Terrorism as propaganda

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Terrorism and propaganda have each taken many forms throughout history, but terrorism as propaganda may have become one of the most destabilizing and dangerous phenomena afflicting 21st century society.

Military campaigns have often sought to inspire fear in enemy soldiers as part of the battle for "hearts and minds." Most military campaigns, however, use fear as a secondary tactic within a war whose ultimate objective is seizing or destroying the enemy's territory, weapons, material resources and physical ability to wage war. Terrorism, by contrast, is a tactic often employed by political actors that have no hope of physically vanquishing their enemy. Instead, its goal is to defeat the enemy psychologically through the systematic, calculated use of violence and threats of violence.

Terrorism originally refered to actions taken by governments, not sub-national actors. It refered to a government policy designed to instill massive fear in the populace through mass killings in order to maintain state power. The "reign of terror" launched by the Jacobin government during the French Revolution is the classic example of terrorism in it's original sense. As the term has evolved terrorism has come to be applied more to sub-national actors instead of states, an inversion of what it originally meant.

During the period from the 1870s into the 1920s, terrorism was sometimes associated with the political philosophy of anarchism, minority of whose followers carried out a number of assassination attempts on corporate and government leaders. The assasin of U.S. President William McKinley was alleged to be an anarchist, but his anarchism has been disputed. This strategy, reviled by Marxists, some anarchists, and other radicals, was described by it's supporters as "propaganda of the deed" (a term that PR industry founder Edward Bernays would later use in reference to what today's public relations practitioners call "publicity stunts"). The strategy is sometimes erroneously attributed to 19th century anarchist Mikhail Bakunin but, while he did use the term "propaganda by the deed," he did not use it in the sense of advocating the kind of actions carried out by the "propaganda by the deed" movement. The advocates of "propaganda of the deed" believed that the heroic, exemplary boldness of their actions would inspire the masses and make anarchist ideas famous. Unlike modern terrorists, however, they tended to target individuals whom they regarded as responsible for oppressing the masses, while avoiding violence against innocent bystanders. For example, Russian radicals intent on the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in the mid-19th century cancelled several actions out of concern that they might injure women, children or elderly persons. For this reason some do not consider these actions to be terrorist. Most anarchists argue that all states are terrorist organizations, which use violence (through police, militaries, prisons, etc.) on a systemic level to force the population into submission. "Deterrance" is just another form of terrorism.

During the twentieth century, terrorism gradually evolved, becoming more deadly and indiscriminate as its adherents sought to maximize the psychological impact of their actions. According to Jerrold Post, director of the Political Psychology Program at George Washington University, sophisticated terrorist groups actually have a vice president of media relations and give out handbooks dealing with how to attract maximum media attention. Speaking at the U.S. National Press Club on February 12, 2003, Post detailed a study showing that terrorist activities in Northern Ireland attacks tended to occur on Thursday afternoons between 5:00 and 6:00. "Post said the reason is the deadline for Friday papers, that traditionally carry supermarket coupons and sales ads, is 6:00 p.m.," explained O'Dwyer's PR Daily. "Any terrorist act committed before 5:00 p.m. would give journalists time to analyze the act and report it in context. After 5:00 p.m. all there's time to do is rip the current headline and put in the terrifying headline that the terrorists want to be seen, said Post."

Hafez Al Mirazi, bureau chief of the Al-Jazeera satellite TV network, agrees that terrorists exploit the media for maximum advantage. "If CNN or Fox or others are not going to have breaking news flashing on their screens if Palestinians are killed, but only if Israelis are killed, then [terrorists] will go out and kill an Israeli," Al Mirazi said, speaking at the same event as Post.[1]

James E. Lukaszewski, a public relations counselor who has advised the U.S. military as well as major corporations, goes further, stating that "media coverage and terrorism are soul mates - virtually inseparable. They feed off each other. They together create a dance of death - the one for political or ideological motives, the other for commercial success." Terrorists need the media to gain attention for their cause, and the sensational nature of their crimes drives media coverage. "Terrorist activities are high profile, ratings-building events," Lukaszewski writes. "The news media need to prolong these stories because they build viewership and readership. ... The marriage between the terrorist and the media is inevitable. It's a grizzly, predictable, often necessary dance of death."[2]

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