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Can We Leave the Atrocity Exhibition? Media Coverage of the London Attack

The politics of baseless fear was on full display following yesterday’s attack in London.

Writing with considerable foresight, the author J.G. Ballard coined the term “The Atrocity Exhibition” to emphasize the changing influence the media was having on all human relations, especially the ethical challenges faced when witnessing tragedy. As Ballard famously wrote:

The media landscape of the present day is a map in search of a territory. A huge volume of sensational and often toxic imagery inundates our minds, much of it fictional in content. How do we make sense of this ceaseless flow of advertising and publicity, news and entertainment, where presidential campaigns and moon voyages are presented in terms indistinguishable from the launch of a new candy bar or deodorant? What actually happens on the level of our unconscious minds when, within minutes on the same TV screen, a prime minister is assassinated, an actress makes love, an injured child is carried from a car crash? Faced with these charged events, prepackaged emotions already in place, we can only stitch together a set of emergency scenarios, just as our sleeping minds extemporize a narrative from the unrelated memories that veer through the cortical night.

Contemporary life is largely shaped by the digitalization of such atrocities, which now exhibit in real time a continuous stream of violent occurrences directly into the palms of our hands. This is how many of us have come to see and relate to the world. Consciousness itself is now atrocious.

Turning us into producers of content and forced witnesses to human suffering on a daily basis, our sleeping minds are often violently interrupted as if we are continuously playing out the awakening scene from Hitchcock’s Vertigo. We awake from nightmares, night after night, only to realize that nightmare is the present condition.

I am writing this in the cold light of morning following more violence on the streets of London yesterday. Once again, it seems, we are shown the willful disregard some have for the basic value of human life. For the British Prime Minister Theresa May, this was not simply an act of psychopathic disregard for the suffering of others. She described the “lone wolf” attack as a strike against “the heart of our capital city where people of all nationalities, religions and cultures come together to celebrate the values of liberty, democracy and freedom of speech.”

Reiterating how “these streets of Westminster” that were “home to the world’s oldest parliament are ingrained with a spirit of freedom that echoes in some of the furthest corners of the globe,” May insisted that the voices of hatred and evil would not succeed in driving people apart.

But isn’t that exactly what the politics of fear achieves? It not only creates all too real divisions between humans based on the fearful suspicion of others but also co-opts us all into its logics, whose visceral effects are palpable. The politics of fear makes us play its game even if we are already exhausted.

Terror is not the fear of the unknown. It is borne of the fear of things ordinarily taken for granted. It is located in the weaponization of the everyday. And as a result, it sends everything into flux, for nothing holds certainty anymore. Neighbors become potential enemies. Zones of safety are filled with anxiety. Automobiles are turned into weapons of destruction.

Terror is also imagined. That is not to say it is somehow unreal. On the contrary, it is viscerally felt, in the hearts and minds of people, often far away from the event itself. Everyday terrors are in fact played out in the minds of watching citizens, changing their behaviors as a result, thereby eviscerating the very notion of being some innocent bystander.

But if we know that terror reinforces a politics of fear, co-opting us all into its violent logics, which in turn often leads to further violence and retribution, might we not ask of our own culpabilities in perpetuating its fearful imaginary?

Where is the door actually located so that we might leave this Atrocity Exhibition?

I want to turn to the role of the media in all this, for as Ballard intimated, they are principle narrators in setting out emergency scenarios. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is significant in this regard, for despite its claim to political impartiality, in practice it shows a notable penchant for the sensational in ways that reveal clear formulistic tendencies more often associated with the allegiant right wing presses.

This is not about laying down definitive truths about such violence. Certainties are, after all, comforting and make people feel secure. Reporting on terror works in accordance to a paradigm that brings every emotion into play, from the extreme to the absurd, the serious to the comic, the exceptional to its veritable normalization.

Let’s just take the sequencing of the reporting yesterday from the BBC to get some sense of this.

As the news of some tragedy started to appear on various newsfeeds across social media, the BBC immediately opted to describe the incident as an “attack,” even though it could alternately have been read as a tragic “accident” before any of the facts were established. The Metropolitan police subsequently reiterated this pre-factual position. Terror was something that needed ruling out. In these terrifyingly normal times, it is the media default for all things atrocious.

What followed was the release of various cell-phone videos from people filming whilst fleeing the scene, so viewers could actually get a sense of and intimately connect to the panic, confusion and terror in closer proximity. All this was periodically overlaid with announcements for the public to remain calm and let the security services do their work.

We might argue that at the level of public consciousness, it doesn’t really matter whether the event, in the end, turned out to be intentional or not. It was already framed and registered as yet another chapter in the psychic life of all things terrifying to which we have become accustomed.

Since the event was immediately diagnosed as a terror incident, all too quickly various sensational superlatives appeared, such as “attack on the heart of the capital.” The scale of the violence is thus quickly amplified and extended to bring every single resident into the orbit of endangerment. And since the “heart of the capital” is also the heart of the nation, this language implies that nowhere is actually safe from harm.

I am not in any way underplaying here the tragic loss of life and suffering. But one of the first casualties of terror, from both sides, is to deny us any meaningful sense of perspective. Instead of focusing on the local facts on the ground, what followed was the effective trans-historicizing and internationalization of the event as commentators started drawing comparisons to previous atrocities in the capital, such as the coordinated bombings on the British transport system that took place over a decade ago on July 7, 2005, resulting in 52 fatalities, and to more comparable events (in respect to the methods used) as witnessed in truck attacks in Nice and Berlin.

Geography, it seems, is secondary in this epic drama of sequential violence.

We know that digital technologies have obliterated the modern time/space continuum. While everything is immanent, thereby denying us any time to reflect, there is no longer any “outside” or place to find refuge. But what we didn’t foresee was the ways in which people on the street would feed into the various media machines to reinforce dominant narratives and sensational scripting.

That the public provided the sensational interface between the watching viewers and the scene of the crime, further allowed commentators to technologically connect the violence to recent events like the killing of off-duty British Army soldier Lee Rigby in 2013 by two men who described the killing as retribution for the killing of Muslims by the British armed forces. This was brought up in a number of the commentaries, showing how the technological nature of the spectacle of violence is also capable of flattening or perhaps even completely circumventing what might be seen as more tenuous linkages.

It didn’t take too long, however, before the comical started to surreptitiously enter the discursive arena. No sooner had Londoners and the nation been put into a heightened state of insecurity consciousness, the BBC informed us that “MPs are locked in the Chamber” of Parliament: a message that could be taken either with extreme seriousness or a certain hilarity depending on your political disposition!

What followed would be a series of mixed messages whose differing tonalities only added to the blurring between the serious and the absurd for any slightly informed and politically considered listener. These ranged from the assertive declaration that “Theresa May is safe” (spoken in a way which suggested civilization depended on it); to a more conciliatory indication that “Donald Trump is being kept informed” (OK, perhaps you should be slightly worried about this development); onto “President Trump had now spoken with Theresa May” without any further details or content provided on the nature of this conversation. (One could only assume that we should keep an eye on Trump’s Twitter feed for full details.)

Throughout the day, various terrorist “experts” were summoned to add clarity to the background noise of sirens and flashing lights. As we were presented with images of bodies on the ground, so the mantra about this being a “sophisticated and coordinated attack” was repeated to the point of monotony. One is left to wonder what exactly is sophisticated about someone plowing an automobile into a group of innocent bystanders?

Shutting down the digital infrastructure that powers the City of London would be sophisticated. What we witnessed on Wednesday was not.

Violated bodies are always overlaid with overtly politicized discursive ascriptions. That the term “catastrophic” was particularly used to describe the injuries sustained by the survivors was not incidental. Ours is an age of catastrophe wherein the dominant political imaginary is one of “dystopian realism.” There is always another inescapable catastrophe, in waiting, on the fateful horizon of future possibility.

As the day moved on, the line of questioning invariably turned toward asking how such an event could possibly happen. Commentators were drawn to ask about all the investment in counter-terror strategies, such as the official Prevent doctrine. Talking heads like Michael Clarke of the Royal United Services Institute appeared to remind us that this was the attack the experts had actually been expecting: despite all the preventative strategies, what we must accept is that our societies are fundamentally insecure by design.

The official government line reiterated by the media is to tell us, the population, that we must remain “vigilant” in this heightened state of emergency. But how is one expected to be vigilant when the source of the terror is ubiquitous? One cannot possibly be vigilant against something that appears to come out of nowhere and yet potentially resides everywhere in the fabric of a vibrant city.

What takes its place is a general state of anxiety and inertia, borne of the mutually assured sense of vulnerability. All of this ultimately plays into the hands of the “alt-right,” whose allegiances blend Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, white supremacy, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism with a general desire for political stardom by those seeking to fill the void left by the fallen Milo Yiannopoulos.

As the evening wore on, the BBC’s flagship evening news broadcast program, Newsnight, turned into a special edition dedicated to the day’s atrocities. Here we encountered a heady mix of reinforcing narratives, which went from emphasizing the “exceptional” nature of the violence to enumerating the ways our society needs to come to terms with this as part of the “normalized” fabric of unending threats in these dangerously uncertain times.

This only adds to the confusion, as the exceptional and the normal, the friend and the enemy, the secure and the insecure, and truth and fiction blur into what the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has termed a “Zone of Indistinction.” Nothing upon this terrain can be located with any certainty.

It was left to the columnist and writer Simon Jenkins to provide a rare voice of reason. Lambasting the BBC on its Newsnight program, Jenkins took direct aim at the levels of coverage and prominence being afforded, which he explained was culpable of “aiding and abetting” extremism. The politically ill-equipped presenter, Evan Davis, was left to defend a decision from a position of evident bodily discomfort not even he seemed to believe in when questioned.

And so, as I now sit here, staring into the screen of my handheld device, I find myself scrolling through the various news items the BBC news site has to offer. None of them seem to offer any indication about how we might actually break the cycle of violence. The doors to this Atrocity Exhibition seem to be closed; they just forgot to leave everybody out beforehand.

My suspicion is that the answers are to be found behind a different door in another venue.

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