Media Representations of Terrorism

Media Representations of Terrorism

John Downing (Southern Illinois University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-5776-2.ch005
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Abstract

This chapter begins with a comparative overview of violence against civilians in war, terrorist events, and torture. The comparisons are between the United States since the 9/11 attacks, Britain during the civil war in Northern Ireland 1969-2000, and France during and since the Algerian armed liberation struggle of 1954-1962. The discussion covers the general issues involved, and then summarizes existing research on British and French media representations of political violence. This chapter then proceeds to a critical-discourse analysis of the U.S. Fox Television channel's highly successful dramatic series, 24. The series is currently considered one of the most extended televisual reflections on the implications of 9/11. Political violence, counter-terrorism, racism, and torture are central themes demonstrated in this television series. It is argued that the show constructs a strangely binary imaginary of extremist and moderate “Middle Easterners” while simultaneously projecting a weirdly post-racist America. In particular, the series articulates very forcefully an ongoing scenario of instantaneous decision-making, under dire impending menace to public safety, which serves to insulate the U.S. counter-terrorist philosophy and practice from an urgently needed rigorous public critique.
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Introduction: Violence Against Civilians, Past And Present

[O]ne of the immanent possibilities of the state’s monopoly of violence is the transgression of those very legal frameworks which in theory act to limit its arbitrariness. It is at this point that we talk of states becoming terroristic, or of employing unacceptable techniques (such as torture) whose use they themselves would wish to deny, dissimulate or euphemize (Schlesinger, 1991, p. 9).

The main empirical focus of this chapter is the political discourse of the Fox TV series 24 (2001-2010).1 To understand its influence on U.S. culture, however, we need to set it in a much larger comparative and indeed historical, political, and cultural context (Downing, 2007). To do so, this chapter first provides a comparative overview of violence against civilians in war, terrorist events, and torture. Comparisons are drawn between the United States since the terrorist events of September 11, 2001, Britain during the civil war in Northern Ireland 1969-2000, and France during and since the Algerian armed liberation struggle of 1954-1962. This exploration covers the general issues involved and includes a summary of existing research on British and French media representations of political violence. These specific analyses are explored to demonstrate the prevalence of violence against civilians in a historical context.

However, while terrorism has become an emerging concern among governments and civilians alike, the deliberate infliction of death and mutilation on non-combatants—as war policy—is hardly new to human history. For instance, think: World War II and its precursors—the British onslaught on Kurdish and Arab villages in Iraq in 1920 (Glancey, 2003, April 19), the 1931 Japanese military invasion of China (You-Li, 1993), the Italian assault on Ethiopia, Gernika of 1935 (Baratieri, 2010; Steer, 2012)—put an end to the intra-European code in practice, although the old public rhetoric persists to this very day in terminology such as “smart bombs” and “minimum collateral damage.” That rhetoric’s continued use pays tribute in some measure to the persistent reluctance of most humans to contemplate the savagery of war, for if that were not so, these soothingly hypocritical obfuscations would not need to be deployed. In particular, the old soldier-to-soldier battles evaporated with the saturation (“carpet”) bombing of Hamburg in July 1943, of Dresden in August 1944, and of some 60 other German cities, amounting to 20% of the total residential area of the country and killing 300,000 civilians (Beck, 1986). This was followed by the saturation bombing of Tokyo and other Japanese cities in March 1945 (resulting in some 170,000 deaths), which only then culminated in the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Grayling, 2006).

The predominance of the Air Force and of bombing from a safe distance in U.S. military strategy dates from that period (Sherry, 1987), a strategy which the South East Asian War (1965-1975), the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, and the Bush Administration’s threats against Iran, demonstrated to be still paramount. A frequently cited study by Sivard (1991) suggests that over the 20th century the civilian percentage of wartime deaths rose from 5% in World War I to over 50% in World War II, to around 90% by 1990. Thus, the gigantic 15,000-pound “daisy-cutter” bombs deployed in Afghanistan—the total heartlessness of this mocking military term is truly evocative of the hypocrisy of America’s democratic global mission—had a pristine pedigree. The cluster bombs so beloved of the U.S. military high command both multiply immediate civilian casualties and scatter the equivalent of landmines and booby-traps that will be set off by casual contact later (Wiseman, 2003, December 16), especially when projected from remote ground-based missile-launchers. Depleted uranium bomb casings have their own long-term civilian impact, yet to be fully assessed by independent scientists.

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