by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright July 2005
What we need are not new and better ways of finding terrorists, what we need are new ways of discouraging terrorism, and the most effective way of doing that is cutting off the terrorist access to media advertising... sorry, media exposure. If the terrorists can't expose themselves, they will stop terrorising. As a first step, I recommend that the media stop using the "continuous coverage" format when dealing with terrorist events, they should use normal, "business as usual" coverage instead.
9-11, Madrid, now London. It seems that the pattern for terrorist spectacular disaster-attack is now well established. Lets look at this pattern and see what we can expect for the new few years.
The London Tube bombings happened while the G-8 were meeting in Edinburgh, Scotland. The UK anti-terrorist forces were busy in Scotland while the terrorists were busy in England. This was not a fluke. Terrorists are not dummies. We should not expect the "anniversary" terrorist attacks that governments like to warn us about, we should expect "Candid Camera" terrorist attacks (Candid Camera theme: when you least expect it, your elected, you're the star today.)
This means that taking a lot of effort to protect places that are not famous, such as Peoria, IL, does not make sense until more famous places are nearly invincible. The Oklahoma Bombers were a fluke. They attacked an Oklahoma City building because they had a regional issue, (the government attack a year earlier on the Branch Davidians in nearby Waco, TX) not because it was prime terrorist real estate. Such regional attacks will happen, but they are not the mainstream of Big Terrorism as long as more famous targets are available.
Terrorism as we are experiencing it in the 2000's requires extensive media coverage to thrive. The media, and the communities they service, need to realize this. Take away the extensive media coverage, and a terrorist attack becomes simply sabotage, kidnapping or assault with civilian casualties.
The BBC spent days after the London Tube bombings giving "continuous coverage" to the disaster. During that coverage they constantly praised the responsiveness of London's Emergency Services. There were endless reports from reporters "on the sight" at subway stations and at hospitals during which they talked to various bystanders and officials. This coverage is seemingly all well and good, and I'm sure the BBC will pick up many awards for its coverage of the disaster. But we need to look closely at one of the consequences of this intense coverage. That consequence is heavy exposure of the Terrorist Cause -- a company or a government promoting a more mundane product or program would have to pay billions to get such intense and sustained coverage.
While the BBC praised others, it did not acknowledge its own quick and massive response to the attack. Further, it did not acknowlege that this intense and sustained coverage was a substantial contribution to the terrorist phenominon. The BBC reporters and pundits did not say anything to the effect of, "We recognize that by doing this continuous coverage, and by spending hours of air time interviewing people about carnage, lost loved ones, and horror, we are contributing substantially to terrorism around the world."
More on this in the Recommendations section.
There has been an evolution of thinking about 9-11. With time, more and more members of the American government are implying that if the government "knew" the people on American soil better, it could have stopped the 9-11 terrorist act. These government people are not crying out alone in the wilderness -- more and more members of the American community sincerely wish that this was true.
(This is an evolution in thinking that is similar to the evolution in thinking that has gone on around the Kennedy assassination -- elaborate conspiracy theories are taken a lot more seriously now than they were at the time of his death.)
Community members now wish this was true sincerely enough that they will support politicians and bureaucrats who say it is true, and they will support things such as a stronger Patriot Act, no-fly lists, and finger printing all visitors to US soil.
Are these "know ourselves" measures effective anti-terror measures? I don't think so. The London bombers show us evidence of that. These bombers had no visible record of extremism before they headed into the London tubes. Knowing ourselves better would not have stopped them.
If it's not effective, where does this wanting to know ourselves desire come from? Wanting to know it's citizens better is a reflexive action taken by a threatened community that doesn't have a better solution in mind. Think of the movie "John Carpenter's The Thing." In that movie there's a human-looking, man-eating, monster lose in the community. The community response is to try and find out which member of the community is the monster by knowing it's members better -- by taking a blood test to find out who's the monster.
This is an instinctive, "feels good" response, but it is not likely to be effective at stopping terrorists... even if it does find some. It won't be effective because it won't find all terrorists, and because it does nothing to stop the growth of new terrorists. To stop new terrorists from growing up like weeds in a spring lawn, you need to cut off terrorism's value as an advertising method.
The lesson of the London Tube Attack is that place we can strike at terrorism most effectively is through controlling how Big Media reports terrorist acts. If we make the Big Media format for reporting terrorism less "entertaining", less of a media circus, then we will have less spectacular terrorism. This does not require a fundamental change in journalism. It can be treated as a taste issue. Just like it was considered in bad tasted to show Roosevelt in a wheelchair during WWII, it should be considered in bad taste today to dwell on reports of suffering and displays of human anguish during a terrorist attack. Likewise the continuing coverage format should also be considered bad taste for a terrorist event. When a terrorist event happens, it should be reported as a business as usual event.
The symbiotic relation between media and terrorists is one of the key features of current terrorism. Yet it is one of the least talked about features. No one in media or politics seems to be discussing how media is a symbiote with terrorists. Media is a symbiote with terrorist because it massively advertises spectacular terrorist acts when it devotes "continuous coverage" to such an event. Once again, take away the spectacular media coverage and a terrorist event becomes simply sabotage, kidnapping or assault.
The world needs to embrace the concept that, above all else, terrorists are advertisers. Then world needs to think about the implications of that. One of those implications is that how media reports terrorism will affect how terrorism is conducted.
If the media spends a lot of time reporting on horror, lost loved ones and body parts, then terrorists will produce lots of horror, lost loved ones and body parts.
Lets use the London Tube Bombings as example. What kind of coverage could those bombings have been given instead of "continuous coverage" for many days?
They could have been given three minutes on a regularly scheduled news broadcast. Those three minutes of coverage could have included the basics: who, how, what, when. They should not have included anything about motivation. Talking about "why" a terrorist event happens advertises a terrorist cause.
Interestingly, in the case of the London Tube affair, a specific "why" does not seem to have been a strong motivator for the act -- no group credibly claimed responsibilty for many days after it happened. It seems a general dissatisfaction with Western Ways, but sure knowlege that they would get a lot of TV time, seems to have been sufficient motivation for these bombers.
This three minutes in a regular broadcast would have been adaquate coverage for this event because, except for the wailing and knashing of teeth of bystanders and loved ones, nothing was happening that required continuous coverage. There were no "new developments" such as new bombings, new sections of tunnels collapsing, new traffic jams, new suspects... after the initial event. After the initial event there was nothing new to talk about for hours on end, so the media filled the time with new ways of showing bystanders and loved ones experiencing and coping with the tragedy, and that kind of coverage is prime terrorist advertising material.
In sum, to fight terrorism what we need are not new and better ways of finding terrorists, what we need are new ways of discouraging terrorism, and the most effective way of doing that is cutting off the terrorist access to media advertising. If the terrorists can't advertise, they will stop terrorising. As a first step, we should recommend that the media stop using the "continuous coverage" format when dealing with terrorist events.