Amateur hour for US media on terrorism
By Rami G. Khouri
Daily Star staff
Saturday, January 09, 2010
It has been depressing this week to watch mainstream American television networks cover Yemen and wider issues related to tensions and terrorism in our region. It is depressing because, with very few exceptions, the media that provide a majority of Americans with their news and views of world events is covering the Yemen story with a shocking combination of amateurism, ideological distortion, and selectivity.
If media are a mirror of the political system in the United States – and I believe they are – then it is no wonder that the past two decades have seen a steady expansion of two related and symbiotic problems: the spread of terrorism in and from the Arab-Asian region; and the spread of the American armed forces and covert operations in the same region.
Yemen media coverage captures this very neatly. The mainstream American media, especially network and cable television, mainly report that the problems that spur terrorism from Yemen are poverty, religious extremism, and ineffective government. Charismatic Muslim preachers, often using the internet, are also widely mentioned these days as a real problem that exacerbates the terror threat. In every report I have seen, without fail, the thrust of the report is that terrorism is a consequence of Muslim religious extremism that is somehow connected with a visceral hatred of the United States or Western ways in general.
The flaw in this approach – and it was evident in President Barack Obama’s remarks Thursday on how the US would improve its intelligence defenses against terrorism – is that it refuses to acknowledge that terrorism in our age is largely a reactionary movement that responds to perceived threats against those societies from where terrorists emerge. It is striking that in most cases of successful or failed terror attacks, the perpetrators or the organizations that send them to kill explain that they carry out their deed in response to the deeds of others – such as Israel’s assault on Palestinians, US and British armies in Iraq or Afghanistan, American drone attacks against Yemeni militants, or some other such issue.
This fact has been well documented by the pioneering work of Robert Pape at the University of Chicago. His analysis of over 500 “suicide” or “martyrdom” attacks around the world since 1980 allowed him to observe that “what over 95 percent of all suicide terrorist attacks, around the world since 1980, have in common – from Lebanon, to Chechnya, to Sri Lanka, to Kashmir, to the West Bank – is not religion, but a specific strategic goal: to compel a modern democracy to withdraw combat forces from territory the terrorists view is their homeland, or prize greatly.”
The unacceptable criminal nature of terror attacks against civilians in Arab, Western or South Asian cities are beyond question; they are totally intolerable and must be fought with all legitimate political, military and legal means. Yet if the starting point for fighting terror is only the terror attacks themselves and the societies from which they emanate, without a fuller acknowledgment of the wider cycle of political violence that also includes sustained aggressive policies by the US, the United Kingdom, Israel, Arab governments and others in the region, we will only perpetuate the current insanity mentioned earlier: the simultaneous proliferation of terrorism, American armed forces, Israeli assassinations, and other elements of the full cycle of political violence in the Arab-Asian region.
Tightening and sharpening the work of intelligence networks, as Obama promised, will prevent some attacks, for sure, and should be done to protect innocent lives. But the likelihood of this removing the terror problem is nearly zero, for the terrorists will only shift their targets and the means to implement their criminal deeds from more secure airplanes and airports to other more vulnerable and exposed targets, such as trains, boats and municipal water, power and transport systems.
Mainstream American media coverage of terrorism, Yemen and related issues is, with very few exceptions in terms of quality analysis and reporting, a horror show of superficiality, selectivity and racist sensationalism. The latest culprits for the US media are “Muslim televangelists,” as they are called. A few years ago, the culprits were the madrasas, or Muslim religious schools. Before that the culprits were the folks at Al-Jazeera television. Before that they were Saudi-financed Salafists. Before that the problem was poverty and hopelessness. Before that it was that Muslims had trouble with “modernity.” Next month, the culprits will be someone else. When will this evasive nonsense ever stop, and when will mainstream American journalism executives grow up and act like adults, rather than adolescents, on this score?
The terror problem will persist among the strange and dangerous ways of radical Muslims in exotic mountainous lands, as long as American, Israeli and Arab state policies degrade and dehumanize normal people to the point where a few of them become abnormal criminals and terrorists.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice-weekly by THE DAILY STAR.