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Commentary

Saturation Media Coverage of the Paris Terrorist Attacks Is Unhelpful



Compare the worldwide saturation press coverage of the terrorist killings in Paris of 17 people, including 12 journalists at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, with the minimalist coverage of the even more heinous mass slaughter of innocents or by innocents in Nigeria. At roughly the same time as the Paris attacks, as many as 2,000 people were murdered in Nigeria when radical Islamists, in one of the largest terrorist attacks by a group in modern history (American’s catastrophic 9/11 attacks killed a little less than 3,000 people), razed 16 villages and killed mainly young children and older people, who were not fast enough to get away from spraying gunfire from automatic weapons and grenade launchers. In addition, in two separate attacks, child suicide bombers, who may not have even known they were carrying explosives, killed at least 19 people in markets in the same northeastern region of that country. Why the disparity of the media coverage?

First, to be charitable, one might excuse this imbalance of reporting by arguing that more international media outlets are located in Paris, one of the most important cities of Europe, than in the more remote areas of Nigeria. Second, the Nigerian attacks, which involved people arguably even more innocent than most of the people in the Paris incident (I am in no way condoning the unconscionable Paris attacks, but the satirists at Charile Hebdo had made fun of Mohammed and everyone else), was not perceived to be an attack on the media and freedom of expression, which is bound to raise hackles among the Fourth Estate. Third, less charitably, different expectations exist for “civilized” France vs the “uncivilized” developing world, in which violence and mayhem are expected to run rampant. The media itself fosters this expectation by reporting little else in Nigeria except terrorist violence.

Finally, unfortunately, Parisians are more sympathetic to Americans simply because they are more like most of us, not only in terms of race but in rough parity of economic and social condition. People empathize more with people like themselves, and the media gives their customers what they want—the searing, raw emotions of justifiable grief and defiance in those similar people in the face of heinously evil acts. And, of course, terrorist attacks against people in similar circumstances to our own generate much higher consumer interest—and viewership, listenership, or readership—because of greater fear generated that the same could happen to us.

However, despite that France, a former colonial power, and the United States, the world’s lone superpower, have similarly aggressive policies in the Islamic world—France has recently intervened in Mali, Libya, and now against the Islamic State in Syria and the United States, since 9/11, has attacked or invaded at least seven Muslim countries—France is not the United States. The Kouachi brothers, perpetrators of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, apparently were originally radicalized by the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and Amedi Coulibaly, also involved in hostage taking in Paris, claimed to be affiliated with the Islamic State—so blowback from aggressive Western neo-colonial foreign policy in an Islamic world tired of decades of colonial intervention is usually at least one factor in anti-Western attacks by radical Islamists. Yet the United States has less a reason to behave aggressively in the Middle East than does France, which is just across the Mediterranean Sea from that country. France also would be better off staying out of its former colonial possessions, but the United States, half a world away, has even less reason to make more enemies by involving itself in local Middle Eastern disputes. Journalists have documented well the swelling of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)—the group the Kouachi brothers claimed to be acting in behalf of—in the face U.S. attacks against the group in Yemen. Yet journalists, in the wake of the Paris attacks, fail to report that the United States may have made the AQAP problem worse. Furthermore, America has done a better job of integrating immigrant Muslims than many European countries, such as France and Germany, which have large, more segregated, and more restive Islamic populations than does the United States. Also, as the founders of the United States realized, America is farther away from the centers of world conflict than are most countries, including France. Both conventional armies and terrorists have a harder time operating over those great distances; in the case of terrorists, the difficulty is compounded by having fewer radicalized Islamists to give them shelter in the United States than exist in Europe. And despite the anomaly of the 9/11 attacks, terrorism has been traditionally been much lower in North America than other continents, including Europe.

The American founders realized that the uniquely favorable strategic position of the United States, which still holds more than two centuries after the founding, gave them the luxury of adopting a more restrained foreign policy. Modern American leaders have forgotten this strategic advantage and have instead embarked on a costly and counterproductive neo-imperial crusade to “drain the swamp” of terrorists; instead they have helped fuel a tsunami of Islamist radicalism. Their junior partner, France, is now experiencing the blowback from a similar policy.

Thus, sensational media hype surrounding the Paris attacks, which instills excessive fear in Americans that they will be the victim of a rare terrorist attack (a chance lower than getting struck by lightning), merely leads to the perpetuation of U.S. government policies that...well...generate more terrorism.


Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at the Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office.


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