It’s week four of my non-theatrical blog challenge to respond to my favourite columnist Caitlin Moran each week. One of the things that makes Caitlin my favourite columnist is that you just never know where she’ll turn her wide-ranging attention next. She’ll write with great skill and perception about the epic and mundane as well as the frivolous and the frightful.
Since I’ve been re-blogging Caitlin, our subjects have included millionaires’ electricity bills, homework overload, friendship quotas, drugs, East Anglia and coke bores (those last four all covered in last week’s “never again list” column). Now we get out the big guns and train our sights on the big T, “terrorism”.
Your column this week has provoked much heated discussion in the Paddock-Jones household – and beyond. Over lunch with some relatively new friends (really, you should try it – new friends are fantastic) on Sunday, we all recalled our own initial reactions when we heard about the Charlie Hebdo shootings and other unrest in Paris.
Our group included a Muslim and a historian and two ex-PRs (including me) and, as we didn’t yet know each other’s political and personal sensitivities, we entered the conversation somewhat tentatively. The points you raised in your column helped steer our talking to lots of common ground. So, to a few of those points:
1) The good news: Islamic fundamentalists will never defeat the whole of Western civilisation.
“You can’t kill everyone who disagrees with you. Islamic fundamentalists know this. For all their Twitter savvy and caches of weapons, they’re still a tiny minority… They know they can’t slaughter everyone in the western world who disagrees with them. They can’t end western democracy. It’s already won. It’s huge. It might be ragged, and often wrong, and still in the very early days of working out how to be fairer and more inclusive, but it’s just going to carry on… However awful, and terrifying, the shootings in Paris are, there are no guns that can stop all of this now. A billion lives will roll on.”
Exactly right. They are simply outnumbered, but…
2) The bad news: their actions can make us feel like they might because they’re very good at PR and they know how our media works.
“Speaking unemotionally, as a journalist, it’s a fantastic, dark public relations job. Headlines around the world, instant heat, endless traction. For a few minutes’ work. It seems, looking back now, inevitable that there would be a terrorist attack on a media organisation, because terror has always, in the end, been about PR.”
The irony here is that it is the western world’s own media machine that enables them to be so good at PR. What happened in Paris was awful, and between 7 and 9 January, 17 people were killed in that tragedy. What else was happening in the world on 8 January?
In Nigeria, Boko Haram killed over 200 people and made another 2,000 simply disappear. Did that atrocity receive anything like the same attention? As a trained journalist myself, I know the sales value of not just bad news but “localised” bad news. Are my readers directly affected? Can they closely identify with the people being written about? Those are the questions news editors ask their correspondents to answer.
It’s basic psychology as well as journalism, but when it comes to reporting tragedies, it has the inevitable effect of making it seem like, as far as the West is concerned, an American or European life is worth more. The people who are really being terrorised right now are Nigerians, not us; the threat to them is very real – and yet, because of the media (and social media) barrage, our personal, perceived threat feels greater.
3) The “war on terror” is also a PR creation.
Let’s remember, the “war on terror” term was coined by George W Bush after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. If ever there was a good reason to not give something credence, the fact that Bush originated it must be top of the list. Nevertheless, more than a decade later, we’re still stuck with it and are told on a regular basis that the “war” continues unabated.
This is pure Orwell. It’s not just the extremists who are keeping us scared, but our own governments, with their reactions and rhetoric, as our real freedoms are diminished in the name of ‘homeland security’.
4) The most common denominator is not Islam, it’s young men.
“For the awful truth is this: there will always be a certain number of young men – and it is almost always, sadly, young men – who are miserable, and damaged, who want to kill people. And those young men will look for a reason for their unhappiness, a target for their anger and an action that they believe will bring ‘justice’.”
This is a very serious root cause. What is making young men feel so disaffected in the 21st century? And what can be done about that? Young men are the most likely to commit any kind of violence, including violence against themselves – suicide is now the biggest killer of young men in the UK, and the rate of suicide is 3.5x greater amongst men, largely because they opt for more violent and certain means than pill-inclined women.
And what of the other bloody phenomenon with young men at the vanguard? You touch on this yourself:
“Young white boys in America take guns into school and kill their peers: one shooting every five weeks, on average: 486 killed since 2000. The story they tell – in interviews and suicide notes – is that they feel rejected by society and that violence is their only recourse. But we do not weave them into a story of young, white American men at war with their generation, or schools, or their society.”
And we don’t refer to them as “terrorists” either, but isn’t wreaking terror exactly what they’re doing?
Ditto the remorselessly right-wing Norwegian nutter Anders Breivik, who, in 2011, single-handedly killed 77 people is Oslo in two separate attacks, with a bomb amongst government buildings and with a gun, hunting down teenagers on an island. Absolute barbarism. And yet, he is more commonly referred to as a “mass murderer” or an “extremist” than a terrorist. Why?
5) Google confirms our observer bias.
When I took to Google to try to find some answers as to “why are most terrorists young men?”, the search engine predicted my question before I’d had a chance to finish typing. According to the weight of its worldwide searches, the question I meant to ask was “why are most terrorists Muslim?”
Well, no, that wasn’t what I meant to ask, because it is patently untrue – and yet, both sides of this PR war want us to think otherwise. (I’ve blogged separately about how search engines fuel our inherent confirmation bias. And, if you want lots of great answers why that particular Google question is flawed, check out this great Quora debate.)
6) Unite rather than divide with better alternatives, like Hedaya.
“We are countering as much ‘terror’ now as we ever have. There are always unhappy people who want to destroy and kill. There always will be. And this is why we must not let an inhuman PR act dictate our course of action. We don’t [my addition: we SHOULDN’T] dignify it and magnify it by calling it a ‘war’. We don’t give in to fear or hatred, or become more insular – because that is the ultimate aim of the terrorists’ PR job. Division. We must never let it become as solid and powerful as that. We just counter it with bigger, better, more glorious ideas. That’s how you win a PR war. You make a better alternative.”
And there are good-news alternatives, lots of them, if only we would give them equal attention and consideration as guns and gore, bombs and bloodshed. One such is Hedaya, the international organisation set up in 2011, and located in Abu Dhabi, with the specific aim of countering, not ‘”terrorism” (these people understand the power of labels), but “violent extremism”.
Rather than fighting back with guns or bombs against perpetrators of violence, Hedaya (which translates from the Arabic as “guidance”) uses words and real public (rather than merely press) relations – dialogue, training, research, communications, building networks of experts and practitioners – towards prevention, not just of the acts of “terrorism” themselves but of the reasons and conditions that make the recruitment and radicalisation of young men who commit them possible.
Well, I could go on but that’s enough for one week, surely.
Until next time,