Death and Terrorism

As a follow-on subject, this post takes a look at the relation between the scale of so-called ‘terrorism’ and the amount of attention such violence attracts.

 

The mass media has pretty much swallowed without question the notion that there is no security issue in the world greater than terrorism, and that there is a ‘war on terror’ in progress. This is not only in spite of the strained logic of the entire notion (how does one conduct a war on a method of violence, rather than on a particular opponent?), but also in spite of the extreme selectiveness with which this ‘war’ is being applied.

 

In looking at the way the issue of terrorism has been handled by policymakers and the media, one can be almost be forgiven for thinking that the term ‘terrorism’ applies only to attacks (usually involving explosives) by people of Arab origin (and/or of the Muslim faith) directed primarily against Westerners. One has only to look at the abundance of attention and outrage expressed in response to terrorist attacks on trains and buses in Spain (191 deaths) and in the UK (56 deaths). On the other hand a terrorist attack by a rebel group on a train in Angola in 2001 (more than 250 deaths) was barely noticed and has certainly not been remembered. If this is how we see the definition of terrorism, then the issue has been blown way out of proportion. Death tolls from almost any single major conflict outstrip the total death toll from this particular brand of ‘terrorism’.

 

It is also worth noting the response to the indiscriminate attacks on civilians by 10 gunmen in Mumbai, India in late November resulting in 195 deaths – some of them Westerners (who appeared to be targeted to a degree). The media responded with saturation coverage – blow by blow accounts of the violence, heart wrenching accounts of the fate of the victims and the survivors, and all means of analysis on the causes and implications of the attacks. At almost exactly the same time, sectarian clashes in the city of Jos in Nigeria resulted in some 400 deaths over a period of two days. From the perspective of the Western media, these attacks were hardly even worthy of a mention. The New York Times devoted a total of 3 articles to violence in Nigeria. As of 15 December, the attacks in India had sparked more than 50 related articles in the same newspaper.

 

This is not to take away from the political implications of the attack in India – not least the issue of rising tensions between nuclear-capable India and Pakistan. But at the same time, instability in Nigeria in any form should not be seen as being devoid of political and strategic implications, even from Western-centric standards. Nigeria’s oil accounts for one in ten of the barrels that the USA imports, and violence elsewhere in Nigeria (in the Niger Delta) has directly targeted the oil industry in that country, forcing major cuts in production and increases in global oil prices.

 

Political and strategic implications aside, what the difference in the response to these incidents helps demonstrate is the point that the scale of a conflict or individual attack (namely the death toll) has very little to do with the amount of attention it attracts – which makes many of the displays of indignation and ‘humanitarianism’ appear somewhat hollow.

 

In any case, terrorism is a highly loaded word, full of all kinds of political implications, making definitions highly controversial. But taking the word in its simplest sense – the use of fear/terror to achieve political objectives, there should be no logical reason to distinguish an attack by a suicide bomber on a civilian train in a Western city from an attack by a militia group on civilians in a village in the Democratic Republic of Congo aimed at frightening people into leaving or complying with the militia’s demands. Both clearly constitute terrorism, and if there is indeed a ‘war on terror’ in progress, then the latter (which has in fact proven infinitely deadlier than the former) cannot be ignored.

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