than ISIS, Al-Qaeda and the likes together. Similarly did white terrorists of US origin (e.g. lone wolf gunmen, right-wing extremists and left-wing extremists) slay more US citizens since 9/11 than did attacks inspired by radical Islam. This is as important to understand as the notion that terrorism isn’t a new phenomenon, neither in the West nor elsewhere. As a matter of fact it dates back thousands of years and overarches religions and ethnicities.
Throughout the 20th century Europe certainly had its share of homegrown and international terrorism. But how quickly did we forget shot-down planes and hostage crises in the wake of sporadic jihadist attacks on this side of the millennium’s threshold. Like a historian’s nightmare only the most recent events stick with us, while emotion overwhelms the rationale of statistics and archives. Many of Europe’s citizens today give in to a fear-mongering that oftentimes portrays Islamic terror as one of the biggest challenges of our time (even though its threat is negligible as discussed in part I and II of this series). A look at the following statistic sheds some reality on our impaired vision:
Actually the years from 1970-1986 saw the deaths of almost twice as many terrorist victims as the years 2000-2016. The 70s and 80s constituted the apex of Western terrorism executed by groups like the IRA, but also Islamic terror organizations such as the Lebanese Hezbollah are not exactly new to the continent.
The widely circulating and awfully flawed definition of terrorism in the West today is the result of statistical misconceptions and our negligence of past events. And while we’re forgetting about the actual history of terrorism within our own countries, the global scale of events is an even more alien concept to us. The historical hotspots of terrorism around the world are very neatly demonstrated in this map (retrieved from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START)):
As you can see, terrorism in the 20th century was a particularly persistent issue in nations like Colombia, Peru, El Salvador, Sri Lanka and the Philippines – places no one really thinks of anymore in today’s definition of terrorism. As local conflicts that kept to themselves they didn’t concern us back then and even less so now. Still, it is crucial to get familiar with the many different faces of terrorism throughout history, if we don’t want to get led astray by wrong impressions solely based on the most contemporary developments.
The world saw a tremendous shift in terrorist activity after 9/11, as you can see in this table:
* Only in the top 25 prior to 9/11
**Not in the top 25 prior to 9/11.
After 9/11 Iraq became the number one victim of terrorism with a staggering 25 % of all the attacks worldwide. Yes, Iraq, which we merely think of as a terrorist stronghold, is actually by far the assailants’ main target. Countries like India, Afghanistan and Pakistan follow not too far off Iraq’s heals, while none of them even made the list before 9/11. Today Western countries are not even among the runner-ups anymore.
The facts speak an abundantly clear language: the predominant victims of groups like ISIL and Al-Qaeda aren’t Westerners. The craven predators strike the most ferociously in the countries they emerged from and Muslims are their victims above all. Iraqis, Afghanis and Syrians are the true sufferers or in the case of Boko Haram Nigerians. Just by the by – while all eyes were on ISIS, Boko Haram became the world’s deadliest terror organization in 2015, overtaking ISIS in numbers of casualties (6,664 vs 6,073) and also boasting a far higher ratio of civilian fatalities (77 % vs 44 %). But Boko Haram only sows havoc in Nigeria, Chad and Niger, so Western media keeps mostly quiet about it; unless an attack or hostage situation advances to newsworthiness due to a particularly perverted character.
Thus, while we often perceive this as a war between Islam and Christianity, it is truly a war of some lunatic extremists against everybody who’s opposed to their agenda, most of all the peaceful Muslim community. That Western countries have long had a share in the very rise of fundamentalist groups, by arming rebel forces and interfering with local conflicts (for better or worse) is a topic in itself. For the focus of this article it suffices to say that we have a responsibility to the Muslim refugees from the countries we’ve meddled with. Europe is holding its breath while the “refugee crisis” unfolds and the ongoing stream of migrants is intricately interwoven with terrorism in a twofold manner: on the one hand, Syrians are facing a very real terrorist threat in their homeland (in addition to the threat of a genocidal Assad regime), forcing them into an extremely hazardous journey towards Europe’s borders; on the other hand most European countries close their doors on the very same refugees, often by a rhetoric that plays with the factually negligible threat of terrorist attacks on Western soil. We hoist up fences and walls to keep out mothers with children, who literally run for their lives. This is not a human tragedy, since the term implies a lack of agency. We have full agency here. We choose to be inhumane, and besides a general fear of the foreign watering down our culture, many of our immigration-opposing attitudes have been triggered by misconceptions about terrorism. This is especially obvious in France, where martial law has basically become law, perpetually extended after every attack.
The problem is deeper though; human psyche deep. For better or worse, it is in our nature to care little for what’s happening far down the road, geographically or timely speaking.
But how do we arrive at such emotionally clouded conclusions, mistaking us for victims and actual victims for perpetrators, in an age where all the facts are within our reach to absorb? One main issue factoring in here is the scope of the media (as elaborated in part I of this mini-series).
However, the problem is not just Western media, but media in general. Newsworthy above all else is what happens within our own realm (no matter where this is); hence, a bloodshed making the front page at the other end of the world, might get banished behind the latest sports results at home.
The problem is deeper though; human psyche deep. For better or worse, it is in our nature to care little for what’s happening far down the road, geographically or timely speaking. In all fairness, keeping our distance is derived from psychological mechanisms we have little awareness of and administer little control over.
Take psychic/statistical numbing or the identifiable victim effect for instance. Simply put, their bottom line is that we care more about individuals than faceless statistics, a behavioral pattern that prompts us to make sheer unbelievable decisions; like rather donating money to save one life instead of ten lives. The psychological mechanisms at work are utterly irrational: the more people are in trouble, the less we care; likewise we care less and less the longer a conflict has been going on, when actually the situation is getting worse by the day and would need increasingly more of our attention.
But an individual can’t possibly consciously take in all the pain in the world and so we choose to spend our fickle emotional response on ourselves and the ones closest to us. The further we move from our family and friends into the distant ranks of strangers, the more our pain diminishes, even though our compassion might stay intact. I hate to admit it to myself, but an attack in Europe gets to me more than one in the Levant. And I confess this too: I was (mildly) shocked when I heard about the massacre at Bataclan, but the real consternation set in when I found out that I know someone who was there that night. That person fortunately made it out alive, but the personal connection really catapulted my mind right into the scenario and left me entertaining what it would have been like to be in his frightened shoes.
Having said all that, I don’t want to believe that our actions are predestined by our nature and psyche. I believe in some ways we have outrun evolution (even if not as much as we like to think) and our behavior is based on a blend of nature and nurture. And nurture we can influence, especially in a globalizing and democratizing world with facilitated media access. Media is omnipresent and while the focus might often be limited or skewed, we can pivot it to our advantage.
Take Facebook for instance: as a website invented and run by Westerners, the early safety check feature was catered to Westerners, who could use it for instance after the Paris attacks. Yet, the majority of Facebook’s users nowadays aren’t Westerners and so it comes as no surprise that people in Lebanon weren’t happy when Facebook didn’t implement the same feature after the Beirut attacks. In a solidary effort, however, carried by people from all over the world, Facebook reacted and changed its policy. It’s a small victory maybe, but one carrying the encouragement that the (new) media is at our service. If we chose and shape our media more wisely, we can actually enforce a more comprehensive and rational coverage.
A more critical understanding of terrorism and its direct and indirect consequences is not less of an individual pursuit though. We could start by acknowledging the actual history and victims of this sinister phenomenon. It’s not you and me, it’s not the home front. It’s people in Syria, Iraq and Nigeria; it’s the ones whose corpses get washed up on the shores of the Mediterranean after yet another overladen boat capsized; it’s the ones stranded at Europe’s borders and in Turkey, plagued by the diminishing hope of proper asylum because right-wing populists live in a homeland too small for more than one culture and the political establishment knuckles under, afraid of a slap in the upcoming elections.
I guess most people who are reading this are with me in terms of compassion and all. You don’t need convincing and the alt-right cannot be persuaded by my argument. But we are all in the same boat of common misconceptions, created by our own psyche and enforced by the media (as shown in part I). So if we can change our country’s conversational focus, by pivoting the media-spotlight onto the real human wrongdoing outside our self-centered bubble, people would have a harder time to be indifferent or opposed to immigration. After all we’re talking about human beings that are quite literally in a predicament between the devil and the deep blue sea, forced to embark on a horrid journey that might end at the bottom of the Mediterranean, because back home two ghastly evils wreak havoc: terrorism itself and Assad’s genocidal answer to all opposing forces. Speaking of which, we could also pay more attention to the thin line between a rebel group our government supports and the terrorist organization that it births a little down the road.
No matter our ethnicity, religion or political inclination, at the end of a conflict-laden day the very most of us just want to live in peace without all too many worries. To do so we should align our mutual longings and focus on tackling the ones trampling all over them; may those be actual terrorists or our very own politicians who shamelessly abuse bogus misconceptions about terrorism for their alt-right campaigns.
from the same series
MINI-SERIES: TERRORISM IS WHAT WE MAKE IT
How me, you and Western media empowered ISIS & Co. and fueled the Trumps of this world
Part I of III
Just Another Day Without Terrorist Attacks
our poor judgement of likelihoods has dire consequences
... our response to terrorism has been but an emotional one, blinded by the media’s crooked spotlight... read more