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

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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.

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  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.

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