Just before the Republican convention, our attention shifted from police brutality—and the brutalization of policemen—back to terror. Glued to our TV sets, we watch as bombs blast and trucks slam viciously into strolling French families. We are horrified at the scene, filled with sympathy for the victims, enraged at the perpetrators. We are also entertained. It’s embarrassing but we can’t help ourselves; so we watch on like hypnotized patients in a hospital ward. In our minds and to friends, we try to strategize. What would we do if we had the power. In reality, we feel helpless and we feel the need to do something. Frustration is immense.
If we could step back, we might come to an uncomfortable truth: no matter how awful the killings, they do not come close to the numbers of deaths caused by traffic accidents, drug overdoses, and suicides, and certainly they are nothing compared to the self induced deaths due to smoking, poor diets, and substance abuse, not to mention the mass slaughter by Ebola-like pandemics.
This may be harsh but we need to ask why we pay so much attention to the terror and terror threats. The first and foremost explanation is probably that, unconsciously, we think that we are keeping our finger in the dike. If we stop paying attention, things could get worse. We fear that these attacks could expand indefinitely and devastate Western civilization. As keepers of our civilization, we need to understand what’s going on so we can demand that our leaders take proper action.
But by attending so closely, we play perfectly into the hands of terrorists. The very purpose of terrorism is to arouse fear and panic, to disrupt lives and institutions. Terror is meant for the living not those who are killed. It intends to change our lives, to make us either too cautious, because we are fearful, or injudicious because we can’t help but react, no matter how lacking in strategy our actions may be.
Terrorist success depends on our frenzied reaction, and our current culture is primed to react that way. The media, with its need to fill its twenty-four hour news cycle and to compete for viewers, feeds off of terror. It builds frenzy with its lurid images and hyperbolic commentary. Even the most professional journalists weigh in. It’s their job. I believe they do their job in spite of knowing that their coverage aids and abets the terrorists. They know that all of that air time builds fears and the desire for revenge.
Over the years, viewers have come to depend on the media for their adrenaline fix—and even just to fill the time. They demand the endless coverage. Then the demagogues—Trump, Johnson, Le Pen—feed off of the frenzy and the popular demand to do something, just something, preferably identifying the “true enemy” as a scapegoat. The demagogues don’t really know what to do but they know they need to sound strong. So they propose horrifying, violent, anti-democratic solutions to the terrorist problems. To fix the threat to democracy and tolerance, the say, we must give up our democracy and tolerance.
There is, then a complex, parasitic relationship between the terrorists, the media, the populous, and the demagogues, who may be on the very of creating fascist states. A vicious cycle has been created. It goes something like this:
The more terrorists strike, the more the media cover it…
Which leads to increasing frenzy among masses of people…
Which provides opportunities for the demagogues…
Efforts to calm the frenzy (Obama) are seen as inadequate to the task, weak …
Observing their success is disrupting Western societies, terrorists strike again, media cover it more, people’s anxiety builds, and fertile grounds are provided for demagoguery. The demagogues, in turn, fan the flames higher, the people call louder for a solution, the media cover their demands
And the vicious cycles keep on turning.
Who is responsible, then? The answer is simple: All of us. The fueling of crisis is inherent in the system, not in individual broadcasters, demagogues, and regular people. We are all complicit.
I am aware the emphasizing the complexity of the problem has its limits as an analytical strategy. It can let everyone off the hook. If everyone is responsible and if the process is out of control, who will take responsibility to stop it. And it is out of control. You don’t even hear anyone talking sincerely about stopping it anymore, except in extreme ways like banning whole ethnic groups from your home turf.
I have no ready solution to this catastrophic relationship, but I do know a well-established principle in the theory of change: when you try one solution and it doesn’t work, then try it again or try a slightly different version of the same solution, and keep on trying in the same vein, then the solution itself becomes the problem. The repetitive interaction of the parts creates an impasse, a massive road block.
In other words, we can’t keep trying the same old thing. Everyone can’t keep playing the same old roles—neither the demagogues nor President Obama nor the news media. We need to do something different. What? Again, let me begin with a principle in the theory of change: if you stop one part, one component of the vicious cycle, then all of the other parts will do something different, too.
Are we trapped in our own morass? Must we play the losing hand in the terrorists’ game? I hope not. I don’t know who has the courage and insight to step out of their assigned roles, but someone must, or else the vicious cycle can build into chaos or conflagration.