We, terror-helpers

With every attack, journalists let themselves be used by the assailants. Just like their readers and viewers. But why?

By Bastian Berbner

This article was published in cooperation with European Press Prize.

Consternation is limited. After the attack on the French satiric magazine Charlie Hebdo, some twenty thousand people gathered for a vigil in front of the Brandenburg Gate, and they sang the Marseillaise in solidarity with the victims, with “Je suis Charlie” written on their t-shirts.

Ten months later, as terrorists attacked in Paris once more, not more than two thousand people came to the Brandenburg Gate. The German television news program Brennpunkt, though, was watched by some ten million.

Some months later, terrorists attacked in Brussels, and then in London. Now only six million turned on their televisions in each case, and almost no one came to the Brandenburg Gate.

Now, after Barcelona, the ARD (Germany’s largest public broadcaster) registered only a little more than four million viewers. There were no more vigils.

There were indeed so many attacks in the last two years. Hannover, Essen, Würzburg, Ansbach, Berlin, Hamburg, Copenhagen, London, Istanbul, Nice, Brussels, St. Petersburg, Stockholm, Manchester, London, many times Paris, many times Istanbul, and those are not all of them.

Somewhere in this stretch, our compassion diminished.

“A short look, a moment of shock. Then we come back to our emotional comfort zone.”

We look at the pictures from las Ramblas in Barcelona, but we glance at them only like we would glance at an accident on the highway. A short look, a moment of shock. Then we come back to our emotional comfort zone.

It is horrible how we become dulled, isn’t it?

No, it isn’t horrible. On the contrary. I think nothing better could happen to us.

When it comes to the question of how we can prevent the attacks, then the talk is usually about stricter laws, about additional police officers and about new equipment for facial recognition. Even though everyone knows that not all of the assailants can be stopped by these means.

In reality, there is a much more effective way to fight terrorism. One that attacks it as a whole, and not the individual terrorists. The heart of the hydra and not its many heads.

One can call it dullness. I would phrase it in a more positive way: targeted disinterest.

It may sound cynical for the first moment, especially for the victims of terrorist attacks and their relatives. But one has to realize how terrorism works––and to remember last December.

Anis Amri drove at that time with a truck in the Christmas market on the Breitscheidplatz in Berlin. He crushed stalls and ran people over, and he managed to escape the security authorities. Nonetheless, they knew exactly who they had to look for. Amri was caught on a surveillance camera while escaping. He kindly left his ID in the truck.

Also the attacker in Nice, who plowed through a crowd killing eighty-six people, placed his ID on the truck.

In the getaway car of the Charlie Hebdo attackers, the police found an ID as well.

There are terrorists escaping and, instead of hiding their identities, they show their IDs?

Obviously, it isn’t out of carelessness, it isn’t a mistake they keep on repeating. The terrorists do this for people like me, for us journalists. Just as they upload video statements  or post pictures of the crimes on Facebook. They want us to write articles about them, that we print their names in the biggest possible letters and place a picture of them on the front pages. They want the whole country, or even the whole world, to know about them.

For only the public attention makes out a criminal act a terrorist one. A conventional murder and one that should spread terror are, in essence, very similar to one another: a person murders another one. The difference is the reason. Murders, perhaps out of greed or jealousy, target very specific persons, or otherwise they make no sense. The perpetrator intends that as few people as possible learn from his or her crime, at best no one. The more secret, the better.

In the case of a murder intended to become a terrorist act, it is exactly the opposite. The victims are symbolic, often selected randomly. They could be anyone––partygoers, football fans, teenagers in a pop concert. And as many people as possible should know about the crime and the perpetrators. The more public, the better.

Last year, there was an attack that went almost unnoticed in the noise of the emergencies in Brussels, Paris, and Berlin, but which reflected the whole essence of terrorism. A couple of weeks ago, I drove to the site of the crime in Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, a town nearby Rouen, in the north of France.

I entered the small church, with walls built out of very thick stones, few minutes before the beginning of the service. In the front row sat a hunched man with gray hair and a gray jacket. I knew him from television, and had seen pictures of him in Internet and read about him in French newspapers.

Guy Coponet is eighty-eight years old. After the service, I spoke to him and he told me what had happened in this place.

On Juli 26th 2016, almost no one came to the service; only Coponet, his wife, and three nuns. But Coponet was in a good mood because his best friend, the priest Jacques Hamel, stood at the altar in front. With eighty-five, Hamel had already been retired for a long time, although he still helped out once in a while. Shortly before the end of the service, the door of the sacristy opened, and two men dressed in black entered. They held knifes in their hands and shouted “Allahu Akbar” (an Arabic phrase meaning ‘God is greater’). One of the two pounced on the priest, who shouted, “Go away, Satan!,” and was then stabbed. Hamel collapsed dying on the altar.

The assailants had killed one person, but, at that moment, only five persons had witnessed it: the Coponets and the three nuns. For a crime to be turned into terror, it must stand out from the thirteen other murders that on average are committed every day in Europe, and from which one hardly hears.

Out of five people, millions would have to be turned into witnesses. The two men in black were successful in a first step, charging the murder with symbolism: a priest, a church. But that alone isn’t enough.

The assailant looked up from Hamel’s body, went to Guy Coponet and put a smartphone in his hand, with the camera function already activated. He said, “Grandpa, you film!” So, Coponet held the lens in the direction of the altar and filmed how the assailants posed over the dead body.

A jihadist with a bloody knife over a dead priest at an altar of a christian church in Europe––the jihadists know about the effect of this image. Coponet knows about it as well. “I thought they were going to post it on the internet. I filmed anyway. What else was I suppose to do?”

After a few seconds, the assailant came back and checked the quality of the images. He said, “Grandpa, you don’t tremble much!” Then stabbed him with the knife. Three times. In the arm, in the back, in the neck. Coponet dropped bleeding to the floor. He pretended to be dead and prayed.

The assailants turned towards the women, who stood shocked between the church benches. “We thought, ‘Now we are next,’” recalls Sister Huguette, one of the nuns, a fragile-looking woman of eighty. Instead of that, the assailants begin a conversation. Huguette remembers how one of them told the women, “When you are on television later, you’ll say, ‘For each attack in Syria, there will be one in France.’ At that point we knew we would survive.”

Terrorism is communication. The attackers want to send a message. Not so much to their direct victims, to the three nuns, or to the Coponets; not so much to the people from Breitscheidplatz and the concert goers in Bataclan. Their message is directed, rather, at everyone else.

In the sober language of terrorism researchers, the target audience of this message are called the ‘interested third parties’. This interest shows itself in the vast majority of us (say, ninety-nine percent) as fear, as horror, sometimes even as desire for revenge. When we see Sister Huguette crying in television, when we hear how she tells about the priest’s ordeal, we shake the head with dismay, or maybe we put the hand on the mouth in shock, maybe we find ourselves thinking, ‘One must get even with these beasts.’

This is the moment in which a crime becomes terrorism.

Probably we will ask ourselves in the subway the next morning, ‘Is the bearded guy there planing something?’ Probably we won’t go to church for some time because we fear something like what happened to Guy Coponet might happen to us. Barcelona must be beautiful, but wouldn’t other destination be safer? Does one really have to go every year to the Christmas market?

The thought of it is enough. We weren’t present during the attacks, we didn’t see how Jacques Hamel fell on the floor, we didn’t hear how the wood of the stalls in the Christmas market in Breitscheidplatz cracked up. Nevertheless, the fear found its way into us. We are terrorized.

And it is my fault.

Obviously, it is not just me, but we journalists; me and all of my colleagues, who report about terrorism.

Most people learn about an attack through a news alert on the phone, or through a news report on television, a voice from the car radio, or though a look at the newspaper. Also, when politicians comment on the events, when, for example, Angela Merkel condemns an attack “in the strongest terms” or when the foreign ministers express their regret, it is always the journalists who take these voices, with their cameras and microphones, into the living rooms.

“It is painful to admit, but we journalists are the messengers of terror.”

It is painful to admit, but we journalists are the messengers of terror. It is through our work that five frightened people in a church can turn into millions of frightened, angry people who call for revenge in the whole world. The German news program Tagesschau reported about Hamel like CNN. Certainly, one could now quote the famous phrase, “Don’t shoot the messenger,” which in other words means: the messenger cannot do anything for the message that he or she is delivering. Only, in this case, it is not true.

The whole activity of terrorists is aimed at proliferation in the media. Their intention is to persuade us journalists to report as much, as long, and as sensationally as possible. That is why they choose symbolic targets. That is why they forced Guy Coponet to film them. That is why they left the women alive. What is more shocking than nuns crying on television? For the assailants of Rouen, one dead is more than six.

Already in the fifties, an Algerian revolutionary was contemplating what would be a better strategy: to kill ten enemies in a remote place without anybody noticing, or to kill only one in Algiers, so that people in other countries and important politicians would hear about it the next day. In doing so, he formulated the guiding principle of today’s terrorism.

The terrorists make use of us journalists. And we let them make use of us, again and again.

There has always been terrorist violence, but it only became a powerful phenomenon in modern times. As the historian Carola Dietze explains, it spread during the nineteenth century, initially in places “where the transport and communication technologies were well-advanced and where the politically interested public was strongly pronounced.” In other words, mainly in Europe.

In 1858, the revolutionary Felice Orsini hurled a bomb to the carriage of Emperor Napoleon III in Paris, in the hope that it would initiate a popular uprising.

In 1881, anarchists murdered the Russian Tsar Alexander II while he was riding in his carriage through St. Petersburg.

In 1914, a Serbian nationalist shot the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and indirectly sparked off the First World War.

All three crimes were political murders, as there had been before that for thousands of years, but something was new. The attacks didn’t take place in secrecy but in public, in the middle of european big cities. There were hundreds of witnesses, and the dreadful news spread through newspapers and telegraphs within a few days in the whole continent.

Suddenly, small terrorist groups, even individuals, had found a way to influence the world affairs with little effort. The general public became a weapon. And it was used, depending on the historical context, by fascist, anti-colonial, nationalist, or communist militants.

Terrorists became propagandists through action, but also through the written word. Ulrike Meinhof, one of the leaders of the RAF (‘die Rote Armee Fraktion’, the West-German far-left militant organization) was a journalist. In June 1970, even before the first attacks of the group, the weekly magazine der Spiegel published unedited excerpts from a RAF’s pamphlet that Meinhof had drafted. Years later, in September 1977, people in Germany watched, when they switched on the television, the exhausted President of the Employers’ Association, Hans-Martin Schleyer, as he read aloud in mortal fear from the Stuttgarter Zeitung. The RAF had kidnapped him. Now the group made the German public witness to their perfidious staging and put the government under pressure.

The history of the media and of terrorism are inseparably linked to one another. Each technological breakthrough is followed by a new manifestation of terrorism.

When the summer Olympic Games were broadcast live for the first time, in Munich 1972, the Palestinian terrorist group Black September took hostage eleven members of the Israeli Olympic team. The cameras sent the images around the world, no one talked about sports anymore, and everyone talked about the Middle East.

When the TV channel Al Jazeera was launched in the mid-nineties, Osama Bin Laden sent  his couriers with messages to its editorial department. And just as der Spiegel had printed Meinhof’s text, the network disseminated Bin Laden’s ideas.

At some point, Al Jazeera’s interest in the longish lost interest in the elongated texts decreased. Then Bin Laden changed his strategy. He let his fighters organise spectacular attacks, the bombing of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, an attack at a American naval ship––and eventually, in September 2001, the most effective terrorist attack in history, which was staged so perfectly that the editorial departments around world had no choice. Until today, the images are shown somewhere in television almost every day, and still the Islamists benefit from every time someone sees the airplane crashing against the buildings.

The Islamist manifestation of terrorism is so far the most totalitarian. The RAF assaulted representatives of the political and the economical elite. Bin Laden aimed at everyone who didn’t follow his radical understanding of Islam. No one should feel safe, everyone should be afraid.

Then something decisive happens. For more than a hundred years, terrorists had to break through the journalistic filters to reach the public. They were dependent on the newspapers and radio stations that reported about them. But that changed with the spread of the Internet.

The first terrorist group to systematically take advantage of the Internet is the Iraqi branch of the Al Qaeda. When its leader, Abu Mussab al-Sarkawi, beheaded the American businessman Nicholas Berg in May 2004, a video clip of the event was downloaded half a million times within the next twenty-four hours. The terrorists found a direct way to show brutal images to people around the world.

Some time later, small video cameras no bigger than a matchbox are available in the market. At first, athletes film their spectacular ski runs or skateboard jumps, but in March 2012, in the city of Toulouse in the south of France, a petty criminal called Mohammed Merah clasps one of those cameras to his chest. He films how he shoots a rabbi and three children in a jewish school. When a special unit surrounds his apartment two days later, he is found editing a twenty-four minute video in his laptop.

Shortly after midnight, Merah manages somehow to sneak through the row of police officers. He could have used this moment to escape. Instead, he goes to the letterbox and sends a flash drive with the film to Al Jazeera’s Paris office. Then he comes back in his apartment. Soon after, he was shot dead.

Today, it is not enough for the so-called Islamic State to simply register its parades, attacks and executions. Its propagandists film from many angles, assemble the shots in a Hollywood style, highlight them with dramatic music and post the videos online.

And we journalists spread them further. Our colleagues in the television editorial departments can’t simply travel to the caliphate and film. So they use the videos that the Islamic State produces. They write in small letters in some corner of the screen “Propaganda video,” but obviously that doesn’t change anything: we still see the images that the Islamic Sate makes of itself. Images of beheadings, probably in low resolution, but where the imagination fills the gaps. Videos from fighters who smile to the camera and explain how they enjoy to cut the necks of infidels with blunt swords.

In this way, the Islamic State became the embodiment of evil in our minds. Now, after Barcelona, the London Times headlined once more: “Evil Strikes Again.” Not a couple of crazy people, no, the evil quite simply, nothing less than that. There are cheers between terrorists. Goal achieved. Everyone is afraid,

The effect of such coverage is perfectly documented. In a study in Israel, researchers determined that people who watched terrifying details from attacks on television developed symptoms of a post-traumatic stress disorder.

In a different study, also from Israel, a psychologist divided more than two-hundred people into two groups. To the first, she showed news clips about terrorism. To the second, different political news. The members of the first group showed a significant higher level of fear.

US Americans are, according to surveys, more afraid of terrorism than of heat waves or car accidents, although both of them are, respectively, responsible for many times the number of fatalities.

But how does the Islamic State benefit from people in Europa or in North America being afraid?

Scared societies behave like a dog who, pushed into a corner, bites all around. Tragically, this applies especially for democracies. There, the fear of the people turns quickly into political demands. Politicians should, so they won’t seem weak, do something. And often they do too much.

The best example is September 11th. In a survey published during the first days of October 2001, ninety-two percent of Americans called for a military response to the terrorist attacks. It was followed by the war in Afghanistan and the war in Irak. A few terrorists provoked the United States, and as a response whole countries were attacked, hundred thousands died, among them many civilians, whose families then became enemies of the United States. More followed: Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, the violation of human rights.

The United States couldn’t have make it easier for the terrorist’s recruiters, it gave them all sorts of valid arguments.

“Terrorists grow stronger from escalation.”

Terrorists grow stronger from escalation. They provoke, sting, and assail until they get a reaction. With its attacks, the RAF wanted to force the German state to show its allegedly Nazi antic. The Islamic State wants to push the whole Western world into a big battle. Even those terrorists who were never in Syria or in Irak, and who radicalized in playrooms or in backyard mosques, see themselves as brave soldiers in a heroic war.

There is not such a war. The fight against terrorism is actually a conflict with some radical criminals. When we assume the military vocabulary––as it was practiced for instance after the attacks in Paris by the then French President François Hollande when he referred to an “act of war”, or as now when the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes about a “war against the west” after the attacks in Barcelona––then we are making them an enormous favor. We are elevating them to something that they are not.

These are then the five phases of terrorism: first, there is an attack. Secondly, it is reported at length. Thirdly, it results in fear. That in turn, fourth, leads to an overreaction and finally, fifth, to new terrorism.

As a journalist one can argue that to the second phase (media coverage) not always, not necessarily the phase three (fear) must follow. That it comes down to how we report. Even I have often used this argument in discussions, but when I am honest, I consider it by now as a pleasing excuse. It reassures our conscience, but it isn’t actually correct. How should I report on terrorism without causing fear?

If I write about the perpetrator––like the editorial staff of das Bild, which in these days published the picture and the name of the presumed terrorists in Barcelona––, I confer him fame and I frighten the ninety-nine percent of the readers (“What if there are more like him?”).

If I write about the victims––like the reporters of the German television channel RTL who in the last days told the story of Julian, the seven year old Australian boy who died in Barcelona––, I spread the fear as well (“What if that was my son?”) and the calls for revenge.

Even with an article like this one, I am fulfilling the terrorist’s calculation. Since merely the words Amri, Breitscheidplatz and Christmas market already produce images in the mind.

There is just one way out. We would have to prevent, in the first place, that the mechanism gets going: we would have to stop reporting about terrorist attacks.

Let’s imagine it for a moment: no news alert on the phone, no news in the news program, no politicians who walk arm in arm and posing for photographers and who make statements of regret, and, if they do, there wouldn’t be any microphone to which they could speak to. The Brandenburg Gate wouldn’t be illuminated with the colors of the attacked country, the assailants wouldn’t have any reason to feel like heroes, they would shrink to what they really are: criminals. And we all would go on living as if nothing had happened. We would continue taking the subway, would fly to Barcelona and would go to the Christmas market without being afraid.

An attack would have direct consequences only for the family of the victims, the eyewitnesses, the medical personnel and some therapists––as in a car accident. It could still be hundreds of people, but it wouldn’t be millions anymore. After a multiple collision on the highway, no one illuminates the Brandenburg Gate. The fear would be reduced. Our society would be healthier.

This mental game is comforting and distressing at the same time, especially for me as journalist, because it clearly contradicts my understanding of my profession. My job is to report. To remain silent would be a form of self-imposed censorship. At once, the inner debates about the freedom of the press begin.

But then, one is forgetting something: there is an example of how we journalists have been practicing this kind of self-censorship for some time––only that we don’t call it censorship.

In 1974, an American sociologist found out that an exceptionally high number of people committed suicide in the United States whenever articles about suicide had appeared appeared in the New York Times shortly before. He named this phenomenon the “Werther effect”, after the events in Goethe’s famous novel from the eighteenth century, probably the most dangerous bestseller in the history of literature. At the time, many readers had emulated the desperate protagonist and shot themselves in the head.

The finding was corroborated by many studies: the more a suicide was made a subject of discussion, the bigger the number of people who emulated it. Because of this, journalists in many countries agreed to moderate their reporting about suicides.

When, in the mid-eighties, the number of self-inflicted deaths in Vienna increased, an Austrian counseling center published a booklet. It stated that journalists shouldn’t report in a “sensationalist way,” should by no means describe the details of the event, show no pictures, and also provide the article with a telephone number where to get help. The Austrian journalists adhered to it, the number of suicides decreased by a third and remained low afterwards.

No-coverage saves lives––in relation to suicide, that is enough reason for us journalists to say nothing.

Four weeks ago, the renowned Journal of Public Economics published an interesting article. Michael Jetter, a German economist at the University of Western Australia, speaks in it of his research. Jetter examined 61,132 attacks around the world between the years 1970 and 2012, and observed whether the terrorists were encouraged by the media coverage of their deeds. The conclusion: each time an attack was extensively covered, it was followed during the next seven days by further attacks, in which on average three people died.

With his study, Jetter found proof that there is also a kind of ‘Werther effect’ with terrorist attacks. Media coverage brings new terrorism. In other words: because of our reporting, people die. Ninety-nine percent of the ‘interested third parties’ may react with fear and fright when they see the the nun Huguette crying on television. But there are also people who, in the same situation, experience the contrary––eagerness. When these people hear how the terrorists stabbed the priest, how they put on suicide vests and detonated them next to a football stadium in Paris, then they understand it as a hint. These people turn off the television, go out and murder.

There would be less attacks, less deaths, if we journalists were more quiet.

The morning after the attack in Barcelona, I looked at the news in Internet. The Spiegel Online dedicated the first six articles to terrorism, the online version of the Süddeutsche Zeitung and of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung did as well, in die Zeit it was the first four, as in das Bild, where there were also a video and a slideshow of pictures “The images of terror.” I had to scroll far below until I could read something about taxes, elections or the Bundesliga, which began that afternoon.

Some hours later, a man stabbed nine pedestrians in the Finnish city of Turku, two of them died. It is still uncertain whether it was an imitator, but there was evidence to suggest that.

If our reports contribute to inciting terrorists, then why don’t we stop them?

Now, one could counter the argument: someone who commits suicide kills himself or herself, a suicide bomber kills many more. The assailant strikes in public areas, he affects our society, and people have the right to know about it. In short: terrorism is too important to keep it secret.

I have always considered this argument correct, until last summer. At the time, I was one of the hundreds of journalists who travelled to Munich shortly after a young man there had shot  and killed nine people in the Olympia shopping center. Everyone, including me, thought: there it is, the first major terrorist attack in Germany. The people in the city were panicked, and it was clear to us journalists that we would have to deal with this issue for days, maybe weeks, many editorial departments sent reinforcement on the next day.

Then something strange happened. It turned out that the killings weren’t caused by a terrorist attack but by a rampage––and suddenly everything was different. Everyone breathed again, was relieved. For us journalists, the subject was suddenly smaller, the editorial departments planned for less space, many colleagues departed.

At the same time, the number of victims hadn’t decreased, nor the grief of their relatives diminished. It was still unclear whether the perpetrator had associates or confidants, there were still many open question. But somehow, the pressure was gone.

We consider terrorists to be far more dangerous than gunmen. When, at the same time, the risk of dying in a rampage is actually much higher.

“In our awareness, we have made something relatively harmless into something dangerous.”

In our awareness, we have made something relatively harmless into something dangerous. That is a great achievement for the terrorists. They have fixed this distortion in us with their propaganda. But if the importance that we attribute to a terrorist is constructed, then we should also be able to deconstruct it; so that next time, we will be able to react to a terrorist attack with the same state of mind that we had in Munich after taking a deep breath.

If we had accomplished that by last July, it would probably have prevented many deaths. Michael Jetter’s study on the terrorist ‘Werther effect’ hadn’t been published by then. But as I now read it, I had to think back to the summer of last year, since the rampage hadn’t really been the first act of violence.

At first, an Islamist perpetrated an axe assault in a regional train in Würzburg. Immense press attention.

Four days later, the rampage. The whole press reports about it.

Two days later, an assailant blows himself in Ansbach.

It seems as though the ‘Werther effect’ could skip easily over ideological divides. Those who are prone to violence emulate a recent act: a gunman copies an Islamist, and an Islamist copies a gunman.

Certainly, I’m not deluding myself. A terrorism-blackout in the media will not succeed. It wouldn’t be enough if, for instance, die Zeit would cease to report. Also der Spiegel, der Stern, the Süddeutsche Zeitung, das Bild, in short: the whole German media would have to take part. And even that wouldn’t be enough. Many Germans read the BBC, the New York Times, or the Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

And then, there is also the social media, which exists beyond the journalistic filter. One couldn’t prevent that someone tweets, “Je suis Charlie,” and everyone copies it. Or that some eyewitness posts a shaky video of dead people as it happened after Barcelona. One would see blood or hear an assailant shouting “Allahu Akbar.” I don’t want to imagine how the people who use the word “Lügenpresse” would celebrate if there were no articles about it in the newspapers. The media would be called, with justification, a cartel that blocks out information.

Terrorists know: we cannot do otherwise, and they make the most of that.

In that sense, there is just one way to reduce media coverage, to bring the journalists to keep quiet and then the terrorists: the interest in the attacks must subside. We have to become dulled.

That is why each attack that leaves us indifferent, each assault that we quickly forget, each day in which the Brandenburg Gate is not illuminated out of solidarity with the colors of a flag, all this is a step in the right direction. If, after the next attack, we switch from the news program with the images of terrorism and rather watch football, then we shouldn’t do it with remorse. But rather with a good feeling.

Photo: © Pikist

Die Zeit is a German national weekly newspaper published in Hamburg in Germany. The newspaper is generally considered to be among the German newspapers of record and is known for its long and extensive articles.


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