The terrorist bombings of Zaventem airport and Maelbeek metro station were first and foremost an act of mass murder on innocent civilians going about their daily lives. The human tragedy that occurred during Tuesday’s morning rush hour is difficult to put into words; so many lives were painfully and irrevocably altered by those atrocities. Sadly the killers did not care about their victims, about the bereaved families or the life-changing injuries they inflicted, they merely wanted to impose maximum fear on the society they had called their home and inspire others to join their campaign of violence. In that they may have succeeded, but with no little help from society itself.
Terror only wins if we allow ourselves to be terrorised. Everyone reacts differently to events like the Brussels bombings, I saw that first hand on Tuesday, some people stopped work and focused their energy on proclaiming how scared they were by events whilst sharing graphic images from social media of injured victims. Others carried on working, conscious they were lucky to be safe in their office and unharmed. It’s easy to say objectively the latter approach is better, but who honestly knows how they will react until they are in that situation and the approach people take is undoubtedly influenced by the modern media reaction to terrorist atrocities.
The media has a duty to report events, to scrutinise the authorities’ reaction to those events and the effectiveness of their counter-terrorism efforts, but the blanket wall-to-wall coverage of the Brussels attacks went beyond that. There was conflicting and inaccurate reporting on the number of victims, on the identities of the killers, even at one point on the number of different attacks, and a focus on a ‘city in grief’. If any of this was remotely helpful to victims and the bereaved families it could be justified, but was the endless speculation and blanket coverage really in any way beneficial to people dealing with profound worry and then tragedy? Meanwhile, counter-productively it does seem to drive divisions and distrust between communities.
Of course in the very act of writing this blog post I am contributing to the already plentiful media on this subject, but we do as a society need to reassess how we react to tragedies such as those in Brussels and Paris. It is lazy to just blame media hype, the media are a product of the societies they exist in. It is entirely understandable that different people have different reactions to tragic and troubling events in their midst, but we all share a common goal of defeating terrorism and that means we need to think about how we respond to it more carefully. Letting murderers dominate the international airwaves and penetrate everyday life across continents with their acts of evil is allowing them to achieve their aims.
The victims should of course be remembered and honoured, and there is always the hope that coverage of the tragedy and unfairness of lives lost might dissuade potential terrorists, but honouring the victims should not be linked to giving their killers the oxygen of publicity. Work and life must go on, as normally as possible, for that is what the terrorists want to prevent, and only in denying them that satisfaction can we begin to win the war on terror. With calm determination and a refusal to let murderers sow the seeds of division they seek to plant, we can overcome these acts of hatred, but it needs each and every one of us to play our part.