For the past few days I have been thinking about the terrorist attack last week in London. It was a terrible attack, and from todays news it sounds like about 50 people died and hundreds were injured. We should certainly show compassion on those who were injured and those who lost loved ones. And I admire the resolve of the British people.
But I am wondering about how all this plays out on the media and what motivates the terrorists. These acts of violence are not merely expressions of hatred. They are carefully designed to influence public opinion as a way to try to affect national policy. The targets and timing are carefully chosen to have maximum effect. The terrorists know very well that in a democracy if they can influence the thinking of enough people then the government will have to change its policy. So for them terrorism is an instrument of public policy.
Terrorism is not new. Even in ancient times armies used acts of terror to create a climate of fear in which people would be more willing to submit to their conquerors. But what is different in modern times is the role of the media. Unlike earlier times, in our day a few carefully orchestrated acts of violence can impact the entire world. Think about what an attack similar to that in London would have been like 100 years ago. We would have first hear about the attacks 12-24 hours later in the newspaper. There would have been articles for a day or two about the tragedy in London, and maybe an article on whether or not it could happen here… and that would have been it. Nothing like the wall to wall coverage that is available now, especially on the “all news” channels. No repeated video clips of the wreckage. No interviews of people caught in the explosions telling us how terrible it was. No closeup videos of someone weeping over a lost loved one. No endless speculations about how it happened, how things might have gone and expert opinions ad nauseum.
All this makes me wonder if we are playing right into the hands of the terrorists with all the media coverage. The media coverage makes their attack have 1000 times the impact it would have had without it. The spectacle of blind folded hostages pleading for their lives simply would not have been possible 100 years ago. TV makes it all possible. One even wonders if the media coverage actually fuels further terrorism. This is terrorism made for TV.
I’m not sure that there is a good solution. Freedom of the press is essential to democracy, and so I would not suggest some sort of censorship. We could urge self-restraint on the part of the press, but I doubt they would listen. The fact is, they will show us whatever they think we would like to see. It’s all about ratings and advertising dollars. If no one watched the extensive coverage of terrorist attacks then maybe the networks would show us something else. But that would require self restraint on our parts. Probably not going to happen either.
Sometimes I wonder if terrorist attacks and other disaster coverage is the ultimate form of reality TV. It satisfies our voyeuristic desire to see something gruesome and “exciting” up close and personal. We should ask ourselves why we need to see all those interviews of people weeping for their losses. Is it really compassion? Or just morbid curiosity! Why do we need to see all that?
As for me, when I heard about the terrorist attacks last Thursday I did briefly check a few news sites to get a quick overview. Then I went back to what I was doing (working on my sermon). I didn’t watch any of the video clips. And I didn’t watch it on TV either because my antenna is currently not working (or maybe a cable is loose). Actually it has been out for several months, and I don’t really miss it. My family enjoys watching DVDs sometimes. Much better than watching TV because there are no commercials. And Netflix is way cheaper than cable TV!