We can talk about terrorists without glorifying them or their acts

This piece appeared in The Hill Times on March 25, 2019.

When important events occur this is news. People want to know what is happening as it is happening: that is how reporting the news works. We want to know more, not less, and we want to know it NOW. We want as many details as possible so we can develop an understanding of the event and figure out what is important and what is not.

When the event in question is an act of terrorism, as we saw last week in Christchurch, New Zealand, we want to know even more. We live in a post 9/11 world where we have been inundated with terrorist act after terrorist act after terrorist act: we could almost call the current period the ‘Age of Terrorism’ based on the frequency of such incidents and the media coverage they receive. News articles, op-eds, books, specialised journals, blogs and podcasts (including my own blogs and podcasts – An Intelligent Look at Terrorism) have sprung up to dissect this phenomenon, all with the purpose at getting a better handle on it (and perhaps helping to decide what to do about it).

In this search for more details about the who, where, what, why, how and when, however, there has been some push back of late. Some have called for a suppression of information on terrorist attacks. This way of thinking states that naming terrorists or showing footage of their attacks (the New Zealand livestreamed his massacre) only serves to glorify them and promotes their acts for others to follow. There is ample evidence that likeminded individuals cite previous attackers as part of a justification for their own actions (the New Zealand terrorist cited both Anders Breivik, the 2011 Norwegian shooter, as well as Canada’s Alexandre Bissonnette, the shooter of the Quebec City mosque in 2017). There are also some who say publishing the names of the perpetrators compounds the grief of the families of the dead.

In light of this what should we do? No one wants to give fodder to future terrorists and no one wants to prolong the agony of the loved ones of the victims. But is the reporting of a name doing this? I cannot speak for the feelings of those who lost family members or friends to terrorists but it strikes me that there is a tension between reporting facts and being sensitive. Where is the line between the public’s right to know and the bereaved’s right to not suffer?

Besides I think it is not a good idea to equate reporting with glorification or giving undue attention to a terrorist seeking either. Facts are facts and should be objective and not emotion-laden. In addition, in a world of instant news and multiple platforms we cannot suppress information anyway: that horse has left the barn. The New Zealand shooter’s video and manifesto were already being praised by those who shared his warped views seconds after they appeared online. Whether or not the Ottawa Citizen, the Globe and Mail or The Hill Times opts to not publish the terrorist’s name makes no difference in the reach of his message.

The question of whether to show the video is a different matter however. That piece of information is nothing more than violence porn. We should not share that any more than we should share footage of snuff videos or violent rapes. There is simply some material that should not be posted out of a sense of basic human decency.

We can learn about terrorism and its motivations by sharing more information, not less. We can be both true to our need to acquire details and our need to be sensitive to others. It is something that has to be done carefully, but it can be done.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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