Academic journal article International Journal of Comparative Sociology

Terror, Media, and Moral Boundaries

Academic journal article International Journal of Comparative Sociology

Terror, Media, and Moral Boundaries

Article excerpt


'One person's terrorist is another's freedom fighter' is a common statement. And, indeed, some famous world leaders were incarcerated or hunted as 'terrorists', only to appear years later as genuine freedom fighters for peace. Israel's Menachem Begin and South Africa's Nelson Mandela are just two illustrations. How can one make such a distinction? And on what grounds? I will argue below that such statements are morally bounded, and that making them requires explicit or implicit invocation of some moral context. To be meaningful, this suggested contextualization must be framed within a historical perspective. Moreover, the decision about whether one is faced with a genuine case of terror or of a fight against cruel oppression or occupation has a strong moral element. It is this moral element that dictates both the type and nature of responses and the presentation of the act or acts.

However, examining terror from a moralistic point of view alone (that is from a 'right' versus 'wrong' perspective) may create myriad points of view, dictated by the different symbolic-moral universes of the examiners. One way of avoiding this kaleidoscopic view is to regress to mere chronologies of events, devoid of social context, focusing on temporal sequencing made to show that earlier events somehow caused later events. Alas, this is a barren and boring approach, not to mention its questionable validity. Terror needs to be viewed in its social, political, and--most important--moral context. An alternative approach is to transcend specific moral contents and examine the interaction between terror and moral boundaries. Such a discourse can allow us to avoid the dilemma that opened the article and may enable us to cope with it in a more productive way. The rhetoric of moral boundaries gives us a powerful tool to do just that. The central issues become such questions as how terror challenges and molds moral boundaries and how it is processed within moral boundaries. At present, moral boundaries are drawn forcefully by the media and, indeed, terror has become a media 'line' discussed almost everywhere, perhaps the global topic par excellence. In this article I will discuss the moral nature within which terror is presented, illustrate it with assassinations, show how the media process and present news and terror, and point out that we need to understand the unfolding theater of terror in terms of the media-assisted presentation of this terror in a context of creating and negotiating moral boundaries.


While terror is not a new phenomenon, its characterization and nature may become obfuscated or relativized. Much discussion about terror deals with its nature, the violence involved in it, the politics, the results, the struggle against it, and more. One topic that seems not to star in many of these discussions is the issue of morality. However, some of the moral discussions in the United States about terrorism by Al Qaeda seem to be an exception. To my mind, the moral issue is a subtext in much of the current discourse about terror that should be made explicit. This is necessary not only because of theoretical implications and understanding but because of its practical implications.

Almost by definition, focusing on terror and morality requires that we deal with issues of rhetoric, contexts of justifications and communication. After all, morality and moral boundaries do not constitute empirical entities such as bombs or suicide bombers. And yet, morality is an extremely powerful variable for explaining and understanding terror and reactions to it.

Terror, for those producing it, is aimed at creating goal-oriented feelings of anxiety and fear among its targets. These feelings ease the road of terrorists in reaching their goals. While terror can assume many forms, it is fundamentally the generation of fear either by using direct violence or by making a credible threat to use it. …

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