Every few months, we witness an act of terror on television, and whether it be a suicide bomber or a plane hijack, it stabs our heart with fear and our minds with bewilderment—what was the attacker’s motive? Why would they willingly wear a suicide vest and strike upon terrified children and adults? Our futile attempts at connecting these attacks and uncertain debates of their motives just confirm one thing: how little we know. Terrorism lacks a real “big picture” meaning, but we can only find one common motive exists in all these seemingly random attacks, hidden within the word itself: terror.
If the goal of terrorists is to incite fear, then our goal should be informing the public of the miniscule chances of dying because of terrorism and reduce fear. Certainly, no one would dare to support terrorists and amplify the fear Americans already hold. But one industry shares the goal of terrorists and exacerbates fear: television.
Let us first review the history of television and the causes for the “downfall” of television. It first exploded when the number of television sets soared from 6 million in the 1950s to 60 million in the 1960s. Television then went on to establish
State funding for television news programs slowly decreased, and helping democracy had to step aside for profits. Some networks decided if they switched kept to a sensationalist and shock-based style of broadcasting news, then they would have more viewers. After all, humans are naturally interested in anything shocking than informative. Sensationalism was the 1960s version of Internet clickbait today. Soon, other networks caught hold of this strategy and applied it to their networks. Thus, the question remains: how do we differentiate ourselves from the other networks who are using the same strategy? The answer to them was neglect their public service—providing information to voters—and rank stories not based on their information, but on their shock, fear, and sensationalism.
Now, armed with lackluster quality and sensationalism, what harm could television do to American viewers? We all got a first-hand taste of the sinister powers of television on 9/11. TV used this attack as a golden opportunity to pour vials upon vials of fear into their viewers. Footage of the planes crashing into the twin towers was played on repeat, as television seemed determined to instill the trauma of 9/11 into those who weren’t near the World Trade Center.
Public fear after 9/11 suddenly spiked, mostly amplified by the media, as those who watched more TV in the few weeks after 9/11 reported feeling more fear and stress. This makes sense when we realize TV networks offer not just 24 hours of news coverage, but rather 24 hours of drama, fear, and terrorism. Unfortunately, no escape from this echo chamber of fear remains in sight for Americans.
We would have expected that concerns for terrorism decline in a country strewn with crumbling bridges and failing healthcare solutions. It is easy to see why terrorism remains high on our concerns, if we look at TV news coverage. It features disturbing videos of terrorist attacks leads to a greater perception that terrorism is a greater risk. People are less likely to incur emotions for a headline that says “gun homicides kill 11 726 annually” than a more catchy and sensationalist headline, “19 DEAD IN POP CONCERT SUICIDE BOMB.” Even when the facts are articulated and laid neat for the public to see, the fear of terrorism induced by television still elicits more emotions than numbers and percentages. In short, emotions trump facts in the public’s minds.
We could say television and terrorists have a mutually beneficial relationship, in which terrorism gives something television wants (fear). This also benefits terrorists too, in that television publicizes and amplifies the terror that these attacks have caused. Television provides a sensational story to these plain numbers, captivates the public and mesmerizes them into a horror story. In fact, the Atlantic have gone so far as to say “Terrorism is aimed at the people watching.” Some have even commented that the explosion of home television was really when terrorism began. Nonetheless, terrorism and television both complement each other to form a beast that could alter political agendas, advance extremist ideals, sway the opinions of the public, and instill their viewers with fear.
Can this corporate profit-based mantra “If it bleeds, it leads” of television have enough power to control the public’s lives? We can already see results when fear captures a large group of people. On January 27, Trump signed an executive order banning immigration from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen—the seven predominantly Muslim countries—for 90 days. Immigration from Syria was banned indefinitely. This executive order was the result of TV-induced fear, and the public’s vocal demands for the government to do something about the crisis of terrorism they see on TV has been met.
The border wall is another example of fear-driven politics. Trump doesn’t need to prove to his supporters that the border wall is financially viable or will protect Americans; he just needs to do something large and grand to convince his followers that their false fear has been falsely resolved. An expensive project that fails at solving a non-existent problem is the exact opposite of the things we need, considering the global climate. Given the amount of attention and money put into preventing terrorism, we should ask ourselves, as John Mueller puts it, “how much we should spend on preventing a disease that kills 6 per year.”
An echo chamber of fear might even be the precedent for a harsh police state, where every individual’s actions and thoughts are scrutinized by the government. “But the Constitution and other freedom documents will prevent this from happening,” you reply. These documents are just symbols politicians throw around to accuse one another of “violating the Constitution,” as if the government was already following its own laws. Already, the NSA has violated the very law it seeks to uphold: the Constitution. Police are also somehow above the law, searching houses without warrants and forcing people to unlock their phones, along with the huge issue of police brutality. We need to stop talking about the Constitution and other “freedom” documents as if they have never been broken. With the Constitution and the media—supposed safeguards of democracy—failing, then how can we put so much emphasis on faraway lands and attacks that kill less people than lightning does when our own democracy is in pieces?
As David Olney has warned, “The threat to democracy is our response to terrorism.” Democracy will thrive if our response is based on facts and we treat terrorism like “a disease that kills 6 per year.” The result, if we choose to respond based on what television has told us, I guess will have to be our United States of America.