Politics, media and war: 9/11 and its aftermaths
Politics, media and war: 9/11 and its aftermaths

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

6.1.1 Activity: the media spectacle of 9/11

In an extract from Mass-Mediated Terrorism: The Central Role of the Media in Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism, Brigitte Nacos discusses the relationship between terrorism and the media. She takes as her starting point the ways in which the 9/11 attacks were initially interpreted by eyewitnesses and television viewers. The second part of the extract is concerned with the ways in which the manipulation of the media has now become central to operations of contemporary terrorism.

Activity 20 Mass-mediated terrorism: The central role of the media in terrorism and counter-terrorism

Now read the extract. As you read, try and answer the following questions, taking notes as you go:

  1. In what ways did the 9/11 attacks have a symbolic as well as material impact?
  2. Despite the apparently unprecedented and violent nature of the 9/11 attacks why does Nacos suggest that Americans were already 'familiar with the shocking images' (p.42)?
  3. Why do you think contemporary terrorists might consider it crucial to cultivate 'media-related goals' (p.46)?

After you have finished taking notes, reveal the discussion.

Click to view Mass-mediated terrorism: The central role of the media in terrorism and counter-terrorism [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

Comment

  1. Clearly, the 9/11 attacks caused many hundreds of deaths, inflicted physical destruction and precipitated short-term chaos on global stock markets – but they also had a powerful symbolic effect. By attacking key icons of the 'American way', such as the WTC and Pentagon, the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks sent the clear message that the West is vulnerable to attack – even at the core of its economic and political powerbase.
  2. Nacos suggests that, despite the apparently unprecedented nature of the 9/11 attacks, Americans already possessed a 'familiarity' with the images they generated – primarily obtained, she argues, through routine depictions of catastrophic violence in popular cultural texts. For Nacos, the public's exposure to 'a steady stream of disaster movies and thrillers' (p.42) provided a frame of reference through which audiences could make sense of the 9/11 events. Thus, the language used here by eyewitnesses and TV viewers to describe the events of 9/11 is particularly interesting. It reveals not only the central role of the media in shaping how people relate to the 'real' world, but also the primacy of these fictional, popular cultural reference points in helping populations to make sense of factual events. Here, Nacos appears to be making some critical commentary on contemporary media culture – a culture where the line between the reality and the representation of terror has become increasingly blurred. In this case this is mainly through the efforts of media producers to provide audiences with fictional, stylised and sensationalised representations of disastrous events.
  3. Finally, the necessity of terrorists devising 'media-related goals' is linked by Nacos to an emergent recognition amongst terror groups of the communicative power of media in a global age. The 'perfectly choreographed' (p.45) and 'spectacular' nature of the 9/11 attacks was crucial in furthering the publicity goals of the perpetrators: as Nacos comments, without such images the 'impact on America and the rest of the world wouldn't have been as immediate and intense as it was' (p.47).

One argument suggested by Nacos, that political groups now fully understand the power of the media for disseminating and amplifying the impacts of their actions, has also been taken up by Retort (2005). (You will have already touched on their arguments regarding the war on terror and the oil lobby in section 4.) Like Nacos, they identify not just the human costs and material impacts of the 9/11 attacks, but their particular function as highly symbolic visual 'spectacles' and media events. Retort suggest that (unlike most historical acts of terror) the 9/11 attacks were deliberately designed to be witnessed by the (global) public, and that the perpetrators knew in advance the likely consequences of such a visible act of violence –widespread panic and a significant undermining of public confidence. This is controversial in so far as we may never know the precise motivations of the hijackers, or how they could guarantee in advance that the media would be on hand to witness the event directly. Yet Retort are surely correct in their assertion that the attacks helped underline how the media have now become a crucial vehicle for the public dissemination of terrorist causes and actions. Retort further argue that both terrorists and governments are now involved in what they term an 'image-war' – a battle to control public opinion through manipulating the daily flow of media events, images and discourses.

Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371