Terrorism, the Mass Media, and the Events of 9-11

Article excerpt

As millions of Americans watched the terror of 9-11 live on television or the Internet, most were already familiar with the shocking images: the inferno in a skyscraper, the terrorists attacking a towering high-rise, the total destruction of a federal building in Washington, the nuclear winter cityscapes in America, Manhatten under siege after a terrorist attack. In search of box-office hits, Hollywood had already produced for many years a steady stream of disaster movies and thrillers, often based on best-selling novels, which used just such images.

In a popular culture inundated with images of violence, the horror of the quadruple hijack coup was as real as in the movie, but it was surreal in life. Novelist John Updike, who witnessed the calamity from a tenth-floor apartment in Brooklyn, felt that "as on television, this was not quite real, it could be fixed; the technocracy the towers symbolized would find a way to put out the fire and reverse the damage."

The greatest irony was that the very terrorists who loathe America's pop culture as decadent and poisonous to their own beliefs and ways of life turned Hollywood-like horror fantasies into real-life hell. In that respect they outperformed Hollywood, the very symbol of their hate for American-led western entertainment. After visiting the World Trade Center disaster site for the first time, New York's Governor George Pataki said: "It's just incomprehensible to see what it was like down there. You know, I remember seeing one of these Cold War movies and after the nuclear attacks with the Hollywood portrayal of a nuclear winter. It looked worse than that in downtown Manhatten, and it wasn't some grade "B" movie. It was life. It was real."

TERRORISTS AND PUBLICITY

From the terrorists' point of view, the attack on America was a perfectly choreographed production aimed at American and international audiences. In the past, terrorism has often been compared to theater. While the theater metaphor remains instructive, it has given way to that of terrorism as television spectacular, as breaking news that is watched by record audiences and transcends by far the boundaries of theatrical events.

From the perspective of those who produced this unprecedented terrorism-as-breaking-news horror show, this action was as successful as it can get. Whether it is the relatively inconsequential arson by an amateurish environmental group or mass destruction by a network of professional terrorists, the perpetrators' media-related goals are the same: attention, recognition, and perhaps even a degree of respectability and legitimacy in their various target publics.

It has been argued that contemporary religious terrorists, unlike secular terrorists, such as the Marxists of the Red Brigade/Red Army variety or the nationalists of the Palestinian Liberation Front brand during the last decades of the Cold War, want nothing more than to lash out at the enemy and express their rage. But while these sentiments may well figure into the complex motives of group leaders and their followers, their deeds are planned and executed with the mass media and their effects on the masses and government decisionmakers in mind.

To be sure, publicity via the mass media is not an end in itself. Most terrorists have very specific short-term and/or long-term goals. It is not hard to figure the short-term and long-term objectives of those who planned the suicide missions against the United States. Even without the benefit of a credible claim of responsibility, the mass media, decisionmakers, and the public in the United States and abroad have discussed the most likely motives for the unprecedented deeds. In the short term, the architects and perpetrators wanted to demonstrate the weakness of the world's only remaining superpower vis-a-vis determined terrorists, frighten the American public, and fuel perhaps a weakening of civil liberties and in the process foment domestic unrest. …