Media thinking and democracy post 9/11

Issues of race – particularly in a post-9/11 world – are the core of Tabish Khair’s “How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position”. Whilst my dissertation – ‘Representations of 9/11 in Children’s Literature’ – is primarily concerned with things that aren’t so relevant to the Writing Global Justice, there are a few things that overlap with our concerns when reading texts like How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position.
One of my chief concerns is the way we might formulate even basic arguments around this issue. For example, calling it “9/11”, or “September 11th” is accepting a pre-determined narrative of the events – shaped in large part by Western media. All of the terms we take for granted when discussing any politically engaged event are already encoded with their own meaning. Referring to it as “9/11” carries a suggestion that the event has some sort of omnipresence, or universality. Nobody refers to Pearl Harbour, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, JFK’s assassination or the moon landing by its date, and yet they’re all of similar significance.
Here however, is an interesting complication. When describing ‘the events’ in press conferences after 9/11, President Bush referred to them as “a terrible national shock”, and a “national tragedy”. Whilst the attack did physically occur in America, you can certainly form a different narrative around the events if you consider that it was the World trade centre that was attacked, foreign nationals were killed indiscriminately from Americans, and that there was significant international economic impact and confusion following the attacks. Further, the media’s initial response didn’t converge on America as a victim so much as on an affront to humanity – the fact that the majority of casualties were American didn’t really bother the media for a short while and instead it was spoken of as though it were a tsunami or an earthquake. Reports would say that lots of people died, or perhaps more provocatively, they were killed, but it certainly wasn’t the case that “Defenceless Americans were Murdered”. This attitude would change but it’s interesting to see how our later construction of the events as an attack have shifted the victims into martyrs, to legitimise the vilification of people, a faith and nations.
This is further compounded by other common phrases – particularly the description of the buildings as the “Twin Towers”. You have to wonder why making them sound alive, like siblings, twins even, has prevailed over the more accurate name ‘World Trade Centre’. It seems to me that it’s probably because this further layers victimhood onto the events. It’s also a little concerning that the extremely popular phrase “The war on terror” gives political access to a very wide base of activities. All nations, in some way or another, willingly or not, either harbour or promote terrorism. If we didn’t, then we wouldn’t need an internal security service. It is a side-effect of freedoms, or a cheap way for states to contract out grievances with less fear than direct confrontation. NATO troops can be deployed under this vague guise to more-or-less any non-G20 or non-NATO nation. When we were considering going into Syria, or even giving aid, the arguments for and against tried to spin the presence of terrorist organisations as causes for concern. “The war on terror” was starting to be bandied about until the Commons struck down the opportunity for war.
The branding of hostile non-state actors as terrorists also negates their opportunity for legitimate political discourse. The term is applied to a range of groups, regardless of their political objectives. Osama bin Laden only admitted al-Qaeda’s involvement in 2004, but I seriously doubt many people could cite his reasons for the attacks in the first place (US troops in Saudi Arabia, US sanctions against Iraq, US support of Israel). I’m not trying to say that his actions or views were correct, but it’s certainly deeply hypocritical that we say we are defending democracy and freedom yet give no platform for alternative perspectives.
We’ve spoken a number of times in this module about plural integration into societies and the means of inclusion and exclusion, but as the global society expands, it seems to be more and more the case that only the 20th Century powers are heard, and other participants are subordinated. Some states have institutionalised corruption and so sometimes the state does not adhere to the will of the people – like how the Romanian government is giving special mining licences to ‘donors’ in formerly protected mountain ranges -, and sometimes the people do not adhere to the will of the state, like the ‘freedom fighters’ in Syria, or how Amazon doesn’t really pay any tax in the UK. Despite being conscious of this, the institutions of global ‘democracy’ do not officially recognise it. Corrupt, bought, governments are given a seat at the UN whilst North Korean citizens are left in silence. Asda hire more people than the population of the fifty lowest populated countries combined and it’s not until you get over halfway down the list of nations that countries start to have populations larger than their employee list. It’s a bit off topic but a big-scale example of how poorly both minorities and majorities are represented.
It’s easy to say that minorities are never seen, but of course, the other side of the coin is how in a crisis, minorities are often the only thing in the spotlight.

Alex Watson

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