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Friday, Nov. 01, 2002 at 5:03 AM
by Gwynne Dyer
Rule one: When covering terrorist attacks, do not discuss the political context of the attacks or the terrorists' motives and strategy. Two generations of comic books and cartoons have accustomed the general audience to villains who are evil just for the sake of being evil - so, calling the terrorists "evildoers" will suffice as an explanation for most people.
Rule two: All terrorist actions are part of the same problem. Thus you may treat this month's Bali bombing, the sniper attacks in Washington, and the hostage-taking in a Moscow theatre as all related to each other in some (unspecified) way, and write scare-mongering think-pieces about "The October Crisis".
Rule three: All terrorists are Islamic fanatics. On some occasions, as when Basque terrorists blow somebody up, it will be necessary to relax this rule slightly, but at the very least any terrorists with Muslim names should be treated as Islamist fanatics.
No journalism school in the world teaches these rules, and they didn't exist two years ago. Yet most of the Western media now know them by heart.
Consider, for example, the terrorist seizure of the theatre in Moscow last week that ended with the death of about 50 Chechen hostage-takers and more than 100 hostages. Two years ago, the media coverage of these events, even in Russia itself, would have given us a lot of background on why some Chechens have turned to such savage methods. Didn't see much of that last week, did we?
Nothing about the long guerrilla struggle that Chechens waged against Russian imperial conquest 150 years ago. Nothing about the fact that Stalin deported the entire Chechen nation to Central Asia (where about half of them died) during World War II. Nothing about the fact that Chechnya declared independence peacefully in 1991 and that both the Chechen-Russian wars, in 1994 and 1999, began with a Russian attack. In fact, nothing to suggest that this conflict has specific local roots, or a history that goes back past last week.
Instead, the terrorists were presented as pure evil, as free of logical motivation as the Penguin or the Joker in the Batman movies. Hardly anybody mentioned the fact that more than 4000 Russian soldiers and at least 12,000 Chechen "terrorists" (anybody resisting Russian occupation) have been killed since President Vladimir Putin sent the army back in to the Chechen republic in 1999.
The Chechen men and women who seized the theatre have Muslim names, so they must be part of the worldwide network of Islamist fanatics who are driven by blind hatred to commit senseless massacres (or so it says in the script here).
If you like being treated like an idiot child by your leaders and your media, you are living at the right time. The number of people hurt in terrorist attacks is far lower than in the '50s and '60s, when national liberation wars in countries from Algeria to Vietnam took a huge toll of civilian lives. It's not even as high as in the '70s and '80s, when a new wave of "international" terrorists bombed aircraft and even attacked the Olympics. But the world's leading media see the world through American eyes, so the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, have utterly distorted people's perceptions of the dangers of terrorism.
In fact, the way terrorism is now being covered closely resembles domestic TV coverage of violent crime in the US, which has gone up 600 per cent in the past 15 years while the actual crime rate fell by 10 to 15 per cent (depending on the crime). It has enabled the Russian Government to smear the entire liberation struggle of the Chechens as terrorism, and Israel to do the same to the Palestinians. But the truth is that most of the struggles we (retrospectively) see as justified involved a good deal of terrorism at the time.
The controversy that is now starting up about the tactics the Russian authorities used in freeing the Moscow hostages is just the media barking up the wrong tree as usual. The real question is whether Russia should be occupying Chechnya. But, in the present media environment, we will not hear much about that. So just to check out your sympathies, here is a list of conflicts in which the eventual victors made extensive use of terror (high-tech or low-tech):
•RAF Bomber Command's campaign against German cities.
•US nuclear weapons on Japanese cities.
•The Zionist campaign to drive the British out of Palestine, 1946-48.
•Algeria's independence struggle against France.
•The Mau Mau rebellion against British rule in Kenya.
•Vietnam's independence war against French and US forces.
•Zimbabwe's liberation war against white minority rule.
If you approved of more than two, you are obviously a terrorist sympathiser. Turn yourself in to the nearest police station.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based journalist, author and film maker.
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