Tom Lehrer famously gave up the profession of satirist because, he said, the decision by the Nobel Peace Prize committee to bestow the award on Henry Kissinger marked a point where real life had become impossible to satirise. This was after the Nixon Administration, in which Kissinger served as Secretary of State, had ordered ever more violent policies in south-east Asia, where an aerial assault on Vietnam and Cambodia left over two million people dead.
A similar sense of unreality prevailed, years later, during another US bombardment, this time of the disintegrating federal state of Yugoslavia, in the ‘Kosovo conflict’. I was stationed at the Brussels HQ of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), reporting for the UK television service, Sky News. All the US networks were represented too – CBS, ABC and NBC along with 24-hour news stations, CNN and Fox.
Our American colleagues were gratified that their output led their networks’ nightly bulletins throughout the early weeks of the campaign – until one day when the Columbine High School shootings knocked them off the top of the agenda. President Clinton came, grim-faced, to the White House briefing room and told the world’s media:
‘We do know that we must do more to reach out to our children and teach them to express their anger and to resolve their conflicts with words, not weapons’ (CBS, 1999).
Over at the Pentagon, meanwhile, bow-tied press spokesman Kenneth Bacon was being questioned about an apparent change of strategy by the Commander-in-Chief’s air force, 15,000 feet over Belgrade. They’d been dropping graphite bombs on the city’s power stations, disrupting electricity supplies (though not cutting them altogether – that came later, when they followed up with firebombs):
‘This is a different class of target’, Bacon affirmed. ‘We think the Serbs should put pressure on their leadership to end this’ (in Brummer et al, 1999).
Some reporters at NATO HQ played a parlour game, in the daily briefings, of asking how many Yugoslav Army tanks or artillery pieces had been successfully destroyed. An awkward question, as we well knew – the bombing was, officially, directed at the ‘fielded forces’ implicated in ‘ethnic cleansing’, but actual military units were proving highly elusive. (Indeed, at the end, after 78 days under attack, the Yugoslav Army rolled out of the province with much of its ordnance rather conspicuously intact).
The US general in charge of sending out the crews on their daily sorties, Michael Short, grew so frustrated at the mismatch between political expectations of what the men and women under his command could achieve, and the actual limitations of a campaign conducted from three miles in the sky, that, he later revealed, he considered a very public resignation.
At about this time, he gave an interview to the
Washington Post, which asked what tactics could, then, be realistically expected to show results. Cut power to people’s refrigerators, Short replied promptly; and bomb the bridges where Serbs had stood and demonstrated with ironic paper targets on their heads:
‘That needs to disappear at three in the morning… I think you begin to ask, hey, Slobo, what’s this all about? How much more of this do we have to withstand?’ (in Lynch and McGoldrick, 2005: 105).
Timothy Garton Ash (2000) noted later that, amid mounting NATO desperation to identify static targets, the electricity grid began to be destroyed, which meant power supplies to hospitals were cut and babies in incubators left to die – their bereaved families, presumably intended to join the ranks of those blaming the regime of Slobodan Milosevic for their troubles and calling on him to surrender to NATO demands.
Accountability and terrorism
This was a time of growing calls for international accountability for crimes of war. In 1998, the UN General Assembly voted decisively in favour of the Statute bringing the International Criminal Court (ICC) into being. In Spain, Judge Baltasar Garzón commenced extradition proceedings from the UK for the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, over his regime of torture and fear after the coup of 1973. And the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, in The Hague, was busy sharpening the indictments which would eventually see the same Milosevic arraigned on genocide charges.
What about Messrs Short and Bacon, and their political masters in the Department of Defense and the White House? Jamie Shea, the NATO press spokesman, answered one of my questions with an assurance that ‘no-one from any NATO member state will end up in The Hague.’ The ICC? United States was one of seven countries to vote against its formation at the General Assembly, and it has never signed up. It did ratify the Geneva Conventions, which stipulate that civilians should not be targeted in war, but then the bombing of Yugoslavia was not, officially, a war. Indeed, in legal terms, it could not be, because the UN Charter – which the US and all its NATO allies had certainly signed – permits states to wage war only if attacked, or with the express agreement of the UN Security Council – ruled out, in this case, by the certainty of a Russian veto.
There are, in short, plenty of rules that are meant to govern the behaviour of states, which is one reason why international jurists were always reluctant to include them in definitions of terrorism (Saul, 2005: 143). Why would anyone need the wherewithal to charge states with terrorism, they argued, when, in the last resort, a state committing ‘terrorist’ acts would fall foul of the wide-ranging Genocide Convention? Ah, but attacks on populations must be ‘intentional’ to qualify, under that instrument, as genocide; there were civilian casualties in OAF, but, remember, they were the result of ‘NATO bombing errors’.
Back in 1988, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime commissioned an eminent professor, AP Schmid, to write a catch-all definition of terrorism:
‘Terrorism is an anxiety-inspiring method of repeated violent action, employed by (semi-) clandestine individual, group or state actors, for idiosyncratic, criminal or political reasons, whereby – in contrast to assassination – the direct targets of violence are not the main targets. The immediate human victims of violence are generally chosen randomly (targets of opportunity) or selectively (representative or symbolic targets) from a target population, and serve as message generators. Threat- and violence-based communication processes between terrorist (organization), (imperilled) victims, and main targets are used to manipulate the main target (audience(s)), turning it into a target of terror, a target of demands, or a target of attention, depending on whether intimidation, coercion, or propaganda is primarily sought.’
Given that neither international criminal responsibility nor the normal rules governing state behaviour applied in this case, victims of the NATO bombing campaign – designed to intimidate and coerce a target population by destroying civilian infrastructure – might obtain some redress, or at least satisfaction, by seeking to have Operation Allied Force classified as terrorism. By this stage, the term had, after all, made its debut in UN Security Council Resolution 579, of 1985, and while ‘council resolutions do not create international law, [they] are normative obligations on Member States under the Charter’ (Saul, 2005: 142).
To imagine that any US official was ever likely to be held legally to account for the crimes committed by the likes of Kissinger – and openly admitted by Bacon and Short – would, however, demand a reality shift of Lewis Carroll-like proportions, requiring us to believe that what we may call ‘Lehrer’s looking-glass’ of international affairs can function as a two-way mirror. I could have satisfied myself, with the argument I rehearse here, that it was intellectually coherent to report, from Brussels, thus: ‘Jake Lynch here, for Sky News… More terrorism from NATO today…’ – but I would not have held the posting for much longer.
The episode underscores the observation by Dunn et al (2005: 68) that ‘identifying terrorism is a motivated process that distinguishes justified acts of violence committed by the ingroup from unjustified acts of violence committed by outgroups’; or, as Whitaker (2001: 4) succinctly puts it: ‘terrorism is violence committed by those we disapprove of.’
For a journalist to use the term, unattributed, is, therefore, inescapably to take sides. Lawyers’ attempts to define terrorism are futile because it is, by its very nature, a political concept, and politics dictate that it cannot be used in every situation where it is warranted by the facts. The BBC’s World Service, Reuters News Agency and SBS World News, in Australia, are just three among a growing number of news organizations to acknowledge this, and take a collective decision to avoid the term unless in quotes from a named speaker. But the media are, regardless of such niceties, always already involved – even implicated – in terrorism, whether they like it or not.
magnum opus is titled,
Violence as Communication, and it puts forward a persuasive argument that modern terrorism was born, as the ugly twin of modern newspapering, with the invention of the rotary printing press in the mid-19th century. Modern newspapering, I have suggested, also saw the emergence of industry conventions of reporting, notably a predisposition in favour of official sources (Lynch and McGoldrick, 2007). Molotch and Lester (1997) suggest that governments and corporations, with their well-staffed press offices, enjoy ‘habitual access’ to the news, producing a narrative that terrorists set out to disrupt as ‘event promoters’.
Frey and Rohner go so far as to claim that there is a ‘common-interest game’ linking terrorism and the media, since the former provides sensational news, which the latter sell at a greater profit. Terrorism and media coverage ‘Granger-cause’ each other, they say – using a sophisticated statistical model – and the media, moreover, ‘transmit… a lot of know-how on how to organise and execute a terrorist attack’ (2006: 4).
Today’s technological possibilities likewise expand both the motivation for, and the potential dividend of, attention-grabbing political violence. Listen to the statements of Osama bin Laden about the ‘9/11’ attacks:
‘As I watched the destroyed towers in Lebanon, it occurred to me to punish the unjust in the same way – to destroy the towers in America so that it can taste some of what we are tasting and stop killing our women and children’ (in Mohamedou, 2007: 16); ‘When we kill their innocents, the entire world from East to West screams at us… Who said that our blood is not blood, but theirs is?’ (ibid, 42).
Both imply that the attacks were conceived as a protest against a world-view promulgated in dominant media narratives. Where could he have witnessed the towers falling in Lebanon – if not on TV? Where does the world scream, in response to political violence, if not in the media? Why strike – at the symbol of US economic power, the World Trade Center – in the heart of the world’s media capital, if not to ensure that the moment of impact would be witnessed, via multiple camera angles, by a global audience?
News and the ‘war on terrorism’
If news is implicated in terrorism, then it is up to its neck in responsibility for the so-called ‘war on terrorism’. The reporting convention of privileging official sources is part of what many journalists in the main belligerent countries, notably the US and UK, see as ‘objectivity’. Hackett and Zhao comment:
‘Journalism’s criteria of newsworthiness and factuality, and its routines of newsgathering anchored in bureaucratic institutions with designated spokespeople and prescheduled routines, are mutually constitutive. Taken together, they tend to ensure routine and privileged access for bureaucrats and agency officials, who provide the “hard facts”, credible claims and background information for objective reporting’ (1998: 78).
The objectivity conventions allow news to insulate itself from objections of partiality, enabling it to be presented and sold to potential consumers of all political views and none. Another important convention is the bias in favour of event over process:
‘Report that a bomb has gone off and no-one will give you an argument. It has, incontestably, taken place. Reach into context, to give an account of the process leading to the incident, and you automatically risk objections – why this bit of context, and not that?’ (Lynch and McGoldrick, 2007).
At the same time, I have argued, the response by many governments to ‘terrorism’ is formulated and carried out partly as a media strategy, shaped by calculations as to likely media responses; calculations that can only be made on the basis of observing previous media responses: ‘the facts of tomorrow bear a discernible residue, or imprint, of the reporting of today’ (Lynch and McGoldrick, 2005: 218). The relations of cause and effect are best expressed as a Feedback Loop.
‘At times of stress, the workings of this Feedback Loop can speed up, as with the “7/7” London bombings of July 2005’ (Lynch and McGoldrick, 2007). UK Prime Minister Tony Blair responded by using a televised news conference to launch a ‘crackdown’ – a 12-point plan involving major curtailments of civil liberties, knowing that journalistic conventions would see the ‘crackdown’ frame superimposed on any subsequent discussion of the issue. Most of Blair’s proposals proved unworkable in practice, instead relying, for their effect, on their impact in the symbolic sphere of the media:
‘His response here came after some extravagant rhetoric in popular newspapers had turned to impatient criticism that ‘more was not being done’ to make life difficult for the kind of “evil bastards” who carried out the attack. The following day, the biggest of them hailed the initiative with the front-page headline, “Victory for
Sun over new terror laws”’ (Lynch and McGoldrick, 2007).
This effectively blotted out an incipient debate, seeking and exchanging explanations for the emergence of a home-grown ‘Islamist terror threat’ in the UK. Many media were playing an enabling, in some cases a leading role in this debate. An opinion poll commissioned by the
Daily Telegraph newspaper, for instance, suggested that as many as 81% of Britons saw the attacks as a form of blowback from Blair’s own foreign policies, notably the invasion of Iraq.
Journalists were already well aware of the political risks in seeking and purveying explanations for political violence. After the ‘9/11’ attacks on the US, the news magazines,
Newsweek, both offered versions of think-pieces offering to explain, in the words the latter used for its front-page headline, ‘why they hate us – the roots of Islamic rage’. They were immediately scolded by that day’s edition of the
New York Post. The weeklies were, according to its leader column, indulging in ‘Dubiously Deep Thoughts’. The paper chided ‘talking heads’ busy looking for ‘root causes… How they so miss the point. And at America’s peril’ (in Lynch and McGoldrick, 2005: 67).
Richard Perle, a member of the Pentagon’s influential Defense Policy Board, set down a political marker that such debates were to be regarded, henceforth, as evidence of partiality, perhaps even treason, on the part of journalists and any others who brought them into the light of day: ‘We must decontextualize terror… any attempt to discuss the roots of terror is an attempt to justify it. It simply needs to be fought and destroyed’ (in Hari, 2004). And, I point out, ‘the
New York Post and Richard Perle spent the ensuing few years very much in the ascendant in US politics’ (Lynch and McGoldrick, 2005: 67) – this has been the orthodoxy of our time.
Blair, likewise, collapsed distinctions between seeking to explain the ‘7/7’ attacks and ‘excusing’ or ‘justifying’ them. The Prime Minister had a clear interest in closing down discussion about the extent to which his own policies might have led to the carnage, but the interest of the public was surely served by continuing to be able to consider this possibility, especially as those responsible for maintaining their security were, indeed, coming to the view that UK foreign policies – policies sold as means to make Britons safer in a dangerous world – were instead creating new threats.
Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, outgoing head of the British Security Service, MI5, delivered a departing public address in the form of a speech in November 2006, in which she remarked:
‘The video wills of British suicide bombers make it clear that they are motivated by perceived worldwide and long-standing injustices against Muslims; an extreme and minority interpretation of Islam promoted by some preachers and people of influence; and their interpretation as anti-Muslim of UK foreign policy, in particular the UK’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan’ (in Rogers, 2006).
Rogers continues: ‘The speech is couched in tentative terms (“perceived” and “interpretation”), thus retaining a certain distance from a direct interpretative connection with British policy, but the language is unusually strong. As coded messages go, this is about as far as anyone has gone from within the British security establishment.’
Tentative language and codes were needed, Rogers writes elsewhere, because ‘As Iraq is Blair’s war and he believes implicitly that it is a just cause, no other view can be expressed within government’ (2007). The effect of closing down the space for debate is also manifest in news about the conflict, because, with interventions such as those by Perle and Blair, it tends to drain away through the gratings of journalistic convention, despite the clear public interest in enabling it to take place. In lieu of such debate, the violent, reactive response – the ‘war on terrorism’ – attains and maintains its hegemony.
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CBS (1999). President Clinton addresses the nation about the school shooting in Littleton, Colorado, CBS Special News Reports, April 20.
Dunn, Elizabeth W; Moore, Moriah and Nosek, Brian A (2005). ‘The war of the words: how linguistic differences in reporting shape perceptions of terrorism’,
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Blood and ink! The common-interest game between terrorists and the media, Institute for Empirical Research in Economics, University of Zurich, Working Paper 285, April.
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Jake Lynch is Associate Professor and Director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney, Australia. He is the author with Annabel McGoldrick of
Peace Journalism (Hawthorn Press, 2005).