The problematic symbiosis between media, terrorism, and State abuse of power

Akil Awan has a new piece at The Conversation on the recent unfettered media coverage of Isalmic State beheadings, and how this is linked to a deeply problematic symbiotic relationship between media, terrorism, and state abuse of power:

"The well-known US security expert, Brian Jenkins, famously declared in 1974, that “terrorism is theatre”. And over the last few weeks, the brutal videotaped beheadings of British and American hostages by Islamic State militants have proved the prescience of his statement with horrifying clarity.

We are now accustomed to images in our papers and on our screens of IS murders but we should consider the role we play when we look at the pictures or watch the videos. Every time we engage with the spectacle, we are contributing to the problem.

Scholars have long recognised that terrorism is actually better understood if it is viewed – at least in the first instance – as communication rather than violence.

In essence, the relative success or failure of a terrorist act cannot be measured by the number of casualties inflicted or the level of financial damage incurred, but can really only be gauged by how much attention it gets. The act needs to secure front-page headlines, airtime and iconic images. Ultimately, it needs to engender fear or curiosity in an audience. By these measures, the abhorrent executions of James Foley, Steven Sotloff, and David Haine were spectacular propaganda successes for IS.

The videos are meticulously staged. The sinister, balaclava wearing, archetypal villain, “Jihadi John”, insouciantly wields a hunting knife beside a helpless hostage wearing an orange Guantanamo-style jumpsuit. All the while, he provides lucid and articulate explanations for this horrendous act in a characteristic London accent. The whole scene will no doubt be indelibly seared onto the mind of anyone who watches it.

And why wouldn’t it be? Most major news outlets have, in an astounding display of servile compliance, featured these images prominently, be it on the front page or in prime-time breaking news. Each has further reinforced the notion that these events were the most important, most newsworthy, most worthy of our attention and moral outrage, happening anywhere in the world.

And of course, that is the very purpose for the existence of this sort of act in the first place. Videos like these are produced to present harrowing, shocking, egregious violence that is then starkly juxtaposed against a cogent, coherent justification. We are so shocked and angered by what we see that we sit up and pay attention to the content of the message.

So if this is so patently clear to many of us, why do the media continue to display this predictable Pavlovian response to terrorism?"

Read on here