Representing terrorism

Geraint Schmidt

Society and culture | Asia, Australia

30 August 2014

Geraint Schmidt comments on the international media responses to the Kunming terrorist attacks.

I watched an interesting video recently. It was a time lapse video of a little girl’s year as a fictional civil war breaks out in suburban London. It was distressing, upsetting, intense. It was amazing. You should look it up if you haven’t seen it. Typing ‘most shocking second a day video’ into Youtube should do it.

I posted it to my Facebook wall with the comment “More videos like this = world might be a better place”, and I truly do believe that. The point being that the more we can confront ourselves with the human-ness of those who find themselves in these situations, the fact that they celebrate birthdays and wear lipstick and sometimes wonder how many stars there are in the night sky, just like we do, the less prone we might be to indulge in the habit of emotionally distinguishing between an ‘us’ and a ‘them’.

This habit is an insidious one. It pervades how we function in our day to day lives, how we interact with those around us, how we filter information. I wonder if it has also pervaded recent media reporting on the recent attacks in Kunming and Urumqi, in China’s southwest and northwest respectively. In the reports we’ve received in Australia (and, from looking online, in some of the reports from other Western media outlets in the UK and the US), I see two glaring issues.

Firstly, there’s the complete dearth of coverage on the attacks, especially when one looks at the way comparable attacks around the world have been reported on. Although receiving a few mentions on the ABC News 24 loop, both attacks have skimmed below the radar of our consciousness in Australia. When I showed the only image that had been ubiquitously used to report on the attack, that of the Kunming train station ticket counter with baggage strewn in front of it, only a single person in an audience of about 30 people was able to guess at what it referred to – and that was after a minute of pen-tapping silence. Perhaps this is not so remarkable, considering that the attack didn’t occur in Australia and it killed only 29 people – a terrible toll, but one which pales in comparison to the 239 missing presumed dead from the Malaysian Airlines flight or the 210 confirmed dead in the Korean ferry accident. However, I feel confident that if I showed images of the comparable London 7/7 bombings, Boston Marathon bombings or last year’s Nairobi Mall attack many of these same audience members would recognise which events they had been pulled from.

But secondly, and perhaps more insidiously, there’s the subtle refusal by Western media outlets to label the attacks in the same way as the Chinese government has, as terrorist attacks, despite the evidence seeming to clearly support such a categorisation. Where the words ‘terror attack’ appear, they are consistently accompanied by quotation marks and attributed to the Chinese government, “officials” or China’s media, as if such a label were a subjective conclusion that we should be highly suspicious of. Yes, the old maxim “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” underlines the fact that classifying “terrorism” can often be a highly subjective matter. But what is to be made of the fact that no such quotation marks or attributions to other sources were included in the reporting on the London, Boston or Nairobi attacks – the last of which, it should be remembered, had a casualty toll eerily similar to the attacks in Kunming but which was immediately categorised as it was occurring by televised media as a terror attack.

So, what is going on here? The first explanation is that Western media sources don’t want to become entangled in legitimating Chinese government propaganda while facts are still shady. This is a good explanation – I’m the first to say that the PRC have used the term “terrorist” strategically with relation to the Uyghurs, having researched that particular topic extensively. However, Western media outlets are playing double standards if they use Chinese government sources to report factual information but reject the government’s categorisation of it as a “terrorist attack”, when such a categorisation would be regarded as acceptable if comparable events occurred in a different, more Western location (such as London, Boston or Nairobi).

But I’m also concerned though that that pervasive ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality might be playing a role here along racial, ideological and class lines. The Boston and London attacks struck at people who look, act and speak like us. Even the Nairobi attack occurred in a shopping mall frequented by the middle and upper classes, as well as by ex-pats. But there is ostensibly very little in common between the average Australian news-watcher – Anglo-Saxon, middle class and living in a capitalist democracy – and the typical victim in either the Kunming or Urumqi attacks – Han Chinese, working class and living under Communism (with Chinese characteristics). Do we understand London, Boston or Nairobi as “terrorist attacks” just because they were committed against our way of living, in our struggle against those who would take that away from us? Do we question the classification of Kunming and Urumqi as “terrorist attacks” because they were committed in the name of a struggle we secretly sympathise with, namely, against an extremely powerful, Asian, Communist one-party state? Do we secretly believe, perhaps, that those who were stabbed as they bought tickets for a train home almost had it coming?

My response to these sentiments is this: no matter who it is who kills or maims unarmed civilians indiscriminately in a public place while they are partaking in their daily lives in order to instil terror, and no matter who it is who ends up being targeted, whether they be American, British, Kenyan or Chinese, we should understand those actions as terrorist attacks. We shouldn’t undermine the condemnation of such actions by implying that those who would classify them as “terrorist attacks” might have suspect motives for doing so, without also carrying such suspicion into how we understand such actions closer to home. To not do so opens the Western media and ourselves up to legitimate accusations of hypocrisy, and latently denies us the ability to transcend the ‘us and them’ mentality we are obviously still victims of.

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