Yeah, I think they are at risk

(Credit: AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Back in October, in response to questions from local journalists, I argued that the risks of reporters and other media figures being intentionally targeted by violent political actors (OK, OK, domestic terrorists) was relatively low.

My thinking has changed in the wake of the escalation of political violence that we saw on Jan. 6 and the continuing dangers of more and greater violence in the coming days and weeks.

A week ago we watched pro-Trump mobs storming the U.S. Capitol pause to assault members of the media, delivering the violence against journalists the president has been inciting literally for years.

To cut to the chase, after last Wednesday I don’t think media organizations can automatically assume that their reporters, photographers, and camera crews will be safe at any pro-Trump demonstration in the future, especially if his supporters show up armed. Members of the media should maintain maximum situational awareness and have a plan for how to get out of harm’s way if they need to.

In short, I think media organizations covering a pro-Trump demonstration need to treat it the same way they’d treat sending their staff into a war zone. The risks are that real.

When I thought about this four months ago, my feeling was that the main danger to journalists covering protests and counter-protests during the summer came largely, and unfortunately, from the police, who we saw intentionally targeting journalists with rubber bullets and chemical irritants both here in Detroit and across the United States. I also knew, and the data backs it up, that the most likely perpetrators of domestic terrorism in the United States were unlikely to intentionally target journalists.

These most-likely perpetrators — white supremacists and white nationalists, neo-Nazi groups, violent anti-abortion activists and groups, armed anti-government militias — have had different targets in their sights. In short, journalists have historically fallen outside their “legitimate target” set. But now that a number of these groups have rallied behind Trump, and that the president has explicitly and repeatedly described journalists as “enemies of the people,” I don’t think we can assume that will remain the case. 

I am not saying this because I have knowledge of any specific plot or threats against journalists. I say this because it would fit the pattern that we see in terrorism generally.

There is a connection between what terrorist groups and violent political actors — so-called lone wolf terrorists — believe and who and what they target for violence.* Their worldview or ideology shapes their identification of legitimate targets. In embracing Trump, his enemies become their enemies.

So that’s Democrats, Republicans who are insufficiently loyal to Trump, public officials who refused to back his attempt to steal the election. And journalists. There is precedent for this. In 2018 Cesar Sayoc, a pro-Trump extremist, mailed letter bombs to more than a dozen politicians, media companies, and prominent Trump critics. 

I don’t mean to be alarmist, but I do think it is important for media organizations to be aware of this changing landscape and to be as fully prepared as possible to keep their people safe.

*It occurs to me that I need to write a post that describes this dynamic. But not this evening.

A lot of people watching and a lot of people dead

(Image credit: Newshub.co.nz)
(Image credit: Newshub.co.nz)

 

“Terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead.”

American terrorism expert Brian Jenkins wrote these words in 1974, and for nearly three decades this was common wisdom. The lethality of terrorist groups, Jenkins argued, was a product not simply of limited access to weapons, but also self-restraint.

The logic was straightforward. Acts of violence that are too extreme and produce too many casualties are counterproductive because:

  • They damage group cohesion through the revulsion the group’s own members feel.
  • They alienate the terrorist group’s constituents and supporters.
  • They spark public outrage and harden attitudes among the terrorists’ target population.
  • This outrage triggers intense government crackdown on the group and its supporters, putting the movement’s very survival at risk.

Clearly things have changed, as today’s massacre of 49 people in terrorist attacks at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand demonstrate. But the attacks today add a deeply troubling new dimension that shows how far the pendulum has swung from that earlier understanding.

The alleged terrorist, a 28-year-old Australian white supremacist named Brenton Tarrant, live-streamed video of his attack while it was in progress. It then metastasized, almost instantaneously, across the Internet.

More than eight hours after the shooting video at one of the mosques was first live-streamed on Facebook — apparently by the man who killed 49 people in a mosque in Christchurch — it still was getting uploaded and re-uploaded continuously by other people onto YouTube.  …

The New Zealand massacre video, which appeared to have been recorded with a GoPro helmet camera, was announced on the fringe chat room 8chan, live-streamed on Facebook, reposted on Twitter and YouTube and discussed on Reddit. Even hours after the shooting, the social-media giants Facebook, Twitter and YouTube continued to host versions of the shooting video, even as New Zealand authorities said they were calling for it to be taken down.

Ahead of the attack, Tarrant posted online a 74-page manifesto in which he described himself as an ethnonationalist and a fascist, rants about “white genocide,” and spews anti-immigrant hate. (I will not post any link to his manifesto here, nor quote his words.)  And, as one terrorism scholar pointed out on Twitter, he orchestrated an online media blitz to spread his message as widely as possible.

Today’s attacks in New Zealand are vivid examples of the changed face of terrorism and the perverse synergies between readily available means of mass killing and access to communications technologies that allow for near-instantaneous dissemination of the terrorists’ message.

Mass casualties have become the means by which the terrorist cuts through the noise and static of our oversaturated media environment. To publicize the cause it is no longer enough to simply kill “a single man in Algiers which will be noted the next day by the American press,” as Ramdane Abane once said in explaining the FLN’s decision to initiate a campaign of urban terrorism in French-occupied Algeria in the 1950s.

Changes in both the organizational structure of terrorist movements and in the types of ideologies that motivate them have also immunized terrorists from what were assumed to be the negative consequences of killing too many people in too horrific a fashion. Radicalized and networked individuals and self-contained cells following the doctrine of leaderless resistance and moving within extremist online circles where mass casualty attacks are hailed, not reviled, have little fear either of alienating fellow true believers or that a government crackdown will silence their movement.

That’s why, writing in 2007, Brian Jenkins updated his earlier dictum to reflect a new reality — many of today’s terrorists want a lot of people watching and a lot of people dead. New Zealand is now a case in point.