The Media and Terrorism: Critical Failure in Critical Times

Posted by cmfr | Posted in In Medias Res, Luis V. Teodoro | Posted on 14-06-2017

By Luis V. Teodoro

THE DIFFERENCE between the Philippine National Police’s (PNP) interpretation of the June 2 Resorts World Manila incident as a robbery attempt rather than an act of terrorism and that of House of Representatives Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, who said it was a terrorist deed,  is the result of the difference in their respective definitions  of terrorism.

The PNP website contains that body’s view of terrorism as a contemporary threat. Its  definition, in a rather roundabout way, identifies a number of characteristics which make an act terrorist.

The first of these is that terrorists have a political aim, or, as the PNP puts it, “political consideration form the framework in which the activity of those engaged in terrorism is interpreted…terrorism can be held to revolve around one’s political point of view…”

A second characteristic the PNP mentions is that “terrorist violence is aimed not so much on the target upon which the initial act is committed, but to a much wider audience who will view and interpret the act.”

As other studies of terrorism have pointed out, a terrorist act is meant to send a message: that the perpetrators can strike at anytime and any place, and that, as a result, no one is safe. That message also tends to suggest to the media audience that the terrorist group is bigger and more powerful than it really is.

The PNP definition also differentiates between terrorism and an ordinary criminal act. What distinguishes the two are “the political and social objectives which drive terrorists”: ordinary criminal acts are not political statements.

The PNP also points out that while regular or guerrilla wars do have political objectives as well, terrorism is different in that “in terrorism, innocents are killed deliberately.”

As Leonard Weinberg and Paul Davis point out in their book Political Terrorism, terrorists target non combatants in a conflict, unlike guerrilla or regular military groups that engage their armed antagonists, and which usually harm civilians only unintentionally or as the consequence of miscalculations.

“Most of the victims of terrorist violence are innocent bystanders,” concludes the PNP definition, which means that terrorism, as a political means to a political end, is characterized by the use of indiscriminate violence.

In contrast to its rather prolix and hortatory definition, that of Speaker Alvarez is limited to the declaration that “the ultimate consequence (sic) of the attack on Resorts World is an act of terrorism. Let us stick to the definition of terrorism. Anybody who with premeditation harms and kills people indiscriminately is a terrorist.”

The Alvarez definition does include the indiscriminate character of terrorist violence — which, however does not seem to apply to the Resorts World case, since the alleged perpetrator, one Jessie Javier Carlos, did not directly kill anyone, all 38 victims having died of asphyxiation rather than wounds from the firearm he was carrying. Equally important is Carlos’ belonging to no group with a political purpose, the message of which, if he were political, he would have wanted the entire planet to hear.

While terrorism flourishes in the age of media — when the world is  deluged daily with billions of bytes of information, and when martial law is in effect in the whole of Mindanao because of a supposedly urgent terrorist threat that has morphed into an alleged rebellion — none of the nuances that distinguish ordinary criminal acts, terrorism, and “civilized” warfare from each other has ever seen print or broadcast.

Background reports on the Maute as well as Abu Sayyaf groups have appeared in print, recounting their respective histories, purported leaders, their views of Islam, and the depredations they have committed. But it is unclear if these qualify them as terrorist groups — if, despite the Maute leadership’s being former members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the group is more of a criminal rather than a political organization.

Aside from vague references to the Maute group’s supposed affiliation with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), no clear description of their political aims, if any, has been provided by the media. As for the ASG, which is customarily referred to in the media as a terrorist group, what’s outstanding is the absence in media reports of whether they have political aims at all or is just a kidnap for ransom bandit group.

One question most citizens should be asking but are not is what distinguishes these groups from the MILF, the Moro  National  Liberation Front (MNLF), and the New People’s Army (NPA), given government’s earlier openness (later withdrawn) to engaging the latter three organizations in a common fight against them. Neither are the media asking the same question.

These are  issues crucial to the question  of whether it was at all necessary to declare martial law in the whole of Mindanao — and to the possibility of declaring it in the entire country, which seems to be a distinct possibility. Approval of the declaration is premised more on President Rodrigo Duterte’s popularity rather than on the merits of the declaration itself, apparently because the media have so far failed to provide the citizenry the information and analysis it needs to arrive at informed opinions in these critical times.