Was the Terror Coverage More Explosive Than the Bombs?
Goaded by politicians and cable, a safer-than-ever America goes into full red
By Jack Shafer
September 19, 2016
In a rational world, we would interpret the inept crimes of accused pipe bomber
Ahmad Khan Rahami as evidence that 15 years after the big one, the terrorist
threat in America is akin to a brush fire—the kind of thing that inevitably
flares up and causes some damage before the experts put it out. Instead, thanks
to the cable news channels and some in the Web and print space, we’ve turned it
into a mighty conflagration. Donald Trump, ever the opportunist, sounded this
alarm Saturday shortly after the bomb went off in Manhattan’s Chelsea district.
“Nobody knows exactly what’s going on. But boy, we are living in a time—we
better get very tough, folks,” Trump said, when the shrapnel was still sizzling.
The cable news channels jumped on the story in a galvanic fashion for a number
of reasons. First, the story happened in their New York backyard. It is an
unwritten rule of assaults, murders, natural disasters and other injurious acts
that their news potential is inversely proportional to the distance from the
news organization’s headquarters. For example, if a pipe bomb went off in
Kansas City, the news response of the New York-based networks would be
middling. But if a New York City cop broke his toe kicking a suspect in the
butt, we’d be just a few chyrons away from a breaking news alert.
Second, the detonation of one bomb is an indicator that additional bombs might
exist until proved otherwise. In this case, they did, in alarming numbers. The
multiplicity of devices—one bomb exploded in New Jersey on Saturday morning, a
second bomb was found (undetonated) in Manhattan, and then early Monday in New
Jersey a third bomb went off in the face of a police robot—gave the story
additional velocity like booster stages on a rocket. Third, the date 9/11 has
made us all a little anxious about a repeat attack in September, and this
anxiety helps to stoke coverage of any such incident—especially in New York.
Even if the networks were based in Chicago, the story would have become big
news: Terrorism is to New York as hurricanes are to Miami. Even the near-misses
are big stories.
So, measured by the usual yardsticks, nobody can deny that the New York bombing
story and the capture of the accused were big stories. I’d be the last person
to say the press “over-covered” an incident in which 29 people were injured.
But neither am I carrying a load of dread that the next pipe bomb will ignite
in my world—the Washington, D.C., metro area, another bull's-eye for
terrorists. Living, as I do, in a rational world, I interpret the clumsy
bombing and misfire, and the speedy apprehension of the suspect, as evidence
that the genuine threat from terrorists is low. Very low. I feel safe unless I
start watching TV, after which, if I let my reptilian brain take over, I feel a
bit panicked. You probably feel the same way. After all, there’s no cost to
overreacting to the minor threat of terrorism. The payoff for overreacting
could be the preservation of your life.
President Barack Obama has tried to convey this gist of the low threat a number
of times, but whenever he tries to assure the country, it comes out sounding
like he’s counseling us to put our heads in the sand. Then, opportunists like
Trump do us no favor by inflating the event into something it isn’t. “Once
again someone we were told is OK turns out to be a terrorist who wants to
destroy our country & its people—how did he get thru system?” Trump tweeted
Monday afternoon. The fact that the 28-year-old Rahami, born in Afghanistan, is
the naturalized son of an immigrant seems not to have penetrated Trump's
coiffure. If Rahami “got through the system,” he did so as a youth.
The current spate of violence doesn’t even come close to the volume of bombings
recorded by FBI statisticians in an 18-month period spanning 1971 and 1972,
Bryan Burrough reports in his book Days of Rage. Despite more than 2,500
domestic bombings in that period, the nation did not lose its marbles; no
demagogue campaigned on the peril they posed.
Because fear is not rational, wonks never get too far with the public by
explaining that backyard swimming pools, quick drives to the supermarket for
bread and milk, obesity or falling furniture are more likely to put your in
death’s cross hairs than an act of terrorism. In the current atmosphere, every
terror-motivated crime has come to feel like a dire assault on the homeland,
exploding in the news with much more success than the actual bombs involved.
Though the fear is understandable, the result has a huge distorting effect on
our national psyche and politics. The culture appears to be too scarred by the
9/11 attacks to place pressure-cooker bombs of the type that Rahami is alleged
to have built in their proper perspective. Maybe the next generation, one with
no direct memory of the attack, can guide us out of our paranoia.
The fact is, everywhere you look in modern life, we’re safer. Airline flight is
safer, cars are ridiculously safe, violent crime has fallen through the floor,
the food supply has never been safer, and consumer devices come with so many
safety doodads attached that it takes an act of determined negligence to cut
off a finger or put out an eye. Helmeted to avoid concussions, GPS'ed up the
wing-wang to make it impossible to get lost in the forest, protected by
surveillance cameras around the clock, we now live in a fully airbagged world,
where accidental death is blocked by technology at almost every juncture. The
paradox of all this safety is that it ends up making a lot of us feel all the
more unsafe when we’re reminded that random tragedies do happen—and to clamor
for an even bigger airbag when they do, even though the rational mind tells us
we’ve reached a diminishing point of returns on that investment.
I’m not counseling anybody to “get over” 9/11 and slough off new attacks as if
they’re pinpricks. But neither am I encouraging everybody to throw themselves
into a full 9/11 wallow every time a bomb explodes, even if it blows up right
in Manhattan. The low, low risk that a terrorist attack might injure you may
not deserve the round-the-clock coverage the current incident is getting. It
deserves some, and the press should feel free to pick on the 9/11 scab as much
as it likes—but it’s not too much to ask the press to toss a little ointment
and a bandage on the wound every now and then.
It's better to burn out than fade away.
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