American historian and journalist Walter Laqueur wrote in 1999:
It has been said that journalists are terrorists’ best friends, because they are willing to give terrorist operations maximum exposure. This is not to say that journalists as a group are sympathetic to terrorists, although it may appear so. It simply means that violence is news, whereas peace and harmony are not. The terrorists need the media, and the media find in terrorism all the ingredients of an exciting story.
Laqueur also pointed out how the media’s attitude towards terrorism “has run the gamut from exaggerated respect to sycophancy (such as calling a terrorist a freedom fighter, an activist, a patriot, a militant or a revolutionary”.
Since then, the media’s attitude has only become more disgraceful. Laqueur’s observation about media’s sympathy towards terrorists and hailing them as heroes still rings true but journalists are no longer terrorists’ best friends in this life but have become so in the afterlife as well.
Terrorists do not just benefit from the media by the latter’s proclivity in giving their operations maximum exposure but also when journalists write sympathetic eulogies after they are killed in military operations or hanged by the state after following due process of law.
When the United States forces killed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) chief Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi in an air strike, The Washington Post referred to him as an “austere religious scholar” in the headline.
In India, when Yakub Memon, mastermind of 1993 Mumbai blasts, was hanged after a long trial, the Indian Express ran with the headline “And They Hanged Yakub”. When Burhan Wani, Hizbul Mujahideen terrorist was killed, journalist Barkha Dutt referred to him as “son of school headmaster”.
Now when another Hizbul Mujahideen terrorist Riyaz Naikoo has been encountered in Kashmir, the Indian Express is telling us that he was a Maths teacher. Reuters reported how Indian troops have killed “Maths teacher turned rebel commander”.
This trend of humanising terrorists, though not new, is reaching worrisome level as journalists throw caution to the wind and indulge in a language which reeks of their biases which will end up not only damaging the credibility of their individual brand but also that of their publication’s.
More importantly, they are acting as useful idiots in the propaganda of terrorist organisations, which can now ensure their new recruits great publicity not just in this life but also after they receive bullets to their heads.
Nonetheless, there are some concrete reasons why there is so much humanising of terrorists in the media nowadays.
First, human-interest stories are an important feature of journalistic writing. Since terrorism as we know it today has only become an international concern in recent years and it has taken some time for the journalists from simply reporting about their misdeeds to telling their whole life stories in profiles and obits.
Of course, terrorists are also human. They also joke, laugh, have a family, love their parents or siblings, maybe keep a pet too, etc.
Painting detailed sketches of some terrorists may involve telling these aspects of their lives as well. Talking to their families can also reveal some information not known to the world and if not for any other purpose, journalists may decide to tell those only for the sake of novelty and the fact that they are the ones to break it before anyone else could get their hands on the trivia (even if it’s trivial).
Second, studying human angle stories even of terrorists can be a very useful tool for research purposes. Indeed, it is a mainstream way when it comes to studying criminals. Interviewing scores of rapists can give insights into the chief motivation behind the crime. Talking to family about the character of a criminal and his evolution from a human to a barbaric person can provide critical information, which can be deployed to prevent proliferation of criminals in the society.
Third, sensationalism has always been a key component of journalism and click bait headlines humanising terrorists are only the latest desperate attempts to grab eyeballs and attract the ever diminishing news readers or viewers. Television gave a big fillip to the sensationalising industry and with social media’s rise, it has even become a bigger nuisance.
Digital media outlets don’t have a loyal base like newspapers used to have so the former tries to generate views by fuelling outrage so that even those who aren’t in their camp come to the site even for hurling abuses at them for being insensitive.
But there are some genuine journalistic pieces of writing which do brutally honest evaluation of a terrorist’s motivation, background and his evolution, but editors take those pieces and reduce them to silly headlines for click-bait picking only the human angle in the headline which the author may have mentioned only in the passing.
Fourth, the left ideology is also at play in the whole humanising project. For leftists, certain sections and people are permanent victims while some remain permanent perpetrators.
Muslims, of course, are permanent victims everywhere. So, when 9/11 happened in the United States, some leftists did try to pin down the West’s colonisation of Muslim lands as an important reason behind the Islamists’ angst.
In India, leftists see the state’s interventions in Kashmir as raison d'être for radicalisation. Of course, they ignore history conveniently and forget that the intervention followed the radicalisation resulting in the exodus of Pandits not the other way round.
Nonetheless, even when there used to be bomb blasts every other month a decade back, there were activists who would portray the Muslim youths caught by police as wronged. There is always some justification for the wrongs committed by those who are considered as victim groups. Babri, Gujarat riots, Muzaffarnagar riots, etc.
When such justifications are hard to come by, other ways of humanising terrorists are found, as we have seen in the case of Burhan Wani and Riyaz Naikoo.
This certainly stems from the ideology of the left. If that wasn’t the case, we would also read them humanising, say, Hindus when they do something wrong. Do we read how gau rakshaks who lynched cow smugglers in Rajasthan became such zealous animal rights activists?
Do we read whether their father is a headmaster or they are Maths teachers? No. For the leftists, Hindus are a group which is a permanent perpetrator and committing atrocities comes naturally to it. So there is no justification for their acts.
In fact, for the left, even the Hindu victims are not worthy of humanising. That’s why desperate attempts are made to even deny Hindu identity when they are victims as in the case of Palghar sadhus.
So, the left’s playbook is all about humanising the perpetrators if they belong to groups that are considered victims while dehumanising even the victims of the groups considered to be perpetrators.
Be that as it may, humanising is not the problem. The issue is that of hypocrisy, inconsistency and insensitivity. The path some journalists have decided to tread is leading them fast towards irrelevance.
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