Analysis by Jotam Confino.
Watching how the media defined the murder of a police officer in Paris as a “terror” attack is not only wrong, it’s playing in to the hands of leaders like Trump, Erdogan, Gert Wilders and Le Pen. Clearly, the mainstream media have forgotten their raison d’être, which is to keep the government in check while informing the public of news. Both responsibilities are grossly neglected when the public is being told that yet another terrorist attack has hit the epicenter of Europe.
What is even more irresponsible is the timing of the misuse of the term terrorism. With an upcoming election in France that seems to be as close as ever, the media has the power to influence public opinion before the polls open. It isn’t hard to predict which politician will gain the most from the terror discourse in the media. Marine Le Pen has sworn to destroy radical Islamism, and with the election still being extremely close, the “terrorist” attack could be a blessing in disguise for Le Pen.
Le Pen is far from being the only one benefiting from the tendencies to label every Muslim related attack an “act of terrorism”. Since 9/11, politicians all over the world have been standing in line to take advantage of the widespread fear that the wave of terror attacks caused. From George Bush’s Patriot Act, to Erdogan’s recent success in persuading the Turks to change the constitution to his advantage. It’s time for the media to stop spreading fear and start using the term terrorism when it is appropriate.
The definition of terrorism
There is no universally agreed upon definition of terrorism, which of course is due to political and emotional discrepancies among nations and leaders. Most nations have their own legislation and definitions, which naturally differ widely. However, the closest we get to a mainstream definition by leading theorists and international institutions, is that terrorism can be characterized as a random act of violence against innocent civilians, with the purpose of spreading fear. The randomness is what benefits the terrorists in achieving their goal, which is often politically motivated.
However, nations and organizations start to disagree when it comes to legislation on the matter and which “necessary measures” can be used to combat terrorism. This is where the term starts being hijacked to excuse violations of international law, such as the US’ treatment of Guantanamo prisoners, the Israeli demolitions of homes in the West Bank, and Erdogan’s purge of “terrorist” supporters from institutions. These are only a fraction of the many violations of international laws committed in the name of combating terrorism.
The problem is not so much the lack of a universal definition of terrorism among states, but rather the distasteful exploitation of fear by politicians around the world. History is constantly repeating itself, contrary to what Francis Fukuyama predicted more than 25 years ago. Whenever the public is being exposed to insecurity, whether it be economic or physical, nationalism has a tendency to follow, usually at the expense of a minority.
A need to break the vicious circle
As much as the western liberal media have expressed their loathing of leaders like Trump, Le Pen, Gert Wilders and Erdogan, they are themselves contributing to a pattern, which amplifies the very same leaders they are criticizing. It has almost become a routine to label attacks committed by Muslims as terrorism, without further investigating the motives and the victim. In the case of the French police officer, it seems as if the gunman deliberately went after a police officer.
From what we know so far, the gunman opened fire with an automatic weapon, aimed at the police officer who was killed in the attack. By attacking an armed police officer on duty, the attack has the same character as the killings of five Dallas police officers in the US, committed by an African American in 2016. The difference is that the Dallas incident were not described as terrorism, but as a “lone gunman” attack.
The problem is that when an attack is being labeled as terrorism, it has far-reaching consequences, as compared to a “normal” crime. Not only does it cause unnecessary psychological trauma for a whole nation, it also polarizes the population, while strengthening politicians whose popularity depends on public fear and nationalistic feelings. It is fair to say that what used to be the criteria for an attack to be categorized as terrorism, has changed dramatically since 9/11.
When a police officer in duty is being killed by a gunman, it needs to be treated as a murder and a crime, but not as a terrorist attack. If we start categorizing attacks like these as terrorism, the already blurred lines between crime and terrorism will slowly disappear. Most importantly, it will serve the interests of actual terrorist organizations, whose main purpose is to create as much fear, chaos and hostility as possible. It’s impossible to avoid politicians who take advantage of chaos and national crises, but the media can make sure that the attacks will cause as little fear as possible, by referring to them as what they truly are; murders and crimes.
Jotam Confino is the editor of Republic Paper and has written extensively about the Middle East in the Danish media. He holds a BA in International Relations and an M.A in Security & Diplomacy.