|Terrorism and the Media||View other pieces in "Harper's"|
|By Mark Danner , Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Leszek Kolakowski, et al.||October 1984|
|Tags: Terrorism | Media | Harper's Forums|
When Yasir Arafat spoke at the United Nations some years ago with a gun in his belt, he was giving a performance in what has become the terrorist theater. Every schoolchild knows the script: the terrorist, Kalashnikov in hand, transfixed in the glare of the television lights as he displays his hostages before the cameras, stands as a peculiarly modem hybrid of cold- blooded killer, glib ideologue, and fast-talking advertising man. By hijacking an airliner or seizing an embassy he plays master of ceremonies at a media spectacle staged wholly to sell the legitimacy of his political cause and promote his mortal metamorphosis - the erstwhile thug emerges a "guerrilla" or, better still, a "freedom fighter."
The power of today's media, especially television, makes possible this violent road to legitimacy. The terrorist's bloody theatrics lure the journalist, who exhibits the hijackings and kidnappings before the world, thereby transforming them into political statements. By providing the terrorist with a podium in exchange for a photo opportunity, by replacing what he does with what he says, the media become indispensable partners in terrorist productions.
In the discussion that follows, eight prominent journalists consider how the media can report terrorist acts without advertising terrorist causes. Two essays examining the distinction between terrorism and legitimate political violence preface the discussion.
The following Farum is based on the proceedings of the Jonathan Institute's Second
Conference on International Terrorism, held last June in Washington, D. C.
JEANE J. KIRKPATRICK is the U.S. representative to the United Nations. Before joining the Reagan Administration she was a professor of government at Georgetown University.
The terrorist chooses violence as the instrument of first resort. Yet terrorism differs from simple crime, which can also be defined as unauthorized violence against people who are not at war. The difference lies not in the act itself, but in the terrorist's understanding, however vague, of what he is doing. The terrorist's motive is political in a way that the criminal's is not. The terrorist acts in the name of some public purpose. The members of Lucky Luciano's Murder Inc., on the other hand; acted for private purposes. John Hinckley, as I understand it, attempted to kill President Reagan for essentially private reasons. The terrorists who sprayed bullets into Goldenberg's restaurant, like those who attempted to murder exiled Nicaraguan leader Eden Pastora, had a public goal. Terrorism is a form of political war.
Terrorism should also be distinguished from conventional war, and terrorists from soldiers. A soldier uses violence in accordance with the legally constituted authorities of his society against enemies designated by those authorities. He uses violence where a state of belligerence is recognized to exist. A terrorist engages in violence in violation of law against people who do not understand themselves to be at war. The victims of terrorist attacks are unarmed, undefended, and unwary. The crucial point is that they conceive of themselves as civilians. They do not understand that they are regarded by the terrorist as belligerents in an ongoing war. Terrorist war is part of a total war, which sees the whole of society as the enemy and all the members of society as appropriate objects for violence. It is absolute war because its goal is the absolute destruction of the old society. Terrorists are the shock troops in a war to the death against the values and institutions of a society and of the people who embody it.
The affinities between terrorism and totalitarianism are multiple. Both politicize society. The totalitarian makes society, culture, and even personality the objects of his plans and actions; the terrorist sees the whole of society as the object of his violence, his war. Both regard violence as an appropriate means to their political ends, and both use violence as the instrument of first resort. Both reject the basic moral principles of Judeo-Christian civilization. Both terrorists and totalitarians act and see themselves as acting in the name of a new morality, whose transcendent .collective ends demand the violation of conventional morality and the sacrifice of people whose membership in the old society makes them expendable. Both encourage the expression of murderous Instincts, whose repression, Freud correctly emphasized, is a precondition of civilization. The relations of both totalitarians and terrorists to others are dominated by hostile intent: the enemy is everywhere; struggle is inevitable, unending, total.
I see two important links between totalitarianism and terrorism. First, the most powerful totalitarian state of our time is also the principal supporter and sponsor of international terrorism. Second, those who pursue power by using terrorism generally aspire to form totalitarian societies. As Orwell wrote, "It is not merely that power corrupts, so also do the ways of attaining power. Therefore, all efforts to regenerate society by violent means lead to the cellars of the NKVD." "The essential act," he aiso wrote, "is the rejection of democracy - that is, of the underlying values of democracy. Once you have decided upon that, Stalin, or at any rate someone like Stalin, is already under way."
Since the choice of method is the essential political act, it is hardly surprising that rulers who choose coercion as an instrument of government should see violence as the preeminent means of extending their political dominion. Beginning in the late 1960s, for example, Soviet theorists began to identify "the armed road" as the way to achieve power in the Western Hemisphere. Realizing that their own revolutionary experience could be applied elsewhere, "¢ they set about supporting terrorist groups in this hemisphere. The Bandera Roja in Venezuela, the FMLN in EI Salvador, the FSLN in Nicaragua, and the Montoneros in Argentina are just a few of the small bands of violent men who have been supported in their efforts to win power over apparently overwhelming numbers by Soviet bloc countries. These technicians in violence and propaganda are called national liberation movements. Such groups use terror to inspire fear and produce a revolutionary situation; this has become the preferred tactic in contemporary revolutionary conflict. The Russians frankly acknowledge that their support for such movements may be "decisive" - as, for example, when they say, "National liberation struggle is a form of war waged by peoples of colonial and dependent, or formerly colonial, territories, in which socialist countries [like the Soviet Union] become the decisive factor when people launch an armed struggle against internal reactionaries." The United Nations' acceptance of so-called national liberation movements as legitimate is as good an indicator as any of the moral confusion that has come to surround this view of violence as the preferred method of political action.
Since the 1970s, the U.N. General Assembly has passed numerous resolutions asserting its support for the right of SWAPO, the PLO, and other national liberation movements to "struggle by all means ... to achieve power." The General Assembly majority has proclaimed that these states have the right to employ violence - that terrorist violence in defense of national liberation is no crime - and has so consistently condemned countries for attempting to defend themselves against terrorist violence that an operational principle seems to have been established. The distinction between legitimate and illegitimate use of force has not so much been blurred as stood on its head. Where recognized states were once seen as having a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, liberation movements are now seen as having such a monopoly.
The intellectual and moral confusion has become very serious. Unable to distinguish between force used to liberate and force used to enslave, a majority of nations in the U.N. regard legitimacy as a function of the will and power exercised on behalf of national liberation movements. Yet we know better. We know it cannot be that terror wreaked on a civilian population by a revolutionary movement is liberation, while violence committed by a government responding to a guerrilla threat is repression.
There is one last affinity between totalitarianism and terrorism. Both attempt to confuse as well as to terrorize. Orwell, Solzhenitsyn, and others have said that in totalitarian societies, violence is used to maintain a system of lies, and lies are used to justify relations based on violence. Violence can be used to close a society. Lies can be used to veil the violence - to call open that which is closed, true that which is false, insane he who raises questions. Violence, as Solzhenitsyn emphasized, is the opposite of peace. It is war. Finding the courage to face the truth and speak about it is surely the first step toward the defeat of those who would destroy our freedom and our world.
LESZEK KOLAKOWSKI was far many years a professar of the history of philosophy at the University of Warsaw. Since being expelled from the university in 1968 for political reasons, he has taught mostly in England and the United States, and currently divides his time between All Souls College, Oxford, and the University of Chicago. His books include the three-volume study Main Currents of Marxism and Religion.
Defining terrorism clearly so as to distinguish between terrorist acts and justified political violence is often difficult today. Partly this results from the general degradation of our political language - the lines between "liberation" and "invasion," "freedom" and "slavery," "democracy" and "tyranny" have likewise been obscured. In the nineteenth century it was clear what terrorism was: assassination campaigns directed at government officials by opposition groups (such as the anarchists and populists in Russia) who aimed to undermine the established power. Indeed, these terrorists applied the term to themselves. Nowadays, of course, no one admits to being a terrorist, just as no one admits to opposing freedom, peace, and democracy.
Our uncertainty about when to apply the word "terrorist" is the reverse side of our confusion about the concept of legitimacy. Democratic states are compelled by the international situation to recognize the legitimacy of many despotic regimes - some of which sponsor terrorism - and have thus themselves helped to obscure the distinction between recognizing a government (which implies merely that it is effectively in control of a country) and recognizing the legitimacy of that government (which implies a popular mandate). Many states that have emerged since the war, especially those in the Third World, have never known anything resembling democratic politics; in some, politicians have traditionally competed with one another by assassinating their rivals. Communism provides an easy path to ideological legitimacy for many of these regimes, whether they are communist or not. As understood in communist doctrine, legitimacy does not derive from any mechanism whereby society confers power on any group or individual, but is purely ideological: those in power simply declare that they embody the interests and aspirations of the people, of the nation, of all mankind, regardless of whether they can offer any proof to support these claims. The very existence of the United Nations, which includes among its members some clearly gangster states, is not helpful in this respect, for it confers on all members the same international legitimacy. And there exists no effective mechanism whereby states that practice international terrorism can be branded as international outlaws.
Since the distinction between these two kinds of recognition has become unclear, when a state employs terror its legitimacy is not weakened in the opinion of other states, The distinction therefore becomes blurred as well between the sometimes violent struggle against oppression and despotism, on the one hand, and terrorism aimed at the destruction of democratic institutions, on the other. And so the armed struggle of the underground partisans against the Nazi occupation, for example, was perfectly legitimate, because the rule of the invaders had no legitimacy whatsoever.
Modern totalitarianism has also helped muddle the question of legitimacy. Rather than establish a particularly cruel and repressive law, totalitarian states effectively abolish law altogether. What is characteristic of totalitarianism is a form of law consisting of lawlessness - that is, the law's independence as a mediator between society and the state is destroyed. Legal codes, especially those that apply to political matters, are deliberately vague, designed to give a free hand to the executive power (which is identical to the legislative and judicial powers) in jailing or killing anyone it wishes. Thus the worst atrocities committed by the Soviet government against its own people, including the genocide during Stalin's regime, have been for the most part entirely legal. Although state terror has been considerably restricted since Stalin's time, the principle that the law cannot restrict the prerogatives of the executive has never been abrogated. Since the legitimacy of the overwhelming power of the state rests entirely on ideology ("We rule because we express the historical interests of the society, of the working class, of the nation," etc. ), the ideology itself is absolutely essential, whether anyone takes it seriously or not. The ruling power is always right in its struggles against all enemies, internal or external, real or imagined. Therefore, terrorism against other states - whether it involves assassinating troublesome defectors or even foreign leaders such as the pope - is always justified.
Communist countries, with some obvious exceptions (Russia and Poland during the early years of communist rule, Hungary during the revolution), have never experienced terrorism directed against the state. The only organized, democratic resistance that has ever existed in a communist country - Solidarity in Poland in 1980-81 - never employed violence against the state, although it had the practical means to do so. All the political violence in Poland was employed by the government. In part the efficiency and size of the secret police in cornmunist countries accounts for the relative absence of terrorism there. The openness of democratic societies, by contrast, not only allows terrorists easy access to arms and false documents and gives them relative freedom of movement, it makes their job less dangerous - if they are caught, they are rarely tortured or executed. But there is an ideological reason as well: the very existence of democratic legitimacy is intolerable to totalitarian regimes. It is not the supposed military threat or the widely cited feelings of "insecurity" which compel the Soviet Union to try to destroy democratic institutions all over the world. It is the simple fact that the ideological legitimacy of the communist power system must always appear grotesque so long as democratic countries exist.
But there remain painful problems in defining legitimacy today; criteria that would be universally applicable are difficult to find. In many countries, it is impossible to determine the degree of popular support enjoyed by the government. And in any case, some cruel or despotic systems may be popular, at least for a time, and can therefore make claims to legitimacy. This was certainly true for some years in Nazi Germany; Iran's barbarous theocracy could today make similar claims. But the concept is clear enough when political violence is directed against countries where legal forms exist for political opposition to operate openly and for political conflict to be resolved, and where the rights of minorities are respected. Terror directed against the legitimate authorities in such a state amounts to a declaration of civil war and should be treated accordingly. Political violence directed against one state by another constitutes a declaration of war and should be treated accordingly.
Terrorism and the Media: A Discussion
is anchorman of the ABC News programs Nightline and Viewpoint.
He served as moderatorof this discussion.
is the editor of Commentary. His books include
Why We Were in Vietnam and The Present Danger.
is a senior editor of the New Republic and a contributing essayist at Time.
is a professor of the history of Russian culture at the
Ecole des Hautes Etudes in Paris and a columnist for L'Express.
is an assistant editor and columnist at the London Daily Telegraph
and a former editor of Policy Review.
is senior correspondent of Cable News Network and author of Clearing the Air.
is a columnist whose articles appear regularly in
Newsweek, the Washington Post, and 400
other newspapers across the country.
is an assistant managing editor of the Washington Post and
co-author of All the President's Men and The Brethren.
But we should remember that not all terrorism is dependent on the media. When we discuss terrorism we are really talking about at least three different kinds of political violence. The first and oldest kind is assassination, the usual form of political violence before World War II. The political assassin does not need the media to explain what his act means; in fact, often he does not want publicity at all. His object is simply to eliminate a political actor.
The second form of terrorism, which emerged after the war, is the random attack on civilians, but civilians of a particular type-civilians who are members of the enemy class or nationality. Terrorism of this sort, as practiced, for example, by the FLN in Algeria in the late 1950s and early 1960s, is also independent of the media. Its object is to demoralize the enemy during a war, and its audience is the victim himself and his compatriots. In the case of Algeria, it was the pieds noirs, the French living there.
The third and newest form of terrorism, which the PLO largely created after 1968, is the random attack on anyone. We might refer to this as "media terrorism," for it can exist only if there is an interpreter to give it meaning. The terrorist acts of the FLO were not intended to
Media terrorism - such as the 1975 murder of three Dutchmen who happened to be on a commuter train hijacked by Moluccans, or the 1976 seizure of Yugoslavian hostages by Croatian terrorists - is a form of political advertising. In the latter instance, the Croatians demanded that U.S. newspapers publish their manifesto. Since the outlaws cannot buy television time, they have to earn it through terrorist acts. Like the sponsors of early television who produced shows as vehicles for their commercials, media terrorists now provide drama - murder and kidnapping, live-in return for advertising time.
The media's responsibility to act with self-restraint is obviously greatest with this kind of terrorism. In those cases where the victim is chosen at random and has no connection whatever with any political struggle, terrorism is actually a lure to attract the media. Through his acts, the terrorist tries to earn a stage on which to proclaim his message. And the media then take upon themselves the duty of interpreting those acts. In 1979, for example, terrorists attacked the American Embassy in Beirut with grenades. One network correspondent explained that this action was "perhaps an expression of resentment and frustration" on the part of Palestinians over the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. Here we reach a level where an attack on innocents is rationalized as a psychological necessity. Or consider the attack on a bus near Tel Aviv last April: it was generally explained as the PLO's assertion that it still existed after its expulsion from Lebanon, a kind of "I kill, therefore I am." Without the press to carry this message, the act would have been meaningless; in fact, since it had no military or political purpose, it probably would not have been committed in the first place. I believe that when the point of a terrorist attack is to force the media to function as interpreters, the media have a heavy responsibility not to do the interpreting.
Television is a leveling and homogenizing medium. It is very difficult to interview terrorists without presenting them not as a species of criminal but as a species of politician. You may try to interview a terrorist toughly, to ask searching questions and make plain that he is a murderer, and yet it is.difficult to imagine how anyone could be grilled more toughly than, say, Dan Rather grilled Mr. Nixon. I myself am perfectly prepared to support a ban on interviews with terrorists in Northern Ireland, since the only justification advanced for such interviews - namely, that we need to know what the terrorists' views are - is absurd. We know what their views are before they ever appear on television.
Media terrorism is primarily a television problem. Being on television confers a kind of reality on people, much more so than being written about in the newspaper. But what should TV journalists do? Not cover terrorist events? Well, obviously not - we are in the news business. But we don't have to provide live coverage when nothing is really happening. We don't have to telephone terrorists and ask them to give live interviews. I suggest that we in the news business impose some voluntary limits, because if we don't, there may come a time when they are imposed on us.
Perhaps one problem lies in our definition of the term "terrorist." I don't think we ought to say that John Wilkes Booth or Gavrilo Princip were terrorists, although certainly they had political aims. The dominant kind of terrorism today, the kind we should be discussing, is what Secretary of State Shultz has called state-sponsored terrorism. Such terrorism is used by certain states as an instrument of rational policy; it is not a television psychodrama, and thus is far beyond the capacity of journalists to deal with. And it is only the beginning of clarity to understand that just as revolutions are made not by bad water or bad schools or hungry people but by revolutionaries, so terrorism is made not by television but by terrorists. Terrorists make terrorism for the same reason people make potato chips - it pays. When it doesn't pay, they'll quit making potato chips and they'll quit making terrorism. And I think it would be a mistake to assume that the public is apt to grow bored very soon. The "Indiana Jones phenomenon" will undoubtedly come to affect terrorism that is, just when the senses of the public seem saturated, terrorists will find new ways to lacerate people's sensibilities.
Popular newspapers like the New York Post or the Daily Mail in England would say: "A shy 21- year-old girl, whose only interest in life is tennis, was last night fighting for her life in a London hospital after being blown up in a restaurant by an IRA bomb. By her bedside was her fiance, Gordon Williamson, 23. 'She didn't have an enemy in the world,' he said.
The New York Times or the Guardian would report something quite different: "Two people were killed and one injured in an IRA explosion in London iast night. Government sources interpreted the explosion as a response to the government's decision to introduce a bill increasing parliamentary representation for Ulster. Sources in Belfast believed to be close to the IRA said that the attack was the start of a major campaign in which targets on the British mainland would not be exempt."
The assumption of the popular press is that terrorists are important for what they do. The assumption of the quality press is that terrorists are important for what they say. I suggest that the first assumption is much more sensible.
Nonetheless it is true that the media have to change their rules when dealing with terrorism, because the terrorist act is of a different empirical reality than other events. In physics, the Heisenberg principle says that events are changed by being observed. The media have an obligation to apply their own Heisenberg principle. Journalists must recognize that there exists a unique class of political events, media terrorism; these acts acquire importance by, and often are undertaken with the sole intention of, being broadcast over the media. Because of the symbiotic relationship between the media and terrorist acts, because these acts are created or at least greatly amplified by media coverage, journalists must exercise self-restraint - call it censorship if you like. The rule.of thumb I propose is this: In covering terrorist-events, reporters ought to concentrate on who, what, where, and when. They should leave the question of why to the historians and the psychiatrists.
What is the responsibility of the press in covering terrorism? If a representative of a terrorist group approaches the Washington Post and says, "I want to try to explain to you who we are and what we are," Bob Woodward can write a gripping story describing who the terrorists are and what they believe. By writing this story he does not prevent the police from taking action against them. But if the government then forces him to betray the confidence that made the story possible, while a few people may be arrested, he will never get that kind of story again. Some of us still believe that journalists are people committed to the idea that the world must know. We believe that our job is to explain who terrorists are-whether they are right-wing terrorists or left-wing terrorists-without accepting the view of anyone side. The free press can be destroyed very easily if it is polarized in the way that some have suggested here. We should examine the press in countries where it tries to satisfy the prejudices of particular groups - in France, the Soviet Union, Syria - before we start making new rules for ourselves.
Now, I want to give an example of the sort of media self-restraint that I am suggesting. In the late 1970s, there was a rash of episodes in which spectators at sporting events jumped out onto the playing field for their fifteen seconds of exposure on national television. After a number of these episodes, some of the networks decided to tum the cameras away. Instead, a reporter would say, "There's someone running out onto the field, but we won't show him to you because if we do, it will encourage other clowns to do the same thing." Now, when you hear the crowd cheering as the clowns are being chased off the field, you really want to see what is happening. But clearly it is worth forgoing that pleasure in order to gain a greater societal good - the nondisruption of future ball games. I think media executives should exercise the same self-restraint in covering terrorism, when the societal good to be gained is reducing the incentive to political murder.
But I urge you not to be in too much of a hurry to change the role that we in the media play, because once it has been changed, even for reasons that now seem valid, it may be difficult to change it back when the reasons are no longer so valid.