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Putting terrorism into perspective

Part of the TTP’s accomplishments is how journalists have welded themselves as a pressure group, criticising the government’s failure to provide security, demanding assurances that served little purpose beyond demoralising the government even further

2014 arrived chockfull of dynamite as the death toll rose to128 in the first three weeks. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan’s (TTP) killing spree spiked in the second half of January, resulting in an average of five casualties per day, with a total of 101 deaths in the third week of January alone. While conventional targets and security and law enforcement agencies sustain the fiercest of attacks made in recent years, soft targets are quickly climbing in the TTP’s hit list.
Certain observations can be made as a result of these developments. Journalists, ulema (clerics), peaceful religious congregations and polio vaccinators are not just a capriciously chosen crowd, aimed at intensifying physical destruction. These segments of society influence the largest possible magnitude of vicarious secondary victims — people watching minute-to-minute updates of the events unfolding — allowing the TTP to obtain maximum impact on their physical efforts. This strategy is vastly dependent on the broadcast media and provides global resonance to their agenda. With a comeback of Radio Mullah, the champion of propaganda warfare, media persons need to be sensitised to their critical role in this regard and their susceptibility to being manipulated by the TTP.
Nineteenth century anarchists have been well known for using the media to conduct dramatic operations, seeking to maximise the impact of violence in a symbolic manner. The photograph of John Testrake, the pilot of Trans World Airlines flight 847, in the window of his cockpit with a gun-toting Hezbollah hijacker, became the iconic image of the 1980s, symbolising this trend. Operations ‘Iqrit’ and ‘Biram’ held in Munich by Black September during the summer Olympics in1972 and the raid on the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) headquarters, Vienna, in December 1975 were another two tailored-for-television events, which left the world panic-stricken for a long time.
Dramatic acts of terrorism enable perpetrators to reach out far beyond the proximity of their original theatre. In this way, the media serves as a ‘terror magnifier’ by virtue of its intrinsic facilities. 9/11, which shaped the course of world politics, is a classic example of this phenomenon. To reiterate a popular argument, the Indonesian Tsunami caused 227,000 casualties, as opposed to 3,000 in 9/11, yet the latter took the world in a sweltering grip of panic, wielding a reaction of geopolitical proportions — dwarfing human reaction to a manifold greater natural calamity. Similarly, the Madrid bombings, which took place just three days ahead of the Spanish general elections, influenced the fate of Spanish politics by bringing down the government of Josie Maria Aznar’s Partido Popular.
The awe-striking assassination of Chaudhry Aslam in much the same way opened a door for the TTP into the political landscape of the country. Before this, the TTP would only speak (on record) to claim responsibility for an attack. Two days after the assassination, one of our leading newspapers published an odd eulogy to the late CID officer by none other than Shahidullah Shahid. Soon after, we saw the TTP coercing the media for more airtime and positive coverage; a mission successfully accomplished after killing three Express News TV employees. By mid-month, many news channels yielded. Almost all the major news channels are now dedicating substantial airtime, in the form of talk shows and bulletins, to the TTP. The TTP remains a top story in all the national newspapers.
Part of the TTP’s accomplishments is how journalists have welded themselves as a pressure group, criticising the government’s failure to provide security, demanding assurances that served little purpose beyond demoralising the government even further.
Media persons need to acquire the courage the hard requisites of their profession demand, first of all, putting terrorism in perspective. Agreed, it is easier said than done, but perspective alone can successfully keep a terrorist attack from fulfilling its objectives. Terrorists understand this distinction, as evident from Operation Hemorrhage 2009, in which Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) celebrated two of its foiled terror attacks for successfully spreading panic and hysteria, and causing economic damage to its targets without having to kill a large number of people. As a society, we need to acknowledge the fact that conducting terrorist attacks against soft targets is easy, given the infinite options, especially when the attacker does not have to worry about escaping. On the other hand, it is virtually impossible for the government to guard every single citizen.
Another heinous plot aimed at victimising a larger audience was the Mastung tragedy. Through inciting sectarian violence, just like attacking poliovirus vaccinators, the two international concerns of the hour, the TTP was able to malign Pakistan’s image before the international community. This could carry grave repercussions ranging from subverting Pakistan’s strategic, economic, commercial pursuits to bringing the dishonour of travel bans and so on.
Terrorism, essentially, is a tactic of the weak. It is employed by groups and forces that wish to impose their political will through unconventional means, in the absence of conventional power to do so. Soft targets, therefore, are preferred for the purpose of amplifying the response to an otherwise limited physical effort.
Fact: given the variety of militant outfits ranging from state-sponsored religious militancy, sectarian groups, liberation movements and countless rogue elements that do not acknowledge national boundaries, terrorism is not going to end anytime soon in the foreseeable future. How the media, political leadership and people address it will determine the success or failure of the terrorists.
Engineering theatrical attacks using the media as a terror magnifier is a path well trodden by modern day anarchists. In a war-struck society, the media must see itself in tandem with the national interests and security of the country, rather than operating as an open source tool, liable to fall into the hands of the adversary. Agreed, the line between freedom of the press and responsible journalism is ever diminishing but journalists ought to readjust their bearings to accommodate this responsibility as citizens and saviours of their country’s international image when required.
As Carl von Clausewitz puts it, “War is a continuation of politics by other means.” Since terrorism is a tactic of the weak, employed by those who lack the power to impose their political will, terrorism is a form of politics by other means. As our political leadership, fascinated by the idea of consensus-based policy making, shifts its remarkably divided bureaucracy to meet the new challenge, putting terrorism into perspective would help us mortals limit the effects of terrorism to a great extent.

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