Jihadist Recruitment by Media Coverage

by Wayne McCormack

Rolling Stone Magazine lands in a flock of trouble for putting a picture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on its cover, referring to him as a “monster” while being accused of glorifying him. But nobody complained about the ghoulish bloodthirsty voyeurism of the TV media during the first few weeks after the Boston Marathon bombing. One could just imagine the glee of the jihadists around the world watching the U.S. media glorifying this attack for hours on end with phrases such as “never seen anything like it,” “an entire city shut down,” “terror and fear in the heart of an iconic event,” and so on ad nauseam. Every second of that rhetoric brought joy to malicious plotters in farflung places and sent them new recruits.

The Boston coverage sensationalized, aggrandized, and even in some eyes tended to glorify the actions of two seriously misguided young men. The networks virtually ignored the tragedy of a factory bombing in Texas that killed 14 people and left hundreds homeless. And CNN then aired a “special report” on May 17 & 18, more than a month after the incident, called “Back to Boston: Moments of Impact.” The coverage of these two incidents, both apparently the efforts of frustrated and seriously misguided young men, is not just misallocation of time but fuel for the recruiting efforts of violent militants around the world.

Some politicians even wanted to reward terrorist-like behavior by treating the alleged bomber as an “enemy combatant.” Nonsense. We are not “at war” with vicious individuals no matter with which group they may have aligned or from whom they learned their cruel techniques.

The label of war does undeserved honor to disoriented perpetrators of violence against innocent civilians. Malefactors who have no objective other than the violence itself are pathetic and contemptible, and they certainly do not have the right to claim (as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed has proclaimed) that they are fighters for a righteous cause. To see the utter folly of using the label of “enemy combatant,” read the rant of KSM at his trial when he compares himself to George Washington. By contrast, a carefully professional criminal trial would display the self-humiliating rhetoric of extremists while also allowing the world to witness how a rational society deals with attacks on its legitimacy in civilized fashion.

Our politicians and media should make it clear that the West is not at war with Islam, with any ethnic group, or with any culture. Those who choose to call the U.S. efforts against terrorism a “war” should read the Constitution Project’s “Report on Detainee Treatment,” which concludes that “it is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture” approved at the highest levels of our government. If we did this in the name of war, it was war crime. If not in the name of war, then it was merely a crime under our own domestic law. Does it matter? In the context of jihadist rhetoric, it matters greatly. War sounds glorious to those seeking martyrdom, while crime sounds mundane and empty of glory.

Measured and restrained responses to evil are not just the right and moral thing to do, they are the pragmatic way of showing evil-doers that they cannot prevail, they cannot obtain the chaos they so avidly seek. It is sadly true that moderation does not sell well. It does not attract TV viewers and thus does not attract advertiser dollars, nor does it seem to attract voters to politicians. But moderation could help attract moderation, which in turn could attract more peaceful responses to our tragedies. “Turn the other cheek” is not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength – it doesn’t mean letting wrongdoers act with impunity – it means acting with restraint in the face of malice. 

Wayne McCormack is the E. W. Thode Professor of Law at the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law. Professor McCormack teaches Constitutional Law, Counter-Terrorism, International Criminal Law, Torts, and Civil Procedure.