By Brigitte L. Nacos
Although banned from their shelves by several large chain stores like Shop & Stop and CVS, the Rolling Stone issue depicting the surviving Boston Marathon Bomber Dzokhar Tsarrnaev on its cover has been a hit with retail sales elsewhere jumping by more than 100%. The sales jump was certainly more the result of the highly publicized protests against the alleged glorification of a terrorist by Rolling Stone than many thousands of Americans becoming fans of the young Tsarnaev.
There is no doubt that literally all terrorists strive for publicity and the opportunity to spread fear in their target societies. Every word spoken or printed, every image published about their violent deeds, their grievances, their objectives further terrorists’ media-centered objectives. And on that count terrorists have proven very successful.
But why single out Rolling Stone? The print press, television, media, blogs, and social media publicized many reports and many pictures about the brazen attack in Boston—including images of the perpetrators and their victims. For days, the Boston Marathon Bombing provided “breaking news” here and abroad for many days—even when there were no new developments at all. Compared to this publicity bonanza for the Boston Bombers, the Rolling Stone cover would have been a minor score without the various protests and boycotts.
In the ten weeks following the 9/11 attacks, TIME magazine depicted Osama bin Laden three times and Newsweek showed the Al Qaeda boss twice on its cover. In that time period, bin Laden was more often mentioned than President George W. Bush and other legitimate heads of governments in news stories aired by the leading American TV-networks. Although this media attention cast bin Laden in the role of a premier geopolitical player, there were no public outcries or business boycotts.
What we should be concerned with is the prominent and extensive coverage that the media devotes day-in and day-out to Al Qaeda and its affiliates around the globe. There is no doubt that the killing of bin Laden and a number of other important figures in Al Qaeda Central did not weaken the global network of Al Qaeda affiliates. On the contrary, several groups have strengthened and become more bellicose--especially in North Africa and the Middle East. But by attributing all violence by non-state actors in those regions to Al Qaeda, Washington officials and the news media play into the hands of whatever is left of Al Qaeda Central and those autonomous organizations that hope to benefit from alleged allegiance to the original bin Laden group.
It may well be that the intelligence community has evidence of terrorist plots and that there is reason to close diplomatic missions and warn Americans abroad. But by returning to the much publicized terror threat alert patterns of the Bush administration, present officials in the administration and congress provide the suspected terrorist groups with the attention they want to demonstrate how much they are feared.
This is not to say that American s should not be alerted to possible threats abroad and at home. The problem is the portrayal of Al Qaeda as a larger than life power, an existential threat to our national security that it is not.
One doesn’t have to be a cynic to suspect that the recent uproar over the National Security Agency’s data mining overreach played a role in the current terror alert. After all, who would not applaud the intelligence community, if such data reveal planned attacks and helps in their prevention?