Why the Media Ends Up Advancing Terrorism When It Doesn't Explain It Well
At the time of the attacks in Paris, FAIR’s website led with a piece by Ben Norton (11/13/15) about US reporting on the ISIS bombing in Beirut—noting references to the civilian neighborhood targeted by the bombing as a Hezbollah “stronghold” (MSNBC, 11/13/15), “bastion” (Reuters, 11/12/15) or “area” (NPR, 11/12/15). Given this framing—and the generally limited amount of coverage granted to the Lebanese victims—it’s unsurprising that the Beirut terror failed to provoke the same sorrow, horror and identification among US audiences that the Paris massacres did.
It feels callous to question the allocation of outrage; empathy is in such short supply in this world that one hesitates to question it when it emerges. But as a long-time citizen of New York City, I’m all too aware of the weaponization of grief. The outpouring of no-context, ahistorical sympathy after 9/11 helped pave the way for a violent reaction that killed in Iraq alone roughly 150 times as many people as died in Lower Manhattan that day—an opportunistic catastrophe that did more to mock than avenge those deaths.
Just as the question of Al-Qaeda’s motives in 2001 provoked more self-congratulation than serious inquiry (Extra! Update, 10/01), coverage of Paris in 2015 tends to skirt over political realities. Thus the New York Times (11/13/15) could report: “A stunned and confused French capital was again left to wonder: Why us? Once again?” The obvious answer was alluded to obliquely by a soccer stadium spectator: “With all the strikes in Syria, we’re not safe anymore.”
Readers were presumed to know this referred to the French bombing campaign against ISIS in Syria, which began in September, following aerial attacks against ISIS’s positions in Iraq that started last year (CNN, 9/27/15). Just last week, France joined in intensified strikes against ISIS-controlled oil fields in Syria (New York Times, 11/12/15). By last summer, Western airstrikes against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria had reportedly killed at least 459 civilians, including more than 100 children (Guardian, 8/3/15).
Nor does the piece asking “why us?” mention that France has been “the most prominent backer of Syria’s armed opposition,” (Guardian, 12/7/12), giving funds to rebels trying to overthrow the Damascus government as early as 2012. When ISIS took advantage of the Syrian civil war to occupy large portions of the country, France doubled down by sending weapons directly to insurgents, with President FranÃ§ois Hollande saying that “we should not stop the support that we have given to these rebels who are the only ones to take part in the democratic process” just because such support had helped the apocalyptic ISIS movement to thrive (AFP, 8/21/14).
None of this background was explained when the New York Times (11/14/15) reported Hollande’s assertion that the attacks in Paris were “an act of war,” as though France hadn’t long been making war on ISIS, and repeated without context his claim (using an Arabic acronym for ISIS) that “France, because it was foully, disgracefully and violently attacked, will be unforgiving with the barbarians from Daesh.”
Noting that France’s enthusiasm for military intervention in the Middle East long predated the Paris attacks puts one at risk of being mistaken for an apologist for ISIS war crimes. Indeed, one suspects that fear of such misidentification leads journalists to downplay or omit French violence in describing the context of the attacks. Such willful avoidance of history helps perpetuate the illusion that Western violence is the solution to ISIS’s terror—rather than one of its main causes.