The gruesome massacre of Charlie Hebdo journalists and policemen in Paris has shocked the world. In a world of unrelenting terror, people still find it in themselves to be shocked, brutalised and terrorised anew. We are not yet inured to the violence and death that surrounds us.
But in the midst of the collective mourning and outrage that acts of terrorism and barbarity evoke, we also have a few discernible trends in media reporting that deserve close attention because they reflect increasingly common ways of conceptualising the problem. Instead of dealing with the issues at hand head-on, some journalists and writers engage in a kind of a prevarication and obfuscation that most readers would find difficult to recognise and from which it would be difficult to disengage. Further, such reporting usually involves to some degree a strategy that I will discuss in the rest of this essay: the shifting of focus onto a demonised right-wing conceived of as being perpetually threatening and on the verge of eruption. As Islamist outrages proliferate, it is this phantom army of the right that is offered, ultimately, as the real threat that needs to be confronted.
By positing the generalised “right” as the real problem, discussion of the crisis at hand is pre-empted and public outrage defused (or channeled in another direction). A close reading of instances of such reporting is necessary because the extent of manipulation of public discourse we find today is so great that it is difficult to challenge. This affects political consciousness in ways whose impact we cannot yet fully understand.
A New York Times article titled “Paris attack reflects a ‘dangerous moment’ for Europe’ begins with the following statement: “The sophisticated, military-style strike Wednesday on a French newspaper known for satirising Islam is sure to accelerate the growth of anti-Islamic sentiment in Europe, feeding far-right nationalist parties like France’s National Front.”
In other parts of the article, the authors expand on their fear that “the attacks could fuel greater anti-immigrant sentiment”, using quotes from “Muslims fearing a backlash” such as, “Some people when they think terrorism, think Muslims.” Another anxious Muslim explains, “Islamophobia is going to increase more and more. When some people see these kinds of terrorists, they conflate them with other Muslims. And it’s the extreme right that’s going to benefit from this.”
The latter half of the article is entirely dedicated to analysis of the supposedly most dangerous and deleterious impact that terrorist attacks have on the political landscape: they fuel the rise of “right-wing, anti-immigrant political parties”. Arguing that “right-wing, anti-immigrant political parties that see Islam as a threat to national values have expanded from the margins in many countries of Western Europe in recent years”, the authors enumerate the various parties that collectively constitute, in their view, the biggest challenge facing Europe, viz., the rise of the Sweden Democrats, the National Front in France, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) in Britain and the PEGIDA or Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West movement in Germany.
Drawing on comments from various experts and analysts, they bemoan the fact that the Charlie Hebdo atrocity will play into the hands of the National Front. “This attack is double honey for the National Front,” says Camille Grand, director of the French Foundation for Strategic Research. Peter Neumann of the Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College, London, expresses concern about the growing mobilisation of “right-wing” forces and the concomitant polarisation of European society, concluding with the observation: “Those who suffer the most from the backlash… are the Muslim populations of Europe, the ordinary normal Muslims who are trying to live their lives in Europe.”
This article employs discursive strategies symptomatic of a new kind of political journalism that distorts the intuitive priorities of the reading public. Immediately following a gruesome atrocity, we are presented with fear-mongering about a ‘backlash’ conceivably so extreme that discussion of the original crisis is pre-empted and defused. Usually, the alter-threat that’s propped up to enable this obviation of serious engagement is the ‘rise of the right’, as in this article, where we have endless speculation about what this tragedy might mean for “right-wing, anti-immigrant” parties.
As one of the first few reports to be filed on the story, it is astounding that this is the angle or perspective the New York Times chose to prioritise. The massacre raises extremely difficult questions that demand immediate and serious consideration. There are questions about democracy, freedom of speech, and the much-vaunted French tradition of staunch and unyielding secularism that immediately come to mind; instinct dictates that readers would be anxious to comprehend the seemingly imponderable implications this latest atrocity has for these. Instead, we have in this publication, as in several other instances, a pervasive distortion of priorities which serves ultimately to further confound and obfuscate the issue.
Instead of illuminating the core concerns that the victims of this barbaric act would want highlighted and debated, we are presented with a red-herring – that of the ever-menacing, ever-approaching rise of “right-wing, anti-immigrant parties”. Visions of the much-feared catastrophe that, we are told, is the growth of the right completely overwhelm, in a manner that is so effective because it is so subliminal, the real issues at hand, which are conveniently sidelined. The much-vilified parties who provide the smoke and mirrors in this act of journalistic distortion are characterised as irredeemably evil. Their views and challenges to contemporary political orthodoxy are denuded of legitimacy.
By casting these forces as illegitimate and dangerous, the concerned journalists accomplish two things. The first is that the issues raised by these political parties, and their increasing popularity, are preemptively dismissed, and the parties themselves and their supporters are stigmatised and condemned as undeserving of serious participation in the political sphere. The second, more pertinent here, is that the real problems that underlie terrorism and religious fundamentalism are obscured and ultimately completely ignored.
This tendency can also be seen, for instance, in this Guardian article that followed the Sydney siege of December 16. Emerging from a context of perpetual, acrimonious left/right “cultural warfare” in Australia, the article anxiously contemplates the nuances and numerous overt and implied meanings pervading “right-wing” discourse about the #illridewithyou Twitter story. Essentially, the same pattern can be identified – the deflecting of attention from the most pertinent questions and potent issues, and the shifting of focus onto a generalised “right wing” that is vilified and condemned.
Another Guardian piece, this one on the Charlie Hebdo massacre, follows a similar trajectory. After blandly conceding that the “twelve dead [in Paris] cannot go unremarked” and that “those journalists who confront violent intolerance, even in the supposed security of a city office, need every support”, the author offers pious condemnation of “hysterical” western responses (misconstruing terrorist attacks as acts of war) and pontificates on the ills of war, all of which are reasonable arguments. However, the way the article concludes offers some insight into how the writer conceptualises terrorism and what he deems an appropriate public response:
“That is why the most effective response is to meet terrorism on its own terms. It is to refuse to be terrified. It is not to show fear, not to overreact, not to over-publicise the aftermath. It is to treat each event as a passing accident of horror, and leave the perpetrator devoid of further satisfaction. That is the only way to defeat terrorism.”
Without going into what it means to “meet terrorism on its own terms” and how this is served by being passive, inactive and in denial (I cannot fathom what “over-publicise the aftermath” means; treat it as unworthy of sustained public attention?), this passage lays bare the essential difference between rival approaches to understanding and confronting terrorism. On the one hand, we have an understanding of terrorism, born of sustained interrogation, that sees it as an excrescence of specific organised social forces and ideologies. On the other hand, we have an understanding of terrorism that sees it as diffuse and incommensurable, as a series of “accidents of horror” that apparently do not deserve more than passing mention, as incidental to the shifting terrain of social forces, as a problem that will simply go away if ignored.
It is true that none of these articles is fully representative of their outlet’s overall coverage of the respective terrorist attacks. However, it is also true that these articles represent a significant tendency and discursive strategy popular in some sections of the media.
But let me point out something else that happens in the New York Times article. Alongside the shifting of focus onto the rise of right-wing parties are brief and elusive references to the real problems at hand.
Right after the introductory paragraph that focuses on the possible rise of “anti-Islamic sentiment in Europe” is this quote from Peter Neumann: “This is a dangerous moment for European societies. With increasing radicalisation among supporters of jihadist organisations and the white working class increasingly feeling disenfranchised and uncoupled from elites, things are coming to a head.” Elsewhere in the article, the authors quote Andrew Hussey, a scholar of postcolonial studies, who talks about the growing “[social] conflict between France and the Arab world”. He argues that “the official left in France has been in denial of [this conflict], but the French in general sense it”. Even as they venture into the terrain of the real conflicts, tensions and chasms that are most relevant to the atrocity, they hedge their analysis and return to their preferred focus, i.e., the rise of the right.
Thus, it would appear that there is a kind of double consciousness at work here, contradictory pulls that draw the reader in different directions. It would seem that there’s an awareness of what needs to be highlighted and brought out, but that awareness is tempered by a censorious super-ego, which delights in imposing a pre-conceived narrative that must override everything else. It is this conflict between what needs to be said and what can be said that is of critical importance, because it is in how this is resolved that the big answers of our time can be found. Evasion and the propping up of phantom enemies has worked for a while because it has reinforced standard narratives about ‘what the real problems are’ but it will come apart at the seams when we continue to find ourselves caught in the grip of violence, terrorism and oppression. The reality of oppression does not afford the luxury of denial and deflection.
Arjun Rajkhowa is a PhD candidate and tutor at LaTrobe University