“Radicalization” and Media Narratives

By now there is a familiar, ritualistic quality to media coverage of homegrown terrorist attacks. Journalists, pundits, and terrorism “experts” pontificate on the religiosity of the perpetrators, explore their background, and wonder in total bewilderment as to how all-American boys could have been responsible for such ghastly acts. The more intrepid journalists try to identify the points at which their subjects transformed into callous terrorists willing to turn against their own country. Sometimes, the terrorists are put on a therapist’s couch while pundits reach into their stockpile of outdated Freudisms and explain their mindsets, taking care to mention one or another personal crisis. The pathological ideology of global Islamism is invoked, the government is blamed for not doing enough, and demands are raised for a strong response. The enemy, in these narratives, is shrewd and he is among us. We must be more vigilant.

Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of the reporting and analysis which follows homegrown terrorist attacks is the extent to which it uncritically swallows the government-expounded narrative on radicalization: personal tragedies, inexplicable anger toward the United States, religiously-sanctioned calls for violence, and the ideological sway of global Islamism supposedly compel homegrown extremists toward violence. This abdication of the press’ independent and adversarial role is hardly a surprise given the corporate media has a notable history of brazenly adopting government positions. Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times¸ was only stating the obvious when he pointed out that his newspaper was “invested in the struggle against murderous extremism” and had “no doubts about where our sympathies lie in this clash of values.”

Media coverage of the recent attack at the Muhammad Art Exhibit in Garland, Texas has largely followed this pattern. One of the attackers, reported the New York Times, “was an extrovert drawn to basketball” while the other, as NBC News reported, was “a swoon-inducing school ‘heartthrob’ and devoted dad ‘raised in a normal American fashion.’” The bewilderment was there as well. According to the New York Times, it was “not entirely clear” why these two men decided to carry out the attack but suggested that it “seemed to embody the contradictions of radical Islam and suburban America.” ABC News looked at the Twitter feed of one of the attackers and concluded that it revealed “a man who had turned against his country.” For the FBI Director, James Comey, the attack “highlighted the difficulties the FBI faced … in differentiating between those who merely make inflammatory comments online and those who act on them.” More homegrown terrorists are “out there,” he warned. We must be more vigilant.

While longer commentaries on the attackers have yet to surface, we can safely surmise that they will tread the same ground. Consider the media coverage of Faisal Shahzad, the failed Times Square bomber.

Shahzad was living the American dream, according to the New York Times. He seemed to be “thriving in the West” working as “a financial analyst at Elizabeth Arden, the global cosmetics firm.” He had recently become a legal resident of the United States and owned “a gleaming new house,” awaiting the birth of his first daughter. But trouble was brewing. He struggled to pay his bills and had become more religious: “He no longer drank, and was praying five times a day, stopping into mosques.” Even more worryingly, Shahzad had “taken to citing Islamic theology” during casual conversations and seemed angry toward the United States for “conspir[ing] to mistreat Muslims.”

In Foreign Policy, one expert glibly pronounced that Shahzad “was first influenced by various websites that encourage and propagate extremist religious views, mixing religious bigotry and dogma with conspiracy theories.” His “economic distress,” according to this expert, “might also have played a role in his radicalization.” A good life compromised by financial problems and a recent turn toward religious extremism compounded by a growing anti-Americanism. These are apparently the ingredients of radicalization.

The same pattern was repeated in the coverage of the Tsarnaev brothers, who have been subjected to the largely discredited explication of terrorism experts and kindred pundits more than anyone else. The controversial Rolling Stone cover story on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev focused almost exclusively on detailing family troubles, failing grades, student debt, alienation, growing religiosity, and anger at the United States. A Wall Street Journal report noted that Tamerlan Tsarnaev “delved deeply into religion in recent years” and had “quit drinking and smoking.” Personal tragedies were also plentiful: a stalled boxing career, a murdered friend, domestic violence, etc. One terrorism expert wrote that “religious ideology” was “the dominant force” in Tamerlan’s radicalization.

Admittedly, this brief review is but a sample of the reporting on these cases; but it is a representative sample. The close affinity of media reports to commentaries by terrorism experts and the official government narrative of the War on Terror inspires little confidence in the supposed independence of the media. Indeed, all three share the longstanding belief that the very existence of a global Islamist ideology is a self-evident explanation of radicalization. In turn, media reports refuse to question why a particular person may be attracted to the ideology in the first place, aside from offering some personal tragedies as reasons. This obfuscation can be particularly difficult to maintain at times considering many of the perpetrators are outspoken about their own reasons for attempting to carry out attacks.

While hiding inside a boat, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had scrawled his reasons for the Boston Marathon bombing: “the U.S. government is killing our innocent civilians,” he wrote, “I can’t stand to see such evil go unpunished. . . . We Muslims are one body, you hurt one, you hurt us all.” Pleading guilty in court, Faisal Shahzad minced no words in explaining his reasoning: “I want to plead guilty 100 times because unless the United States pulls out of Afghanistan and Iraq, until they stop drone strikes in Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen and stop attacking Muslim lands, we will attack the United States and be out to get them.” One of the Garland, Texas attackers explained that it was becoming increasingly difficult to “live in America as a Muslim.”

It would be difficult to contest that there is considerable anti-Muslim bigotry in the United States or that Muslims have been on the receiving end of American violence in countless countries. These are merely common sense perceptions of the world around us and militant Islamist groups do their utmost to exploit them. The ideology is powerful because it is capable of interpreting this world in a manner consistent with people’s experience of it and suggesting a way out of one’s political impotence. Considering the number of Muslim-majority countries the US has been at war with in the past decade and the rising Islamophobia which has accompanied the War on Terror, the argument proffered by militant Islamist groups that there is a war between the West and Islam begins to appear appealing. The US itself remains incapable of countering this argument given its own complicity in bolstering it.

The shameful abdication of the press, on the other hand, is a different story. Virtually every case of a homegrown terrorist attack has resulted in media coverage that adopts the very premise of the government’s narrative, exonerating it of any role in the terrorist threat. Without an acknowledgment of such a role or an attempt at pointing out connections between US wars abroad and homegrown terrorism, one is resigned either to palliative measures to curb the violence or to call for a reinvigorated military response. For more than a decade, much of the corporate media has opted for the latter.

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