Barely two days after the horrendous Boston Marathon bombing which has so far claimed three lives and injured over one hundred people, one of the most interesting and telling aspects of this tragedy has been how media coverage helps shape public perceptions over violence and terrorism.
Since the morning of the attacks, nearly every second of media coverage has been dedicated to the bombings, the investigation, speculations on who has been responsible, and most importantly, footage of the horror. There have been detailed accounts of victims’ injuries and personal tales of heroism and hardship. Two brothers each lost a leg in the attack. Eight-year-old Martin Richards, who loved to play outside and climb trees, was the youngest victim to die.
It’s easy to see why we have been so struck with grief and anger. It turns your gut sideways seeing this coverage, let alone those who personally experienced it. Americans rightfully want for those responsible to be brought to justice, named, and exposed for all to see.
Why? Because the terror was real, and the victims had names and faces. The media gave and continues to give intimate information regarding the bombings and those who have been harmed, and Americans understandably feel empathy and vulnerability at such a random, senseless act of mass murder.
But contrast this with the portrayal of the frequent tragedies, atrocities, and bombings that are committed by the U.S. government, and one can almost excuse the differences in outrage. In the last decade, the U.S. has occupied Afghanistan and Iraq while bombing Yemen, Pakistan, Libya, and Somalia, imposed blockades and sanctions that prevent the poor and elderly in foreign countries from acquiring food and medicine, and yet one can spend a great deal of time searching in vain for any faces, names, or accounts of the victims from the American press. Apparently, when cloaked in the alchemy of government power, these acts aren’t terrorism or mass murder, just “foreign policy.”
Why has the media covered this bombing with a fine-toothed comb, including bloody and grisly photos, yet it completely ignores the unspeakable violence when initiated by the state? There are perhaps too many answers to fit in here, but I think the one that stands out the most is that the former, private violence portrays the state in a heroic, fatherly role while the latter public violence embarrasses and harms state power.
While interview after interview describes the horror of the bombings and the glory of law enforcement and the military, these same institutions commit egregious acts of terror and violence on a daily basis far, far worse than the Boston bombings.
Just last week, eleven Pashtun children were killed in a U.S. air strike, and CNN did not show their faces, describe their childhoods, or show their grieving families. Nearly 5,000 individuals, an overwhelming number of them civilians, have met similar fates as those children due to U.S. drone strikes in multiple countries, leaving widows, orphans, and the daily terror and fear of robots dispensing death from the sky. The Iraq war led to one million deaths and millions of refugees.
Violence committed by the U.S. government, whether directly or indirectly, is simply not reported on. NPR and FOX News don’t show footage or conduct interviews with the victims of the tens of thousands of paramilitary raids that are conducted annually in American homes. What about the five hundred people who were shot and killed last year in “gun-free” Chicago? Or the 16-year-old American citizen vaporized by a U.S. Hellfire missile? Or the nameless, faceless victims of the government’s “war on drugs” rotting in prison for victimless crimes and the poor neighborhoods turned into warzones thanks to drug prohibition?
The reason that the victims of government violence are whitewashed or completely ignored is because reactions from the public would likely make it more difficult to implement policy. Americans are justifiably outraged over the Boston bombings, and the gruesome details provided by the media only enhanced these feelings. What if we were to see the true, ugly horror of war and state-condoned violence every night on TV — the missing limbs, the blood, the bodies, the sounds — just like we see during coverage of the Boston bombings?
But the media knows where its bread is buttered. In the last decade, and especially under the Obama administration, whistle-blowers and those attempting to expose government violence have been illegally detained, fired, and harassed. Challenging the state’s ability to dispense lethal force means much less to say, a Washington Post reporter than White House access and Beltway cocktail parties.
The ultimate irony in the media’s coverage, however, is that while the state self-aggrandizes and imposes security theater in the aftermath of the attacks, the incompetence of the government’s ability to provide actual security is there for all to see. Despite the broad powers to torture, wage preventive, aggressive war, indefinitely detain suspects, and flood our streets with bulky and expensive military weaponry — and regarding the marathon specifically, the presence of bomb-sniffing dogs at the start and finishing lines and spotters on the roofs — they still could not prevent the attack. The backwards incentive structure of bureaucracy means that these agencies will likely get more money and power, not less.
All acts of violence and terrorism should be vehemently opposed, yet by far the biggest orchestrator of destruction is shielded from this condemnation by a subservient media. Whether the victims are innocent marathon runners, Amish entrepreneurs, or Afghan children, we should all be outraged. And when President Obama, speaking of the Boston bombings, says “Any time bombs are used to target innocent civilians it is an act of terror,” he should take a long, hard look in the mirror.