First Person

‘The Narrative’ derails proportion, drives fear after terrorist attacks

September 26, 2016
Photo: Franck Michel (Flickr)

One evening in July, I was lying in bed thumbing through TV channels when news of the atrocity in Nice flashed on the screen.

Transfixed by the rolling coverage, I watched as information trickled in –of a maniac in a truck, mowing down families celebrating Bastille Day on a crowded promenade. I kept watching as the picture crystallized, becoming more horrific with each passing minute.

Within a few short hours, hundreds of journalists lined the promenade. Twitter clouded over with firsthand videos and images too graphic for mainstream news. The obsessive, morbid counting of the dead continued: 12, then 30, then more. Witnesses –bleary-eyed and visibly shaken – were lined up to give testimony. “What did you see?” the journalists demanded. “Did you see the killer’s face?” “How many times did he swerve?”

The next morning, as every Western dignitary queued up to offer sympathy and words of resolution and the hashtag #prayforNice proliferated across social media, I was consumed with a sense that something in the reporting and digestion of these events has to change.

Toward the end of July, as the murder of a priest in a quiet Normandy town brought Europe’s month of horror to a tragic close, several French media outlets announced a moratorium on publishing the names and photos of perpetrators of terrorist attacks. Their rationale, articulated by an editorial in Le Monde, was to “avoid posthumous glorification” of terrorists, starving extremist organisations like the Islamic State of publicity they crave.

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The decision ignited conversation over how to fight a conflict of ideas, and how the media can inadvertently do the bidding of Islamist recruitment sergeants, for whom fear is a stock-in-trade. But this debate only paid lip-service to the wider question of how western news outlets, and society at large, can best respond to the rising tide of Islamic extremism in Europe and abroad.

Over the course of the summer, as ISIS-inspired attacks in Orlando, Turkey, France, and Germany saw the specter of Islamist violence assume a grim momentum, it was striking to note how reactions, both journalistic and public, sought to frame the onslaught in terms of an ongoing story –a continuing battle between two irreconcilable ideologies.

What has been less widely discussed is how this insistence on stringing discrete events together into some kind of sequential chronicle– let’s call it The Narrative – tends to entrench conflict and, by extension, makes further attacks more likely, not less.

The Narrative, so this theory goes, derails our sense of proportion. When a deranged man goes on a rampage, as one did on the streets of my own city, London, in early August, killing a retired teacher from Florida, rumors of Islamist motivations ensured that early reports landed amidst a frenzy of speculation.

Later, as it emerged that these rumours were false, the story tumbled down the news agenda, its shock-value diminished, the prevailing response dimmed to one of quiet horror. Imagine how different the reaction would have been had the story continued to feed into the wider narrative of Islamist threat. The outcome would be no different: an innocent person lies dead. But instead of quiet horror, we would have witnessed massed column inches of subsequent conjecture and great outpourings of rage and condolence.

In short, society’s susceptibility to The Narrative corrupts objectivity.

Pointing out this imbalance is not to accuse journalists of willful embellishment – faced by an enemy with whom dialogue is impossible, it is understandable that reporters should reach for a clean dichotomy. Rather, it is to underscore The Narrative’s inadvertent propensity to ingrain and exaggerate the sense of threat, and to oversimplify what is often a very complex picture.

The kind of responses we’ve seen this summer have often glossed over the fact that many of the perpetrators are not members of a centrally organized battalion of killers, smuggled in from the battlegrounds of Raqqa, but home-grown malcontents, emotionally unhinged members of the criminal underclass.

They have also betrayed a stubborn denial about the capacity of our security services to prevent such atrocities from happening. Though August’s knife attack in central London had no links to terrorism, its occurrence, just one day after the city’s Metropolitan Police deployed 600 extra firearms officers, served as a salutary reminder that lone-wolf atrocities – as likely to be perpetrated with a knife from the kitchen as with an unlicensed gun–cannot be stopped through shows of force.

Most obviously, an overblown response disregards the reality that provocation of fear and anger is the extremists’ goal. By subscribing to the concept of ideological war – of them versus us – the Western press is precipitating the apocalyptic future the Islamic State has scripted.

The Trumpian solutions that emanate from this crucible of fear and fury– Ban Muslims! Internment! Deportations! – are, inevitably, as intemperate as the reaction itself. And that, ultimately, is bound to drive more angry young men towards extremism.

So what can be done to disrupt The Narrative?

At the very least, the situation demands that editors recognize the obvious: that their words have power, and that knee-jerk hyperbole – stating “we are at war” for example, as numerous commentators (not to mention the French president) have done repeatedly since the attacks in Paris last November– tends to accentuate fear in their readers, rather than assuage it.

Defenders of the free press are rightly quick to condemn any whiff of censorship. In the late 1980s, when the British government, fighting to contain the ongoing terror campaigns of Irish Republicans, prohibited the broadcast of Sinn Fein voices for fear of disseminating nationalist propaganda, many in the media decried its anti-democratic implications and mocked its inefficacy.

But there is a stark distinction between the idea of an embargo imposed from above and the mindful reporting advocated by French media following Nice, which acknowledges the role news sources might play in starving extremism of the oxygen that feeds it.

A prerogative to report the facts does not necessitate a relentless, macabre chronicling of violence. We don’t need endless speculation over whether Father Jacques Hamel was beheaded or had his throat slit, any more than we need front pages splashed with photos of Jim Foley kneeling in front of Jihadi John moments before he was killed . Such lurid sensationalism makes icons out of monsters.

The media’s hunger to maintain a shocking story’s salience after the event can also be problematic. Follow-up articles and analysis coming in the wake of terrorist attacks are currently far more likely to broadcast the ease with which a similar atrocity might be replicated elsewhere than they are to counsel calm.

Such commentary, offered in the name of journalistic rigor, merely perpetuates the notion that the threat is huge, imminent, and omnipresent.

The situation in Europe this summer, with its sense of quickening momentum –of each horrific headline precipitating the next – has crossed a line beyond which media outlets cannot abrogate their moral burden in the name of public interest. For the greatest public interest, surely, is in helping to staunch the bleeding.

Maybe this is to ask the impossible. The media, after all, is just a conduit for the same macabre curiosity that overtook me as I lay in bed and watched that terrible mid-July evening on the Promenade des Anglais unfold.

Perhaps, then, a bigger onus lies with the public at large.

It seems indelicate to suggest the deluges of grief that followed events in Paris, Orlando, Nice, or Brussels constituted an overreaction. But taken in context that’s what they were, especially when one considers how events that don’t fit The Narrative – most notably the relentless massacre of Muslims in the Middle East–provoke a fraction of the same hysteria.

Overlaying profile photos on social media with flags of countries that have suffered atrocities is well-meaning. But the effect is to highlight how selective our sympathies are, thereby widening the cultural divide that, in the warped minds of jihadists, serves to justify their actions. 

Callous as it may sound, we must master the art of quiet, proportional sympathy. A more balanced reaction to terror will not be a cure, but it might be part of one. After all, the greatest fear lies in speculating how The Narrative will unfold.

Henry Wismayer is a freelance writer and commentator based in London. Follow him on Twitter @HenryWismayer.