Much of the public discourse of the past week has been concerned with the attack in Paris, with people offering sympathy and condolences to the city after what many have called “senseless violence.” ‘Senseless’ suggests that the attackers had no motivating purpose and that the attack is beyond comprehension. In fact, the purpose of such acts is in large part to sow fear and division in hopes of intensifying conflict. In that sense the attack was highly effective, aided by racist Western demagogues and a history of lazy and inflammatory media reporting.
The limitations of various news media are part of the problem. The presentation of fact without attention to historical background is taken as unbiased journalism, instead of understood as relying on the reader to interpret the events through their own ideological lens.
Instead of examining the political and economic circumstances which drive people to political violence, we will instead label the attacks “senseless” and the perpetrators madmen. Anything else is ideologically uncomfortable, as we might discover that the actions of Western governments and economic interests have fostered a climate of despair and political and economic exclusion around the world.
The way in which the media reported the bombing in Beirut is illustrative of the problematic role the media play in magnifying certain acts of violence while downplaying others.
The New York Times wrote a particularly reprehensible headline about the Beirut bombing: “Deadly blasts hit Hezbollah stronghold in southern Beirut.” In this headline, what is in fact a busy civilian neighborhood becomes defined by its occupation by a paramilitary organization that is also a political party. As the media watchdog FAIR wrote in their article about the coverage, this turns “civilian ISIS victims in Beirut into Hezbollah human shields.”
The contrast with the reporting on Paris is stark. French lives have been humanized and we hear that Parisians play “Imagine” in the street. The victims have names and are to be understood as real individuals, not strictly as a part of a body count. This is in part because violence “over there” is normalized in Western minds, and the ideological content of the news reflects certain attitudes that circulate in the societies that produce the newspaper owners, the journalists and the readers.
It is important to note that the coverage is simultaneously produced by the ideological climate in the West and helps to reproduce it. A bombing in Lebanon does not get the same amount of attention as attacks in Paris because the popular understanding is bombings happen in “the Middle East” but not in the West. Not only is this a lazy attitude with no insights to offer into the reasons for violence, it is also a poisonous attitude that often brings with it the idea of an innate predisposition for violence in Muslim people.
We need to acknowledge that the violence in Paris was not senseless. It was planned to create the greatest number of casualties in the most public way possible. They hoped to provoke panic and retrenchment, and to create a climate of fear that sets the “West” against “the Islamic world.” When news outlets dehumanize victims of violence in one part of the world while mourning them loudly in another they play into the hands of those who would cast these events as a clash of civilization.