Terrorism as communication

House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez
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House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez is quite right. To be of any use, any discussion or debate on terrorism and terrorists — specifically to determine if an incident in which dozens of people are killed is an act of terrorism or not — can only be meaningful if the discussants are talking about the same thing. That can happen only if everyone in the conversation agrees on a definition of what terrorism or a terrorist is.

“The ultimate consequence (?) of the attack on Resorts World is an act of terrorism,” Alvarez said in a statement. “Let us stick to the definition of terrorism. Anybody who with premeditation harms and kills people indiscriminately is a terrorist.”

Unfortunately, while he’s right about the need for everyone, whether the citizenry, government officials or media people, to keep the meaning of terrorism and terrorists in mind, Alvarez forgot an element equally crucial in defining terrorism as the indiscriminate use of violence: that it is a means intended to achieve a political purpose.

The perpetrators of such acts of terror as the bombing of a shopping mall full of shoppers, a shooting in a crowded airport, a hijacking in which airline passengers are held hostage, the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, or anything else that results in the indiscriminate killing of individuals including women and children and other non-combatants in a conflict, commit the deed to deliver and underscore a political message, and are usually identified with an organization with declared and known political goals.

That means that there is a political context in the act— an ongoing campaign for political autonomy, for example, or, as in the case of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the establishment of Islamic fundamentalist states in predominantly Muslim territories — of which the act is a tactic to force governments to comply.

While a “lone wolf” act of terrorism is carried out by an individual acting alone, that individual usually makes sure, either during or after the attack, that his organization’s message or his sympathies with the aims of an organization are at least known or disseminated. The fundamental aim of a terrorist act is to reach as wide an audience as possible — to terrorize entire populations so as to immobilize a government or to compel it, through its terrified constituencies, to change or adapt a policy that will favor the terrorists.

For this purpose the media are indispensable. Terrorism is a form of communication, and terrorist acts are meant to demonstrate through newspaper, broadcast and online reports that unless terrorist demands are met, no one is safe and anyone can be the next victim of random acts of violence. In addition to maintaining their own websites, shooting videos of beheadings, and producing audio tapes through which the aims and demands of their organization are given free expression, terrorists also make sure that whatever they do will make the evening news. It explains why ISIS tried to take responsibility for the Resorts World Manila incident, for example.

This tactic is far from new, and, from the Russian anarchist Nikolai Bakunin, is known as “propaganda by the deed.” It is based on an astute understanding of the values of the news media, specifically the latter’s being driven by the imperatives and standards of news reporting. Because it’s news, a bombing or a shooting in which property is destroyed and people are killed and/or wounded will be reported by the media, in the course of which, the terrorist organization hopes, its aims will be reported as well.

As former Pacific News Editor Walter Anderson argues, “Deaths, the destruction of property, the flamboyant or dangerous use of technological devises, deprivation of liberty, are not the ends of terrorism. They are the means by which to terrorize — to make an impression on the spectator.” Every terrorist act is almost inevitably a media spectacle.

Students of terrorism as a contemporary threat contend that terrorism can flourish only in an age in which the media incessantly blanket the world daily with billions of bytes of information, thereby creating and momentarily satisfying the endless hunger for more and more “news” — the more sensational, the more shocking, violent and outrageous the better.

Anderson points out that the media “have created a global theater, and with a well-placed bomb you can, for the moment, take center stage on it.” Anderson suggests that the media “cut back on the sensationalistic reportorial orgies that accompany acts of terrorism, that brings so little information to the public yet cooperate so enthusiastically with terrorists’ agendas.”

The alleged perpetrator of the June 3 “attack” on Resorts World Manila, one Jessie Javier Carlos, appears at this point to be no more than a desperate gambling addict whose purpose was neither to kill indiscriminately nor to send a political message. The casualties succumbed to asphyxiation rather than bullet wounds; indeed Carlos seemed to have avoided killing anyone intentionally, his focus being on the millions in gambling chips that he is said to have seized from the Resorts World storage facility but which were later recovered.

Carlos issued no statements, took no hostages and made no demands, whether of a political or non-political nature. Despite Speaker Alvarez’ insistence that what he did was terrorism, it does not qualify on at least two counts: the absence of indiscriminate violence, and the evident lack of a political purpose.

The use of indiscriminate violence — targeting anyone including non-combatants in a conflict — sets apart terrorist groups, which have a political agenda to advance, from armed social movements.

Leonard B. Weinberg and Paul B. Davis, in their book Political Terrorism, note that terrorists deliberately target non-combatants in a conflict, much like the Maute Group has been doing in Marawi City. Authentic revolutionary organizations, on the other hand, while having political goals as well, engage armed government forces and generally avoid inflicting casualties on civilian populations, thus the critical importance of whether the use of violence is indiscriminately against unarmed civilians or only against armed opponents. This crucial difference distinguishes terrorist groups from armed social movements — the Katipunan comes to mind — with legitimate grievances and which also use violence for political ends.

But above all this is a common need among both terrorist groups and the latter for media exposure. The difference is that the former attract media attention through outrageous acts of violence that target anyone whether young or old, as well as women and children, while the latter hope to gain media exposure through statements, manifestos, declarations and successful encounters with government forces.

In the age of media and terrorism, it is vital for government officials and journalists to keep these necessary definitions and distinctions in mind, lest the public end up even more confused than it already is, and unable to cope with terrorism if and when it does happen.

First published in BusinessWorld. Photo from PCOO.

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