Familiar rituals followed the terrorist bombing at the arena in Manchester, England. Flowers piled up near the site of carnage. Reporters plumbed every line of the attacker’s profile, speculating on what may have inspired his vile act. Rallies called for solidarity and a rejection of “hate.”
And the media drenched the public with tearful accounts of the pain exacted, often with musical accompaniment. The cable channels ran the few seconds of panicked crowds fleeing the arena in a hypnotic loop. And there were the agonizing stories of the victims and the grieving loved ones they left behind.
This is a problem for those who want to cut off the terrorists’ cracked system of rewards. To normal people, seeing the terrible aftermath should somehow punish the terrorists: “Look at what you’ve done.” But the terrorist responds, “Look at what horrid things I can do.” The more outraged the public, the greater the payoff.
There is no easy way to ratchet down the response. Blowback is sure to accompany any suggestion that the innocents and their suffering families should receive less attention. And for media competing for audience, wringing every bit of pathos out of a tragedy marked by evil and sympathetic victims is a sure draw.
I’ll be honest here. Though I regard the victim-centric coverage as counterproductive to fighting the scourge of terrorism, I, too, have difficulty turning away.
But there can be limits to letting one’s emotions get played for the benefit of terrorists. Those limits were reached in the hours after the bombing when, in a long phone conversation shared on-air, CNN’s Don Lemon milked the emotions of a distraught mother unable to find her daughter.
This was a mother’s nightmare brought to us raw and live. Lemon’s words of comfort and request that anyone with information about the girl call CNN came off as not entirely wholesome. For sure, this was compelling television (and radio), and we can understand the business reasons to keep it going. But it also fed terrorists’ thirst for power over the world’s suffering bystanders.
Surely, the conversation could have been ended earlier. And though the video of terrified people scrambling out of the arena was part of the news, was it necessary to run it again and again, all night and into the next day?
Unavoidable but also unfortunate in such stories is the intense focus on the targets of the attack. Young women and girls filled the audience at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester. For a bomber intentionally aiming at this tender demographic, the especially horrified reaction would have spelled success.
It’s been impossible to ignore the angelic face of 8-year-old Saffie Rose Roussos, who died that night. But there must be a way to scale down the power of such images, thus ensuring they don’t enhance the power of the killers. Perhaps using them a bit less would help. Or putting a death in the context of the thousands of other people who’ve perished through similar barbarism.
No easy answers here. Whom the terrorists go after is obviously important information for confronting the threat – along with location and possible links to hideous ideologies.
As these gruesome events pile up, the public is learning to grimly go about its business in the aftermath. The terrorists’ ability to appall us diminishes as their assaults become sadly routine. But that only raises the stakes for them to lower the bar of decency, whether through new means of attack or bigger numbers of dead.
And as discussed here, targeting the vulnerable also enhances the shock value. A controlled response to such provocations reduces their rewards. Let our hearts be wrenched – but keep the face stoic.
Froma Harrop is a columnist for Creators Syndicate.
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