The word terrorist is clearly over used and even misused by the media and government officials. The media has created the image of the terrorist and portrayed it as a group of uneducated conservative extremists hiding up in the caves. The truth is that most attacks that have occurred in US and Europe were all thought with geopolitical intentions. So what is terrorism and what is the main intention behind an attack?
Despite what most people think, the fact is terrorism is not really about mass murder. The primary goal of a terrorist attack is to strike and create fear and panic in the hearts and minds of ordinary citizens. It’s all about the psychological impact rather than the physical damage. And when the targeted population responds with hysteria, its behavior becomes irrational, and so the perpetrators get the return on their physical attack. For e.g, when the Americans were in panic and fear over the 9/11 attacks, the foreign policy of the Super Power changed. The psychological impact was so strong that it resulted in the invasion of Afghanistan and to some extent in the invasion of Iraq. And this was the reaction Al Qaeda had wanted to provoke. Another example is the train bombings in Spain in 2004, just 3 days before the National elections. The fear and anger that the Spanish population experienced resulted that the ruling party lost power in the elections. Again exactly what Al Qaeda had hoped for.
I think it is important to recognize that terrorists are not just couple of extremists with long beards hiding in the caves which is how Bollywood and Hollywood portrays them. But most of the terrorist organisations think 3 moves ahead. They are intelligent, resourceful and formidable opponents. Most terrorist organisations do extensive planning and have geopolitical ambitions. They do a lot of calculations and understand the fundamentals of human psychology. They know how to manipulate people and how to provoke countries. When we recognize this fact, the terrorists loses its mystique and we start to look at them from pragmatic perspective.
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Another issue I want to highlight is the role of media. The main stream is not at all that honourable. These are “companies” and as such there primary interests are financial. For e.g, television channels are influenced by sponsors, gate keepers and what news attracts the most viewers. The fact is that “negative news” sells the best. People are not interested in positive news, it has very less news value. Think about it. When was the last time you read anything positive? Negative news sells best is counter productive when it comes to terrorism. In most cases, media makes a sensation about the terrorist attack, and this feeds the hysteria of the ordinary population. Every terrorist organisation is aware of this fact. It started in early 1970s when the terrorists group started to exploit the media to advance the psychological impact of their attacks. For e.g, the kidnappings and murders of the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972. This attack was purely made for television. There is non-stop media exposure, and this allows people to tune in and follow the events minute by minute. This amount of media exposure allows the viewer to become secondary victims as the violence unfolds. Because the propaganda of the attack becomes far larger. Just think about how watching the 9/11 attacks live on TV affected you at that time. 24 hours media exposure is how the media works. But more than often the media deliberately builds a sensation around the terrorist attacks. And the media is not alone in this. The internet can spread mis-information and fear very quickly over a large portion of the population. The scarier and the crazier the story, the faster it spreads and the more the websites earn from advertising revenues. This kind of mis-information builds the hype and further reinforces the psychological intentions of the terrorist organisations.
Even government play along those psychological impacts. Sometimes it is deliberate and sometimes it is just premature warnings. For e.g, the threat level indicator of the US department of Homeland and Security. All that it really did was to enforce the state propaganda by striking fear in the minds of the citizens. And this kind of fear based propaganda isn’t exclusive to the American government, the French, the British, the Russians pretty much every government in the world has used fear to mobilize an entire nation into a certain political design. We have seen this happen many times in history. The incubation of fear is so strong that all Bin laden needed to do was make a video recording and make threats, and the media, the internet and the government would do the rest. That’s why even failed attacks are called a success by Al Qaeda. For e.g, the “underwear” bombings in 2009. Despite its failure the Al Qaeda called it a success, because the fear caused the disruptions in the transportation of goods and that resulted in economic damage. It wasn’t even necessary to kill anyone.
So how can we put a halt to terrorism? Well we can’t stop the attacks. The war on terror was already lost before it even started. Terrorism is like violence, disease, natural disaster and it is a part of the human condition. But the image of terrorism, the idea of it is much more dangerous than the actual physical attack. What we can do is, remove “terror” from terrorism. We need to contain our instincts of fear and hysteria. Just be aware that “fear” is what terrorists really want and this will help us to reduce the impact of an attack.
This report was prepared by Prashant R. Sahay, Saswata Das and Yash Vardhan. Would love to have your views in the comments section below.