Terrorism is a drama, a kind of deadly theatre. It is a political and cultural spectacle. And at this moment as I write, and the television plays endless pictures of the rescue efforts and talks to endless experts, officials and witnesses, all the key actors in the drama are playing their assigned parts to perfection. I know exactly what is going to happen over the next few days and weeks; it is very predictable.
The central actors in this spectacular production are the terrorists, the victims, the media, and the authorities; the audience is the viewing public, local and global, who will spend hour upon hour consuming the drama, vicariously re-living the horrifying events, always hungry for more salacious details. The plotline is almost always the same; it unfolds in four acts:
Act 1: The terrorists attack (or threaten) the victims in a dramatic violent act which usually has a raft of symbolic aspects to it; it targets government buildings, vital infrastructure or political leaders, or it takes place on a particular symbolic date, for example.
Act 2: The media gives wall-to-wall coverage of the attack, focusing in particular on the victims and the response from the emergency services, and employing well-used explanatory frames, such as the Innocent Victim frame, the Good Guys versus Bad Guys frame, the Evil Perpetrators frame, or the Heroic Rescuer frame.
Act 3: The authorities respond with ritual expressions of absolute condemnation for the perpetrators, sympathy for the victims, and vows of justice and greater security.
Act 4: In the coming days and weeks, the authorities will enact a series of new measures to try and reassure the public and protect them from a danger for which there is actually no full-proof protection. The media will speculate on why Oslo was a target in this case, whether the attack is a sign of even greater danger approaching, whether the authorities responded sufficiently at the time, and how the victims are coping with the aftermath.
All the actors to this deadly theatre will play their parts, unconsciously cooperating with, and responding to, each other to bring this lethal play to life in the global amphitheater. In many respects, and disturbingly, the relationship between the main actors is symbiotic; they are dependent upon each other for their roles in the drama. They parasitically feed upon each other. Whether they admit it or not, many of the actors will benefit greatly from the drama: the media will get increased ratings; the terrorists will get publicity; the authorities will get greater powers. Of course, the victims will not get anything out of this horrible play, only suffering.
As I watch the drama unfold, I can’t help but feel a little sick. I feel sick for the seemingly endless victims of violence – all the people who die and are injured because individuals or groups think that they can achieve political aims through murder and destruction. The victims in Oslo, like previous victims in New York, Bali, Madrid, London and Mumbai, share in the suffering of the victims in Palestine, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Congo, Chechnya, and dozens of other forgotten places; the fellow human beings hurt in each of these conflicts suffer because of the misguided and immoral belief that killing others can be a good way to resolve conflict.
I feel sick because the terrorists who committed this act are playing the role assigned to them in the drama and getting exactly what they hoped for: world-wide publicity and an undeserved reputation for being a powerful enemy. The media, in a perverse interdependency with the terrorists, plays along, encouraging the terrorists to believe that they are powerful, effective warriors in a war, able to punish their enemies whenever and wherever they like. This will undoubtedly embolden them and empower them to try again. They know they can make us tremble because we always respond like this in this particular play. They know they can make us react rashly because it is in the script that we will.
I feel sick because the same thing has happened so many times before, and as before, I just know that no lessons will be learned and no progress will be made in ensuring it will not happen again, because all the actors in the drama are already playing their assigned parts so perfectly, almost robotically. They will not deviate from their established roles; there is too much invested to change the script now. In particular, I know that the media and the authorities will not take the opportunity provided by the tragedy to ask the really important questions: Why does this keep happening every few months? What are the real reasons for it? Could it be due to our own policies and beliefs? Are the terrorists following our own example by using violence to resolve political conflicts? Are there alternative ways of dealing with political conflict, apart from force? Should we seriously explore the option of dialogue and reform? Why do we continuously fail to understand the reasons and motives for political violence?
In writing this, I do not intend to trivialize or point-score on the back of the real suffering of the victims. In fact, I would assert that it is the established, almost programmed response we are now witnessing which actually trivializes the victims. By failing to take seriously the context of political conflict in which such violence occurs, by failing to seriously inquire into the reasons why individuals commit such acts and the kind of political struggle they are pursuing, by giving the terrorists exactly the coverage and notoriety they crave, and by treating terrorism as a kind of theatre and relying on the same old tired narratives and frames to describe it, the response we are witnessing trivializes those who have been killed and injured as merely unfortunate victims of random pathology or mythical evil; it reduces them to bit players in a depressingly repetitive television serial.
There is an even more important issue: not only does this predictable response trivialize them by failing to fully account for why they have been attacked and what the real meaning of the violence might be, but it does absolutely nothing to prevent future victims of violence. Until we ask serious questions and seek serious answers as to why individuals and groups feel they have to use violence to solve conflict, and the role we might be playing in generating the violence which we abhor, we have little chance of preventing such attacks from occurring again. There is no foolproof defence against terrorism, except to persuade potential perpetrators not to engage in it and to pursue their grievances non-violently. Such a task requires the courage to ask different kinds of questions, and the opening of a new kind of conversation. Most of all, it requires a serious effort to find new ways of understanding the old problem of the deadly attraction of political violence.
Trapped in the theatre of terrorism, and having witnessed the opening scenes of this particular tragedy, I remain pessimistic about whether anything will be different this time. Keep watching the spectacle and see if I’m wrong.