The past couple weeks were notable for two highly publicized atrocities: namely, the massacre of Afghani civilians by an American soldier and the massacre in France of soldiers and then Jewish schoolchildren by a Muslim fanatic. Pundits, frothing at the lips, interpreted the atrocities to fit their pre-existing positions—Muslims are angry, soldiers are mentally disturbed, America should leave Afghanistan, etc. Instead of entering that conversation, I think more can be gained by considering the response to the atrocities than by analyzing the atrocities themselves.
These two mass killings demonstrated how random, single-event atrocities receive disproportionate attention in the public sphere. Writers and television anchors use these events to advance a certain narrative when, in reality, these events are more the product of chance than any other factor. Momentary chemical imbalance in combination with a natural proclivity for violence will produce occasional human tragedies in any environment. Yet these events that are, first and foremost, random receive significantly more press, and therefore influence, than premeditated and orchestrated human tragedies of a far larger scale.
Naturally, one begins to suspect that the media, or, you know, “mainstream media” is the source of this imbalance. The response to these two events appears to feed ammunition to that suspicion. Following the attack in Toulouse, the pundits of our time all agreed with one of two propositions: Either Mohamed Merah was mentally ill and happened to be a Muslim fundamentalist, or he was a Muslim fundamentalist who happened to be mentally ill. This choice between viewing him as insane or a jihadist is one with two bad options. The same can be said for the choice between viewing Robert Bales in Afghanistan as either insane or a deranged soldier.
But blaming news outlets for providing storylines people tune in to may be comforting, but it is not truthful. Pundits—not ones on college newspapers, but ones with mortgages to pay—do not comment on events freely, but on events they know will be read. The same goes for television producers. Ultimately, the human mind is the guilty party. We are simply not wired to see tragedies in an objective or rational way.
The attention given to these atrocities illustrates the very worst instincts of human nature—the preference for a show over truth and the preference for simplicity over complexity. Unfortunately, this fetishization of single-event atrocities extends beyond the front pages of newspapers and into real political decision-making. Let’s consider a couple aspects of the War on Terror to see the influence of this phenomenon.
First, taking a long view, let’s analyze the product of the War on Terror. The approximately eight million refugees from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are perhaps the strongest evidence that slow and continuous tragedies are tragically ignored in the public sphere. In the former, America settled for a sectarian “thugocracy” when a pluralistic democracy failed. In the latter, America accepted a tribal thugocracy years ago and is still looking for an excuse to get out. In the process, billions of dollars, with unimaginable opportunity costs, were spent, and hundreds of thousands died for a state of affairs that could have been arrived at with significantly less cost in money and lives. Alas, this tragedy is a multidimensional and continuous event, so the human mind pays it little attention.
Second, let’s consider how the fetishization of single-event atrocities affects terrorism itself. Political assassinations are as ancient as politics itself, but terrorism is relatively recent, only becoming a global phenomenon in the 1960s and 1970s. Political scientists often explain the relatively modern birth of terrorism by either cheaper access to explosives or the dramatically uneven balance of power in world affairs. Those factors explain the impetus for terrorism, but not its effectiveness.
Let me say something obvious: The priority of terrorism is not to kill citizens, but to terrorize. Therefore, its effectiveness is derived almost entirely from its effect on the gut, not the head. This truism points to a theory for terrorism’s recent existence. If terrorism seeks to create terror, then the information age is its greatest asset. The instantaneousness of media and its overwhelming presence in our lives encourages terrorism. Inadvertently, modern technology enables the priority of terrorism— instantaneous and communal shock.
Frankly, there is no grand solution to this human shortcoming. However, awareness may be a first step.
Eric T. Justin ’13, a former Crimson editorial executive, is a social studies concentrator in Currier House. He is spending spring 2012 abroad in Egypt. His column appears on alternate Fridays.