BY GRAY WHITSETT – OPINIONS SECTION EDITOR
Few people can imagine worse things than murder or suicide. For some, there is no moral or ethical distinction between the two. Still fewer could imagine these two things occurring 39,000 feet in the air. And perhaps no one can fathom the tragedy of involving 149 other people.
Yet, this very thing happened. On March 24 Germanwings Flight 9525 copilot Andreas Lubitz committed murder-homicide while manning the plane. The horror of the event resulted in every person on board dying, and shocked audiences around the world. In an age of seemingly daily disasters, I think it’s sometimes hard for catastrophe to elicit genuine emotion, but for individuals everywhere, myself included, the Germanwings crash possessed an unfortunate potency that held our attention. Held our attention, and got us talking.
Events of this magnitude nearly always provoke a dialogue about the issues surrounding it, igniting pundits, politicians, and professionals in discussion. And while it’s critical, I believe, to acknowledge, grieve, and remember such heartbreaks, often the dialogue surrounding a tragic misfortune is as important as accurate coverage. We simply must make meaning of even the saddest of actions – for ourselves, for others, and for the future.
But what we cannot do is damage the discussion of other important issues in our quest to make sense of the senseless. In this respect, we failed in the ensuing debate over the admittedly important question of just what in the world makes someone do something like that.
One of the first things I remember that captivated talk show hosts and news anchors was the issue of terrorism. Was this a terror act? Was this enacted by one of the many organized terrorist associations throughout the world? Was this ‘homegrown terrorism’? What was the point? Were there ‘important people’ on the plane? I remember Anderson Cooper of CNN stating explicitly that while the investigatory teams found absolutely nothing to indicate terrorist activity, terrorism was of course still a glaring concern.
“Absolutely nothing” but “of course still a glaring concern.” What an irresponsible claim to make in the opening hours of a breaking news story.
And CNN wasn’t alone. It took Chris Hannity of Fox News all of half a day to suggest that the act was indeed a terrorist attack, defending his label with “well, it caused terror, didn’t it?” Provocative headlines ran for the next few days, all implicitly or explicitly referencing the “possibility of terror.” Before long, you couldn’t have a conversation about the crash without somehow addressing the question of terrorism.
Broadcast news isn’t exactly home to nuanced, well developed rhetoric, and many are quick to blow off it as typical, unsurprising, or even warranted. It might well be the first two of that list, but it’s not something we should be complacent about, and certainly not comfortable with.
So let me first say that there still exists no substantive evidence to suggest that this was terrorist attack. Furthermore, the notion that acts which create terror are by definition terroristic actions is simply false, and extremely damaging. Unless we are willing to include the Columbine shooters, Jonestown, and John Wayne Gacy in our estimation of terrorists, then we have to be more insightful with our accusations of terrorism.
But the definition of terrorism is not what I want to address. What I want to talk about is the jump to assuming that terrorism must be in the discourse at all, that terrorism must be among the default explanations to which we turn.
To some, what I’m saying isn’t terribly insightful – of course a country with a painful and passionate relationship with terrorism is going to treat the conversation about acts of terror with some level of irrationality. However, my reasons for restating this may differ from the usual.
Let me be clear: terrorism is not something the world can or should tolerate. Period. You can extrapolate whatever types of policy you like from that fundamental assumption, but know that this assumption is present and foundational.
Further, terrorism is a problem for many states, at times the U.S. It is real. Again, one can theorize on how prevalent or pervasive it may be, but acts of terror as recent as last week in Kenya demonstrate that there are terroristic actors in the world, and they are not dormant.
I say this because wrapped up in any attempt to articulate a more refined understanding of terrorism in this country, and others, necessarily calls into question my view, understanding, and feelings toward terrorism. My view is that it’s bad. My understanding is that it’s real. And my feelings are quite negative.
And that’s exactly my point – we absolutely do need action on the topic of terrorism. But what we need even more is better discussion around terrorism. This it absolutely cannot happen if terrorism is the kneejerk response to every atrocity.
If we take this alarmist approach, we’re eventually going to lose people’s attention, a sad but true fact of political and social reality. If people hear about something like this enough, that every large scale disaster in which the actions of one person cause the deaths of many, it’s going to lose its meaning.
There will inevitably be those who continue to pay attention, however, and their commendable interest will be repaid in perpetual paranoia. These events are scary. They’re gruesome, unpredictable, and downright terrifying. Who wouldn’t be fearful if the news perpetually proposed terrorism as a possible and logical explanation for tragedy?
These two effects are at very least undesirable, but they pale in comparison to what I would consider the greatest setback caused by such reckless media portrayal – a diluted capacity to meaningfully interpret acts of terrorism. We have to be able to identify a terrorist attack definitively, and take action according to this determination. Could you imagine if a doctor wantonly diagnosed a disease, say, depression? Future action and wellbeing is based on his evaluation, and while we certainly want to cast our net wide enough to help those in need, we don’t want to water down our ability to address those with the illness by ascribing it to everyone.
Responses to terrorism are never going to be easy. Certainly, they will produce controversy, as they probably should. But this is why we need thoughtful analysis of events before we rush to automatically include terrorism in the discussion. We are exposing a generation of people to the notion that terrorism could play a part in nearly every devastating crime – if we think for a moment that this heightened sensitivity, at times bordering on compulsion, won’t carry into popular conceptions of policy, we are ignoring the realities of collective psychology and political influence. And just as we do not want an overly cautious response to terrorism, neither do we want aggressive or hawkish strategy.
You probably aren’t in a position to change the currents of American media. I’m not either. But what we are always capable of is isolating ourselves from ignorance and exposing ourselves and others to knowledge. We have a responsibility to weed out the irresponsible, and I cannot characterize the state of rhetoric surrounding terrorism in this country as anything but just that.