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18 July 2005updated 24 Sep 2015 11:31am

A violent episode in the virtual world

Terror and the UK - The media's globalisation of terror makes us feel part of a worldwide community

By John Gray

For those directly affected by them, the London bombings will always be an unalterable reality – an event, barely comprehensible in its pain and horror, with which they will struggle to come to terms for the remainder of their lives. For all the rest of us – the hundreds of millions or billions of people who watched the same images of bloodied commuters and cordoned-off Tube stations – the bombings are an episode in the virtual world that is being continuously manufactured by the media. In this simulated environment we can feel part of a global community facing a common problem. We are able to imagine that terror could be banished from our lives, as all the world’s peoples and their leaders act in solidarity against a universal evil.

These sentiments are humane and generous, but they can easily turn into a sort of moral narcissism that willingly colludes in the deceptions of our leaders. The politicians who gathered at Gleneagles spoke as if the world could be reshaped by their good intentions. The truth is that they were deeply divided in what they wanted, and the world is not so simple or so malleable. Like almost every gathering of global leaders at the present time, Gleneagles was a media event before it was anything else.

The trouble with the omnipresence of the media in politics is that it tends to blur the distinction between reality and appearance. The causes of human action are obscure, and the course of events at times indecipherable; a central task of the media is to contrive a coherent narrative from this chaos. In doing so, they can end up shaping reality – but not in a manner that anyone intended or predicted. For example, there may no longer be anything resembling a globally organised terrorist network, but by instantaneously disseminating the same images of carnage and panic throughout the world, the media have globalised our perception of terror. Governments behave as if this media apparition were an actual entity, with the result that the policies that are adopted in order to resist terrorism are ineffective and sometimes disastrously counter-productive.

Western military intervention in Afghanistan practically destroyed al-Qaeda as an effective force. With its training camps in ruins and its leadership in hiding, the structure of the network fragmented and its capacity for action was correspondingly diminished. The effect of the war in Iraq has been to revivify al-Qaeda, but in a new and possibly more dangerous form. It has become an idea or a cause that can be taken up by anyone, and if the fluid and shifting groups of which it is at present composed appear to act in a concerted fashion, it may be by responding to media reports of each other’s activities rather than by any kind of direct, systematic co-ordination. Their goal is to shift the public mood, and they attempt to do this by acts of spectacular violence that are transmitted worldwide via television. The type of terrorism that London suffered on 7 July may well have evolved as a by-product of the global media.

The development of terrorism illustrates a complex feedback between the virtual world constructed by the media and the actual course of history. Al-Qaeda is now very largely an artefact of the communication industry – but it is also real, with a demonstrated capacity for mass murder. This is a development that exemplifies both the power of the media and the fragility of that power. The war in Iraq was launched on the basis of deceptive claims about Saddam Hussein’s links with the attacks of 11 September 2001, and the self-deluding belief that the US would be accepted as a liberator of the Iraqi people. These fantasies have been demolished by events, and no amount of news management has been able to mask the scale and ferocity of the insurgency against the occupying forces. There are well-founded reports that US forces have been in talks with rebel commanders, and leaks from British sources suggesting that troop withdrawal is now on the agenda. Reality has smashed through the media constructions. At the same time, Tony Blair and George W Bush continue to try to use media jamborees such as the G8 meeting to demonstrate a solidarity in the face of terror that masks profound disagreement between the US administration and the governments of nearly every other country about how best to respond to it.

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There is a tendency among some media analysts to talk as if the global communications industry actually moulds the pattern of events. For them the world is what appears in the media, and there is no difference between perception and reality. Certainly many politicians have come to subscribe to a version of this postmodern philosophy – Blair foremost among them. Yet the world is not in the end a human construction, and this is nowhere clearer than in regard to the issue on which the Gleneagles meeting failed most miserably. Climate change is a physical process that goes on entirely independently of human consciousness. Whatever politicians, opinion-formers or humanity at large may think or feel, a shift in the planetary environment is taking place that will alter irreversibly the way everyone lives in future. The basis for this belief is scientific observation of measurable changes in the material world: human emotions and perceptions are irrelevant. The mix of cynical news management and moral narcissism that is the core of contemporary politics serves only to postpone a brutal encounter with reality.

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However, terrorism and climate change have a common feature that helps to explain the way they are treated in the media and by politicians. Both are not wholly soluble problems. Terrorism has been greatly boosted by the Iraq war; it is as true today as it was before London was bombed that the prudent and honourable course of action for Britain is to sever its connection with the Bush administration’s folly and withdraw its troops as quickly and as completely as possible. Yet while withdrawal may diminish the terrorist threat to Britain, it will not remove it – there is too much hatred loose in the world, and terrorists are not always motivated by clear strategic goals. We will always be at risk, whatever we do.

The situation is even starker with regard to climate change. The scientific consensus is that there is a great deal of global warming in the pipeline, which even the wholesale abandonment of fossil fuels – if that were possible – would not much reduce. We no longer have the option of forestalling climate change; we can only adjust to it. Adjustment may prove extremely difficult, however, and will necessarily involve alterations in our current way of life. Sensing this, politicians and the public prefer to continue the ritual of announcing targets that will not be reached and which, even if they were met, would not make much difference.

Thinkers of the left often berate the media for skirting round the truth, and some write as if there were a conspiracy to deny the facts of power and oppression. It would be more accurate to say that the media insulate the public from realities it cannot tolerate. We seem to have lost the art of living in an intractable world, so we contrive an alternate reality in which insoluble problems can be conjured away by displays of goodwill. But the problems never really go away, and we would be better off trying to think about them clearly than seeking false security in a collective dream.

John Gray is the author of Al-Qaeda and What It Means To Be Modern (Faber & Faber)