Self-Study Unit: Covering Terrorism

Sept. 11, 2001, was a particularly diabolical instance of terrorism. But there are many forms of terror. Some are so much a part of our ordinary lives that we hardly recognize them as such. Examples include child and spousal abuse, gang violence and hate crimes. “Acts of nature” — from hurricanes to earthquakes — inflict terror on both those directly affected and observers.

The events of September were categorically different. The scope of the damage and the number of casualties — more than 3,000 — were unprecedented, at least on American soil. The primary distinction between terrorism and terror is that the former is the intentional infliction of suffering and destruction, nearly always aimed at civilian targets. While the actual event may be short-lived, the ripple, or secondary, effects can include lingering health hazards, economic ruin, and the suffering of survivors.

Terrorism on such a massive scale creates an enormous range of direct and indirect victims, from rescue workers to medical personnel. As a result, it inflicts dire consequences far beyond the actual victim group, causing fear and intimidation across an entire community or even nation. The invisibility of the perpetrators exacerbates the sense of fury and dislocation felt by the community under siege. Children are particularly sensitive to the immediate fallout from trauma. According to a May 2002 study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 10.5 percent of New York City schoolchildren from the 4th through 12th grades suffered PTSD six months after Sept. 11. Another 10 percent suffered a related condition, agoraphobia, or the fear of public spaces. Latino children faced even higher risk of contracting both conditions. (The study was based on a sample size of 8,266, the largest of its kind.) Among adults queried one to two months after Sept. 11 in the National Study of Americans’ Reactions to September 11th, the prevalence of probable PTSD was higher in NYC (11.2 percent) than anywhere else in the nation. (2.7-4.0 percent, depending on location).

The political theorist Michael Walzer, author of Just and Unjust Wars, defines the phenomenon this way:

Terrorism is the deliberate killing of innocent people, at random, in order to spread fear through a whole population and force the hand of its political leaders.

The common element is the targeting of people who are, in both the military and political senses, noncombatants: not soldiers, not public officials, just ordinary people. And they aren't killed incidentally in the course of actions aimed elsewhere; they are killed intentionally.

Domestic terrorism has long been a regular beat for American journalists, with the Oklahoma City bombing — and the voluminous coverage it spawned — being just one example. A series of abortion clinic bombings in the 1990s, linked to fugitive John Eric Rudolph, is another. The 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, a harbinger of worse things to come, has been linked to Middle Eastern extremists. In May 2002, pipe bombs planted in mailboxes injured six and created panic across the across the mid-west and south. A college student in Minnesota confessed to the crime spree.

Robert Jay Lifton, a historian who has studied terrorist groups, Nazi doctors and other perpetrators, defines terrorism as “apocalyptic violence.” Moral certitude and “end-of-world” aspirations motivate this form of violence. “There is an impulse behind this act toward destroying much of the world,” Lifton has said. “It has political purposes — defeating America or getting America out of the Middle East or bringing down America — but it has the grander aim of unlimited destruction. That is why we call it apocalyptic violence, where the destructive impulse is accompanied by a vision of purification and renewal. We haven't been exposed to this before."

Indeed, a key component of terrorism is the generation of widespread panic and fear. As fear evokers, terrorists aim to create a climate of distrust and uncertainty that will somehow awaken people to the righteousness of their “cause.” Journalists are intended to serve as the medium for the articulation of this message.