24 May 2013
Benoit Gomis

Benoît Gomis

Associate Fellow, International Security (based in Toronto)


Following the violent murder in Woolwich, London, the front page of most national newspapers were filled with pictures of the two suspected perpetrators, holding a machete covered in blood, along with sensationalist titles - e.g. 'You will never be safe, we will never stop fighting', 'Beheaded on a British street', 'Blood on his hands, hatred in his eyes', and 'Terror returns to Britain'. Indeed the attack seems to have been carried out in a way expressly designed to gain such coverage, as a means of creating a sense of outrage and fear in British society out of all proportion to the real risk of physical injury.

In this, the attackers seem to be succeeding. Recent Chatham House–YouGov Surveys show that the UK public feel more threatened by terrorism than the facts would justify. Although there has not been any major terrorist attack in the UK since 7 July 2005, terrorism is still ranked as the principal threat to the British way of life above the failure of the international financial system, organised crime, and nuclear weapons proliferation. Moreover, although terror attacks have historically been more concentrated in London than in other areas of the country, in the 2012 survey Londoners appeared less concerned by terrorism (45% selected it as the greatest threat) than people living in the rest of the country. 

This disconnect between perception and reality owes a great deal to the way terrorist attacks and other violent crimes are covered by the media. This not only allows the killers to gain publicity for their actions, but stimulates the fantasies of certain mentally susceptible people and increases the likelihood of copycat attacks. Studies on media coverage of school shootings and suicide bombings have demonstrated that there is a strong psychological impact of intense saturation coverage, which motivates potential future perpetrators. Media overreaction risks giving an opportunity for groups with their own agendas to gain publicity, as seen with the English Defence League's counter-rally to the Woolwich killing. Although the dangers of instant reaction on social media are much debated, traditional media have also reported such events in a way which is likely to have propagated further fears rather than reassuring the public with measured analysis and putting these incidents in context. 

The fault does not only lie with the more sensationalist press. Between 2002-07, one book in English was published on the topic of terrorism every six hours. Peter W Singer has also noted that approximately 31,300 articles have been written on cyber terrorism and yet no one has so far been hurt or killed by cyber terrorism. 

Ultimately, the main responsibility for leading the response to these atrocities lies with elected politicians. Care must be taken to draw a balance between responding to public concerns, the pressures of news coverage, and avoiding an overreaction either of rhetoric or action. It is crucial for the state to seem in control in moments of panic and tragedy, as former intelligence and counter-terrorism official Sir David Omand often says. Lessons can be learned. Following the failed US-led rhetoric of the 'war on terror', emphasizing an 'us vs. them' approach, Western governments' political responses have become more subtle - and effective -, from Norway’s measured response to Anders Breivik’s July 2011 attacks to Barack Obama's words after the Boston bombings: 'We refuse to be terrorized'.

However, an obsession remains with the label 'terrorism', an all-encompassing term that fails to describe the nuances within the wide range of contexts it aims to describe, and most importantly tends to lead to disproportionate responses with little accountability. While the Woolwich killing would best be described a crime, there are those who seek to characterize it as 'terrorism' - as an act of violence by someone other than government for political purposes.

Policy responses to terrorism should be evaluated against three criteria: 1) whether the level of fear increases substantially, 2) the state of tensions between communities; 3) and the government's ability to manage the risks posed by terrorism without neglecting other key issues, including non-terrorist violence and crime. The priority following a crime should not be to figure out whether it can be labelled 'terrorism' but rather to find out what happened and why, and provide an effective and proportionate law enforcement and political response to the incident. 

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Also read:

The Woolwich murder did not merit the Cobra treatment
David Livingstone, The Guardian, May 2013