Should the Names of Terrorists Never Pass Our Lips?
“He sought many things from his act of terror, but one was notoriety – that is why you will never hear me mention his name.” These were the words of New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, speaking in Parliament following the Mar. 15 terrorist attack on two mosques in New Zealand. The killer, an Australian identified as Brenton Tarrant, was motivated by a hodgepodge of extreme right-wing ideologies, from white nationalism to anti-Muslim bigotry. Ardern, and those who support her stance, hope that by refusing to name the killer they will strike a blow against extremism and terrorism. While this is an understandable reaction, they are unlikely to achieve this aim, and may unintentionally cause more harm than good.
There are some obvious benefits to not naming mass killers and terrorists. The most popular one is that this starves the terrorist of what Margaret Thatcher coined as “the oxygen of publicity.” Deny them this, the thinking goes, and it is less likely that their ideas and actions will be glorified, and others will follow in their footsteps. This may well be true but refusing to name a terrorist will not achieve this.
Terrorism is, to some extent, an act of messaging. It was developed as such by late 19th-century violent anarchists who referred to it as “propaganda of the deed.” Terrorists are first and foremost judged and hated or admired on the basis of their actions, not their personal identity. For terrorist groups and their followers, the focus of attacks has always been on the act itself and the often symbolic nature of the target, not on the perpetrator. From the perspective of the wider public, it is often the attacks that linger more viscerally in our memories, not the identities of those who carried them out.
If one were to take Ardern’s “oxygen of publicity” position to its logical conclusion, then there is no reason to give much attention to the attacks themselves. We can simply wipe these horrible events from our collective conscious and they will just disappear and reduce the risk of future atrocities. If only it was this easy to prevent terrorism.
Recently, a more reasonable suggestion was made by terrorism analyst J.M. Berger in an article for the Atlantic. He makes a convincing case for media organizations to think twice before publishing terrorist manifestos. Citing the writings of Norwegian extreme right terrorist Anders Breivik (among others), he notes that they can act as motivations for copycat attacks. The Breivik manifesto offers the powerful blend of word and deed through the “combination of his ready violence and his textual assignment of meaning to the act.” However, Berger does not go so far as to suggest that we simply ignore the existence of or ban manifestos and their content, but rightly warns of the need to report on them in a way which avoids uncritically amplifying terrorist propaganda.
Taking his cue from Breivik, Tarrant also produced and disseminated a manifesto before his attack. In it, he laid out his various concerns about the gradual extinction of white Europeans at the hands of “high-fertility immigrants,” and in particular Muslims. Tarrant also provided what he believed were the justifications for killing immigrants in order to redress the demographic balance of the West. Over the weekend, New Zealand’s chief censor deemed the manifesto as “objectionable,” a move which makes possession and dissemination of the text against the law. The manifesto remains available, however, for researchers and journalists who are eligible to apply and receive an exemption from the state allowing them to view it. It remains to be seen how the application of this law will play out and whether or not it will contribute to a societal ignorance of the threat in their midst or truly prevent others from taking up Tarrant’s mission.
Blanket bans of things like names and extremist manifestos are an easy alternative to the much more challenging task of responsibly informing the public. Perhaps this can be done without naming Tarrant or making his manifesto publicly available, but this approach is unlikely to go beyond vague statements about his opposition to “our values” and may lack the required depth and nuance. Setting aside the wider importance of a society being allowed to understand and explore its own extreme and violent underbelly, freely providing information about the identities and motivations of terrorists is also one of the first steps in defeating them. Terrorists are products of our societies and it is important that the wider public is provided with all the relevant details so that they may do their part to identify and combat extremism. We can of course continue furthering our understanding of white nationalist extremism and terrorism without naming or otherwise identifying those who commit attacks in its name. But why omit such a central component? If we do not know who they are, we cannot possibly begin to understand the threat. It also remains unclear if not naming the person means that we do not discuss their life and the factors that attracted them to extremist ideology and violence. If this is the case, it seems to be a significant obstacle to better understanding the nature of the threat and how to counter it.
Ardern’s decision not to name Tarrant is admittedly more of a symbolic gesture. Media reporting on the attack has ensured that we all know the killer’s name. Nonetheless, if more leaders start adopting this approach, news outlets may soon find themselves under pressure to do the same. Indeed, some media organizations have already toyed with this idea. After a jihadist truck attack in Nice and the murder of a French Catholic priest in Normandy in July 2016, leading French papers Le Monde and La Croix took the editorial decision not to publish pictures of the killers, while French radio station Radio 1 took this a step further, choosing not to name them either. Europe 1, however, appears not to have stuck with this decision for long.
It is hard to escape the sense that, in most cases, the impulse to not name a terrorist is driven more by moral chest thumping and emotion than anything else – a desire not to give terrorists “what they want” and somehow punish them. The desires of terrorists should not, however, inform the decisions of our politicians or media when it comes to their responsibilities to the public. Nor should emotions be allowed to cloud judgement lest decisions lead to negative consequences that are not considered in the heat of the moment.
One of the problems many people appear to have overlooked is that politicians and the media take a major risk when they refuse to confront or discuss key pieces of information relating to terrorist attacks. Conspiracy theories, and those who peddle them, are a major component of many violent ideologies and act as a driver for those who act in their name. They underpin a victimhood narrative that seeks to justify violence as the only effective and legitimate response to an existential crisis, be it the supposed “white genocide” that partly drove Tarrant or the “war on Islam” that jihadists believe they are fighting against.
Conspiracy theories thrive on a lack of information. Where there is a gap in our knowledge of an event, the conspiracy theory proffers a phony explanation that fits with its view of the world and how it works. If legitimate sources refuse to take responsibility for informing the public of who the terrorist is, it allows the conspiracy theory the space it needs to create its own myths and lore.
Often, identifying terrorists sheds light on how unimpressive they are as people – investigations into Anders Breivik’s background, for example, showed him to be a rather dull narcissist who failed to achieve any of his life goals. Revealing terrorists for who they really are is likely to have a greater negative impact on their image than ignoring them altogether.
If anything, not naming Tarrant gives right-wing conspiracy theorists significantly more leeway to lionise and glorify him. It allows the conspiracy theorists to write Tarrant’s story and spread their myths without even having to confront the facts provided by leaders. In an era where facts and accurate information are facing an arguably unprecedented assault, now is not the time for legitimate governments and mainstream media to begin withholding them. The consequences of this are likely to cause far more damage than simply facing reality.
Those who seek to undermine democracy and pluralism would also welcome the Ardern approach. Russian government trolls who exploit social media and people’s ignorance and fear to sow further discord and confusion in Western societies would be happy to fill in the blanks here. So too would “alternative” media organisations like InfoWars who can build on their false-flag conspiracy theories by demonstrating that politicians won’t even name the perpetrators out of fear that their involvement in the attack might be revealed.
These are just some of many possible negative consequences to the refusal to name approach. Those who want us all to take part in this well-intentioned but flawed experiment should take more time to consider the wider impact it may have.
Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens is head of research at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University and a lecturer at King’s College London. You can follow him on Twitter: @amhitchens
Image: Julian Meehan