Always a troubling issue, the media’s role in unwittingly glorifying and encouraging acts of violence has weighed even more heavily on my mind in the weeks since the Boston Marathon bombing.
Watching and reading the (unavoidable) barrage of news coverage about the burial of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, I could only understand the media’s voyeuristic interest in violence as a surreal kind of death pornography. As the industry adage goes, “if it bleeds, it leads.”
I was reminded of this phenomenon again this past week, when news broke of a horrific machete murder in Woolwich, London, perpetrated by two men identified by the media as “of Muslim appearance,” a thinly-disguised code word for “dark-skinned.”
The perpetrators allegedly targeted twenty-five year old Lee Rigby for his military service, which was evident from his t-shirt advertising a military charity. The two men brutally attacked Rigby, butchering him on the streets outside his barracks.
I have no desire to repeat the tired critique that media coverage of violence committed by Muslims is primarily presented through the lens of religiosity. I am, however, troubled by the hierarchy of condemnation we see in relation to crimes perpetrated by Muslims, versus other (and some might argue) equally egregious violence by members of other religious or ethnic groups.
In discussions on Twitter, I raised the case of an elderly Pakistani man murdered in Birmingham, on his way home from the mosque, and wondered what differential accounts for the variance in horror: both victims were assaulted with a machete at random, both crimes ostensibly motivated by hate.
Some Twitter users responded, “Yes, well, no one yelled ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is Great) when they killed the Pakistani!” – as if the words uttered before slitting a man’s throat make a murder more, or less, gruesome.
These binary reactions are, however, tangential footnotes to a much broader socio-economic problem: the market value of atrocity.
It is critical to address the “culture of violence” rhetoric currently dominating public discourse. Placing blame on an entire religion as inherently predisposed to violence has become quite the profitable enterprise – just ask Tarek Fatah,Daniel Pipes, or a number of other voices who peddle in hysteria about Islam’s “violent” nature.
A cursory Twitter search reveals just how pervasive this perspective is.
Inevitably, by writing on this subject, my words will be taken out of context, and interpreted as an argument on behalf of “terrorism,” however hollow the term may be. I will be accused of excusing Muslims for their actions, while condemning white men for their violent behavior.
I refuse, however, to discuss equivalency. I’m not interested in offering proof that “white Americans commit terrorist acts, too.” The argument is a straw man, diverting attention from much deeper problems at work in social constructions of “violence” across many countries.
In the immediate aftermath of the Woolwich attacks, the English Defense League (EDL), a right-wing organization dedicated to opposing sharia law and preventing Muslim immigration to the UK, took to Twitter calling for race riots, as their supporters tumbled onto the streets in retaliation. Retaliation for what, exactly? We know the attackers made political statements; we know they were Muslim. And we know that their actions are reprehensible and inexcusable. But that is all we know.
One unspeakable truth here is that self-titled “radical Muslims” and self-styled “defenders of English rights” speak the same language, and remain dependent on one another. Without bravado, without rage, and without violence, neither could exist. And without both sides, the media would struggle for holes to fill.
In a previous article I wrote about the media’s unwitting encouragement of lone-wolf attackers, ostensibly motivated by a desire to “terrorize,” I commented,
We cannot assess the Tsarnaev case without considering changes in patterns of mass-media consumption over the past few decades. Twenty-four hour media coverage, from the citizen journalism of social media to CNN’s around the clock ‘breaking news,’ has proliferated, feeding an incessant demand for information. With constant coverage in all media sectors (print, Internet, radio), each atrocity raises the stakes exponentially…as body counts lose their ability to terrorize, the target must become more illogical, ever more random, for mass violence to gain lasting attention from the media…To garner the obsessive interest of the media industry, acts of violence must become increasingly spectacular.
Less than a week after the up-to-the-minute, live media updates about Tsarnaev’s burial, a more random, and more illogical target appeared—a Mother’s Day Parade in New Orleans. This incident failed, however, to gain nearly as much interest as the Boston Marathon.
To understand this discrepancy, we must look at the marketing potential of violent incidents. The fear generated by a brutal attack labeled “terror” is far more profitable and much more successful than marketing the Next Great Threat To Our Freedom. In actuality, the line between a “hate crime” and a “terroristic attack” is much thinner than the terminology suggests—after all, are both genres of violence not politically motivated, with the intention of striking fear in the hearts of a targeted community? If it is a Pakistani, perhaps the message is “go home.” If it is a British soldier, perhaps the message is “stay home.” The sad, underlying truth of the matter, however, is that one act of violence stays in the headline circuit much longer than the other.
The truly horrific implications of the Woolwich attacks and the Boston bombing (and, for good measure, the massacre perpetrated by Anders Breivik) can be found in an increasingly accepted discourse that they (insert “they” as you like, be it racially or religiously motivated atrocities) represent a “culture of violence.” Unsullied, you see, compared to those of us ostensibly without bloody hands, as if none of “us” pay taxes that fund a repressive Egyptian Army, or Latin American death squads, or drones over Yemen and Pakistan—and the list goes on.
Two mentally-ill (to say the least) Muslims brutally slaughtering a man in Woolwich is undeniably and obviously reprehensible – but before we negotiate the “motivation” minefield, and ascribe the UK atrocity to a Muslim “culture of violence,” let us not forget the joyful participation of those members of the media eager to playact life-and-death.
Woolwich and Boston will not be the last time the media goes into hyper-drive, and surely they were not the first. Before explaining away Woolwich as a product of Islam’s “culture of violence,” we must examine U.S. entertainment media culture.
I am not speaking here of violent films, or rap music, or school bullying—rather, I want to challenge the conception of what, in fact, constitutes a “culture of violence.” What, tell me, defines a society with “no regard for human life?” The American media’s thirst for violence is hardly limited to terrorism. In this country, capital punishment has also become a form of entertainment.
The most recent example of this fascination is found in the story of Jodi Arias, a young woman convicted of first-degree murder for the brutal stabbing and shooting of her ex-boyfriend.
Even if one has no desire to know who Jodi Arias is, the media response to this domestic murder case bears also on its handling of so-called “acts of terror.”
In a mindset of cool rationality, it becomes clear that a culture that thrives on violence must treat such incidents as forms of entertainment. The media phenomenon of HLN, originally an off-shoot of CNN owned by Turner broadcasting, is a case in point. Currently, HLN divides its coverage between entertainment and crime news. In truth, however, no such distinction operates.
The murder trial of Jodi Arias began in January 2013, coming to a close late in May. The case was sensational in no small part due to the state of Arizona’s (questionable) decision to offer a live, Internet-broadcast feed of every court session.
Among other media outlets, the trial was carried by HLN. Following the allocution phase of Arias’ sentencing, HLN crowed in a press release, “Jodi Arias Pleading for Her Life Got Us a Ratings Win!”
Responding to viewer interest in the case, HLN began a recurring segment called the “Jodi Jury,” in which audience members sat in judgment of the defendant on a series of make-believe panels. In conjunction with these pseudo trials, the network advertised for prospective “jury” members. Perhaps the most disturbing advertisement, pictured below, effectively encouraged viewers to enter to win a seat at the circus of Sixth Amendment desecration.
During these mock juries, the television audience rendered its verdict of “life or death” for a woman facing the reality of capital punishment and/or life incarceration—punctuated with giggles, hyperbole, and “wishes” by some participants that they could serve on the “real” jury.
Hosts made no pretentions at being unbiased. With naked glee, they picked apart the (now convicted) defendant’s hair, appearance, and speaking skills. A brief search on Twitter demonstrates how trial watchers approached the proceedings as a favorite sitcom, describing the popcorn they made for the occasion—infuriated that the “show” was running behind schedule.
It is not just the exploitation of a criminal case that I find so upsetting, but an entertainment industry masquerading as “justice.”
We cannot blame HLN and CNN for this phenomenon—speaking of a “culture of death,” banning firearms, or taxing violent video games will not eradicate American enjoyment of crime and punishment, violence and retribution. The secret, you see, lies in supply and demand.
How empty the Roman Coliseum would have been without an audience eager to revel in the entertaining spectacle of violence for which it was constructed.