Terrorism and Media: Transmission Mimesis?

In a media-saturated and media-consuming world, is terrorism a “noun” or a “verb”?

Kill one person and frighten ten thousand” — Sun Tzu, The Art of War (circa 500 BCE).

In the above quotation by Sun Tzu lies the kernel of my arguments. I would like to begin by outlining that this essay does not claim to be a conclusive and unproblematic argument about terrorism and the media. Though I am acutely aware of its limitations, it should not stop us from engaging in intellectual speculations about the nature and discourse of terrorism and the manner in which it is articulated in public and private spheres. I stress the word speculation because I begin with the assertion that though a widely used term, social “truth” is an elusive one (truth as in material and empirical facts). It is not my objective to play philosophical tricks, so let us try to tackle a simple proposition: if a group of religiously motivated individuals’ objective is the undermining of liberal societies and they achieve this by exploiting modern technologies, social networks to evade the law, cause destruction, and operate with impunity, what should be the response of a “liberal” society? Should it engage in a widespread program of surveillance and controls? Would it then continue to be a “liberal” society? Playing the devils advocate, I could pose a counter question. If we did not exercise controls and track every individual, wouldn’t the terrorists take over the society. Here lies the problem. Terrorism is not a phenomenon new to the 21st century. As evidenced by Arthur H. Garrison in his study of 18th, 19th, and 20th century terrorists — from Maximilien Robespierre, Johann Most, bin Laden, the Army of God, the Animal Liberation Front to the Earth Liberation Front — there has been no change in the idea of terrorism as a tool of social change over the last three centuries (see Garrison:2004). Though his cause, techniques, and destruction may be different, Osama bin Laden’s use of terrorism is for no different purpose from that of Maximilien Robespierre.

At the same time, the modern liberal democratic state has survived and evolved over a similar period. On the other hand, the gains of liberal democracies are being lost in our response to terrorism, chiefly by imagining this as a new problem. These are the broader contours that inform my essay. Let us begin by examining pragmatist calls made by tough-talking politicians and policy wonks to tackle the problem of terror:

In the above clip, Narendra Modi, talking to Prabhu Chawla, argues that because of the tough nature and resolve of his administration, no terrorist attack has taken place in Gujarat over the last five years and goes on to presents a commonsensical argument for new tough laws against terrorism. The tough laws he refers to here is the need for the reinstatment of the dreaded POTA and the introduction of newer laws. The entire bluster falls flat when Chawla asks why the need for new laws when he has thwarted terrorist activities under existing laws. The inimical Modi sidesteps the question.

Democratic Response to Terror

Our response to terror — war on terror — is unlike historical notions of war between states. And the term “war on terror” or terms such as “Mumbai 26/11”, which is nothing but a mimesis of 9/11, is an erroneous argument because such metaphorical labels seek to appropriate notions of “war” (as as the World Wars) to raise the salience of certain actions by the state. Recent history provides us adequate example — Cold War, War on Terror — that these actions have some, if not entirely, underpinnings that go against the idea of “liberal”, “moral”, and “enlightened” societies. Thus, we end up in illiberal positions such as justification of collateral damage and the very redefinition of the democratic state. For example, torture, a means of information gathering, policing, coercion, and social control, that can only be imagined as a medieval idea is now socially acceptable in liberal democratic societies such as USA. In India, the police is widely known to use torture as a means of extracting confessions. As argued by Stuhr:

Americans have managed to become more vulnerable than ever before in their own eyes and, at the same time, more aggressive in the eyes of the others than ever before in the eyes of much of the rest of the world, more patriotic (at least superficially) and self-professedly peace loving at home and, simultaneously, more hated and perceived as war mongering abroad, at once the most vocal opponent of weapons of mass destruction and the nation most heavily armed with weapons of mass destruction, and thoroughly determined to act decisively while equally determined to avoid critical self-reflection (Stuhr:2004)

The above essay was prophetically written by Stuhr in 2004 as Obama echoed similar sentiments about USA’s fall from grace. How did the “beacon of liberty” get to this? To begin with, I refer to our understanding of terrorism, which is largely based on (a) the tele-visual and pervasive nature of modern media and communications; (b) the liberal economics driving news organisations that profit from the relaying of acts of “terrorism” and “mean world beliefs” (see footnote 2); (c) newsroom ideologies that identify with conservative and martial elements in the policy and political realm who seek to present solutions that seek to erode any discourse about democracy, justice, and rule of law (see footnote 1). My claim is that the Indian media and policy elites have come together to mimic US establishment and the media in the Cold War and post Cold War era, particularly 9/11. The logic of deterrence offered is based on the framing of one set of people as “enemies” having an agenda against “us”; their “misuse” of our human rights laws. Evidence shows that the response of the “liberal state” is one that is leading to curbing of liberties earned through centuries of struggle, and collateral damage of innocent civilians. Without painting a conspiratorial picture, I argue that the three conditions outlined earlier have unintended consequences and these are not suited for a just and democratic society, primarily because it seeks to portray terrorism as a new and pressing problem raising its salience over other equally important issues. The central problem here is of agenda setting and public opinion shaping by people with a certain viewpoint (mean world beliefs). These individuals and groups have the characteristic of mimicing each other — both on the terrorists’ side as well as the democratic side. This is contrary to the claims that media in a liberal economic regime and new communication technologies will lead to greater human enlightenment, thus the argument here that all we are getting through mainstream media is transmission and not communication.

News Framing

Let us understand a basic axiom: Terrorism is 99 per cent a communicative exercise and 1 percent factual violence (Professor Philip Taylor, personal interview). By this I mean the symbolic intimidation of individuals and groups is far greater than the empirical and material acts of violence or intimidation. Take the recent case of the Mangalore assault on women by members of Shri Ram Sene. Though it is only one incident in a huge list of crimes against women in India, its widespread coverage in the media has served to form attitudes and beliefs about and towards groups and issues. Gender issues rarely get the kind of sustained coverage that this one incident has received. While the liberal media has expressed outrage, politicians have come forward to exploit the wider moral panic of a largely conservative Indian society on the issue of women exercising their right to do whatever they feel like. The issue, though simple on the surface, is far more complex.

We are relentlessly barraged by news by mainstream news organisation that “imagine” news for us, that is to say they enclose an event in a world out there (like a photo frame) in an organised and selective way to tell us what is at issue, and it plays a role in influencing how we think about things. To understand this better let us take a few steps back. For example the events at Nandigram have been framed as anti-development by those believing in free market driven industrialisation and development; human rights advocates have framed it as an issue of violence by the state against its own citizens in support of capitalist interests; others have framed it as a rural uprising against an elite conception of development.

When we apply the above-mentioned principle to the Mangalore case we note that Times Now framed it as an issue of “moral policing” inviting “shock” barely concealing its liberal bourgeoisie outlook. Times Now had an array of frames by which the event could have been explained, helping us understand it in all its complexity. For example, parochialism, feudalism, patriarchy, anti-globalisation, right-wing politics, morality, censorship, gender, Hindu fundamentalism, voyeurism, technology. The “active and informed consumer of news” in us should be motivated to ask more questions about such portrayal. After we have informed ourselves of the complexity of the situation, we can ask another question. Does the immediacy of the news media coverage trigger a pathological response, one that is based on dominant and popular views. We note that in the Mangalore case, the media has largely stuck to the frame of “moral policing”, when the event is far more complex. Similarly, we can ponder over questions of what frames are being excluded in presenting to us the “war against terror”? Are we part of the pathological response — mimetic fear and hatred coupled with an asymmetrical willingness and capacity to destroy the other without the formalities of war.

Terrorism as a Frame

Isn’t it ironic that the Cold War period, during which we had the greatest threat of global annihilation, fear, paranoia and mistrust, we had comparative order and peace (that is to say despite the mistrust between the West and the Soviet Bloc and their capabilities to annihilate the entire world, none of the apocalyptic fear actually came true). On the other hand, with the spread of global capital and democracy in the last two decades we have mutual hatred and actual acts of brutal violence by both democratic and anti-democratic parties, the invasion of Iraq being a prime example. We are constantly bombarded by the term terrorism but we fail to understand what it is. All we know is that certain individuals and groups hate “us”. Who is this “us” and “them”; what do they hate us for; what have we done to invite this hate — these issues are presented within televisual and verbal frames fear that invariably result in “mean world beliefs” (see footnote 2) leading to predictable responses. For example, post Nov 26, 2008, Barkha Dutt unwittingly stated on a live talk show, “let us all agree to give up some freedoms”. She was furthering the consensus building of an idea that required nuanced debate and discussion. Unfortunately, her objective at a debate got co-opted by reactionary voices — a panel of Mumbai elites — who foregrounded her pronouncement with calls such as “let us carpet bomb Pakistan”. Dr Paul Boxer of Rutgers University, who I recently interviewed, has argued that “media coverage can easily reinforce any latent stereotypes already held, and help to generate new biases in thinking”. This is what I had referred to earlier as triggers to a “pathological response”. James Der Derian presents the following facts:

When one takes into account how war-related fatalities have been reversed in modern times, from 100 years ago when one civilian was killed per eight soldiers, to the current ratio of eight civilians per soldier killed, then compares the similarly-skewed combatant-to-non-combatant casualty figures of 9/11, the Afghan War, and the Iraq War, the terror/counter-terror distinction begins to fade even further. (Der Derian:2005)

Subjective violence (see footnote 3), once restricted to either the darkest forces of any society or the specific arms of the state is now effectively determining civilian policy. Thus we have the honourable Narendra Modi suggesting that we should enact laws that allow surveillance of anybody who is suspect by the state (link). After the departure of George Bush, evidence is emerging from behind the US security and surveillance regime that shows that their coverage of suspects extended to anybody and everybody including leading journalists, literally turning a democratic society into one that was beginning to mimic exactly those individuals and groups who hated us link). Those who hate us are largely the fundamentalist, religious, other, or to point to the elephant in the room, the Muslim. But what about Shri Ram Sene? Aren’t they exactly mimicking the Taliban? What about Lt Col Purohit? What about the killing of Christians in Orissa in 2008? Why do we form clear distinctions between terror inflicted by our guys and by the “other” guys? It is particularly instructive that the “other” guys are presented as different, who have to be marked as such either by way of their physical features, cultural differences, political world views into a neat package of fear and loathing. This is demonstrated in two illustrations that I will talk about.

Spectacles and Social Porn

News narratives are complex, especially during times of crises. Journalism professional values often call for striking a balance between the various demands of the sociology of journalism with a focus on balance and fairness. This is not a simple case of reporting or copy editing, but works at various filtering mechanisms such as newsroom culture, biases and ideology, shared values, competition etc. The 19 Sep police storming of Batla House in Jamia Nagar, Delhi following the 13 Sep explosions presented journalists with an unfolding story that would be challenging to any newsrooms.

A few days later the police presented a few suspects in the full glare of the media with their heads covered in the Keffiyeh, a head covering widely used in the Arabic world. Whatever be the facts of this particular incident, the symbolic dimension of the act cannot be wished away. There is a problematic blurring of the spectacles provided by the terrorist acts and the subsequent police and media discourse. This visual bombardment by both the police and the media takes the focus away from the onus of proof and investigation. Terrorism defined as acts of barbaric killing, coercion, or subjugation of other humans in any form is an immoral spectacle. But that has to be countered with science/efficiency, rule of law, morality, and dignity, and not a counter spectacle.

Hindustan Times, Del, 22 Sep, p2

Times of India, Del, 22 Sep, p1

Express Newsline, Del, 22 Sep, p1

What do the above images signify? To what extent is the police, the media, and the readers all deriving the same message about the terrorists — that they are different and need to be differentiated, are Muslims, and have a teleological link to the Arabic world. The underlying and dangerous assumptions, though unstated, are clear (also see footnote 4). Journalists and critics would justify the above spectacle as merely the consequence of the terrorists own actions. There is some truth in that. We cannot draw moral equivalence between the actions of terrorists and those of police officers. However, there is a wider mimetic tendency going on here. The police and the media have joined the terrorists to add another spectacle that focuses on presenting terrorists as objects, rather than restricting them as perpetrators of a crime that can be dealt within a democratic rule of law. The latter would require focus on getting to the evidence and prosecuting the guilty, which are the founding principles of democratic justice. Voices in newspapers such as The Telegraph have raised questions about the manner in which Batla House was stormed. Such fissures within the media itself lend credibility to the charge that the tele-visual terrorist acts and state response increasingly becoming self-contained and mutually dependant events. The day after the storming of Batla house, images of officer Mohan Chand hours before his death and his bereaved family were played up. The actions of terrorists, and similar spectacle-based activities of media and security establishment, can be likened to pornography. That is, they are devoid of any intellectual meaning. After we are exposed to the first few minutes of human intimacy via sexual acts, we do not learn anything more. The aesthetic of pornography is founded on metronomic monotony and repetitiveness and lacks any intellectual depth. It is troubling that the NIA-UAPA bills were passed without any public debate or discourse. The ruling party and the opposition were in a hurry to pass the bills. Did the media play a role in consensus building for the passage of the bill? Absolutely?

News, Death, and Morality

It can be argued that media’s fascination with images that are troublesomely intimate, yet lack any meaning in themselves, point to encouragement of a voyeuristic reader. Terrorism is no longer an empirical fact, but has acquired an iconic, fetishised, and optical character. I had referred to our own culpability in the construction of terrorism as a “mean world” problem. The “War on Terror” frame, which was introduced by the world’s only remaining hyper-power, USA, has now reached India. The intellectual bankruptcy in Indian news media was proven when it framed the issue as India’s 9/11 demonstrating the power of communication, i.e., how the propaganda efforts of Bin Laden and the Bush administration have become a globalised phenomenon. We are absolutely at ease with this term. Isn’t it instructive that over 300,000 civilians have died in Iraq since 2003 and we accept this without shock and horror. Here lies the rub of media in a liberal economic agenda that commodifies news and information. Without condoning acts of terror, we can ponder over some facts. For example, over 100,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide over the last decade. Yet it does not have the same “terrorising” effect as say the bombing of a train that kills a few hundred. Over 500 journalists covered the Lakme Fashion Week while there are only a few specialist journalists covering rural and development affairs. As argued by P Sainath:

In a country whose unemployment is simply stunning, the labour correspondent is extinct. 2006 was the worst year of farmer suicides. How many national media journalists were covering the agrarian crisis in Vidarbha? There were six. But there were 512 journalists covering the Lakme Fashion Week in Mumbai.

News Agendas

(read more about these figures here)

I had earlier suggested that terrorism is 99 per cent a communicative act and 1 per cent actual violence. The illustrations I have provided so far are aimed at suggesting that news and our understanding of the world “out there” is not based on an unproblematic relaying of facts. That is, terror is no longer a verb, but has acquired the proportions of a noun. A highly complex interaction between media sociology, ideologies, the establishment, and the nature of the “here and now” media technologies that influence how we understand terror. Modern terror is not specifically new. The media presents us news in a highly simplified way, amplifying our own stereotypes and biases. Thus, the Somalian piracy crisis has been presented in the western and Indian media as one of lawlessness (with links to Islamic terrorism), which acquired hysterical proportions after the sinking of a pirate mother ship by an Indian frigate (link) while the crisis in Congo has been presented as an issue of ethnic rivalries in a backward African country (link). Both of these frames are wrong and we are deluding ourselves by believing them so.

Terrorism as long is driven and focused on individuals and groups (Bin Laden, Let) serves as a mimetic force with both sides elevating each other to justify their own existence. I particularly stress that I am not drawing a moral equivalence between Bin Laden and democratically elected leaders. But when democratic responses are driven by personalities, stereotypes, and oversimplification (for example axis of evil, you are with us or against us, India’s 9/11) with no room for internal reflection we are met with internal contradiction. For example, even though we can safely label the the LeT founders as crackpots, they have and will continue to point at the Malegaon blasts, Gujarat 2002, Mumbai riots, and the systemic violence against Muslims in India as a recruiting tool to their cause. The question is whether these cases are authentic or not? The answer, from an honest, liberal, moral, and democratic perspective would be Yes. We can continue to build defences, try to fight against the bad guys, or mend the shredded cloth of democracy through which our naked body is clearly visible.

(Post originally written for the blog “World through coloured glasses”)

1. Read a report based on Chief Justice of India K.G. Balakrishnan’s presidential address at the inaugural session of the international conference of jurists on “Terrorism, Rule of Law & Human Rights” in New Delhi on December 13, 2008. Link

2. “Mean World Beliefs” also have been termed “persecution beliefs” and refer generally to the belief akin to, “Others are out to get me.” The idea here is simply that the world is a mean place. “Just world beliefs” involve the notion that the world is a just place — that is, that individuals ultimately are punished for their wrongs, and/or that there exists a sort of fundamental fairness in human interaction.

3. Subjective violence is an act committed by one agent or body against other. Here the links and culpability are clear. Systemic violence on the other hand is the violence inherent in the system that goes on in the background that we know but do not recognise as being “violent”. For example, the global capital system which can destroy economies, institutions, societies, families, and individuals, yet we do not register the same kind of horror we express towards subjective violence.

4. For more on media portrayal of good vs bad Muslims see this article (Link).


Alvi, Naziya (2008) ‘My brother, the bomber’ Hindustan Times Delhi, 21 Sep, P1

Chauhan, Neeraj (2008) ‘Linked to Lashkar, fan of Osama, Atif was part of 14 behind blasts: police’ Indian Express, Delhi Edition, 21 Sep, P1

Der Derian, James(2005) ‘Imaging terror: logos, pathos and ethos’, Third World Quarterly, 26:1, Pages 23 – 37

Garrison, Arthur H. (2004) ‘Defining terrorism: philosophy of the bomb, propaganda by deed and change through fear and violence’, Criminal Justice Studies, 17:3,259 – 279

Sanghvi, Vir (2008) ‘After the blasts’ Hindustan Times, Delhi Edition, Sep 21, P12

Sharan, Abhishek and Singh, Vijaita (2008a) ‘Who was Atif’ Hindustan Times Delhi, 20 Sep, P1

Sharan, Abhishek and Singh, Vijaita (2008b) ‘Nationwide terror network unravels’ Hindustan Times Delhi, 21 Sep, P1

Srivastava, Tushar (2008) ‘I’ll be back in an hour’ Hindustan Times Delhi, 20 Sep, P1

Stuhr J.J. (2004) “Old Ideals Crumble: War, Pragmatist Intellectuals, and the Limits of Philosophy”, Metaphilosophy, Volume 35, Numbers 1-2, January, pp. 82-98(17)

Tripathi, Rahul (2008) ‘Lashkar support for IM-SIMI operation, explosives procured from Karnataka’ Times of India, Delhi 21 Sep, P2

Telegraph (2008) ‘Made-for-camera operation shows chinks Arrest bright spot amid goof-ups – Loss for life’ The Telegraph, Sep 21[online] here

Virilo, P (1983) Pure War, trans by M Polizotti, New York: Semiotext(e), 1983

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