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The Media Know That Spreading the Fear of Terrorism Sells

Truthout interviews “Covering bin Laden” coeditor Susan Jeffords

Susan Jeffords, co-editor of Covering bin Laden (Photo: University of Illinois Press)

Covering bin Laden: Global Media and the World’s Most Wanted Man, edited by Susan Jeffords and Fahed Al-Sumait, is an exploration of the iconic status of Osama bin Laden achieved through global media coverage and government propaganda. He became a prism through which one’s views on the “war on terror” could be viewed. Obtain this book now with a contribution to Truthout. Just click here.

The following is an interview with Covering bin Laden co-editor Susan Jeffords:

Mark Karlin: To what degree was Osama bin Laden an image upon which media in different parts of the world could project characteristics, legends and biases?

Susan Jeffords: In our book, we refer to both Osama bin Laden, the individual man, and to “Osama bin Laden,” the collection of images, beliefs, emotions, proclamations, accusations and loyalties that aggregate around the media and political narrative that has come to be called “Osama bin Laden.” One of the arguments of our book is that that these images are not coherent. Indeed, the versions of “bin Laden” vary across national boundaries, religious affiliations, political alignments, cultural histories, and personal experiences. Through the contributions of the authors in our book, we explore how media contributed to shaping these varied narratives in specific locations, formats and genres of media. The important point is that these narratives are media creations. The media is not a passive recipient of narratives created elsewhere but is an active contributor to – and shaper of – who audiences think is “Osama bin Laden.”

Beyond the media, what other elements of popular culture had an impact on the legend of Osama bin Laden, including video games?

Media figures move with ease and rapidity across formats in the US. Something that appears in the news one day is on Twitter and blogs the next and can appear on a T-shirt or in a stand-up comedy routine by the following week. When one of the goals of media is to sell media, then the ability and agility to capture (and shape) trends in popular thinking is a key to success. And bin Laden sold. Cartoons, art works, video games, bumper stickers, films, photographs and more. Through video games, audiences were invited to join in the hunt for bin Laden. In “Kill Osama bin Laden,” players were instructed to take out Osama bin Laden and cut off his head for proof to the government. Online games enabled players to box with bin Laden (“put him down for the count”); “fire missiles and splatter bin Laden all over the desert” (“Bend Over bin Laden”); or take him as a prisoner and ponder “How will you treat him?” (Alquaidomon). An internet scam was launched by inviting recipients to see photographs of bin Laden’s dead body.

As the book states, extremely few people had contact with Osama bin Laden. What are the implications of a larger-than-life individual (in this case, Osama bin Laden) who is solely conveyed to the public through secondary sources?

It’s the case that most of us don’t come face-to-face with the majority of people we see in the media. The most important thing about people – especially those in the US and Europe – never seeing bin Laden is that what is true for bin Laden is true for terrorism as a whole: The majority of people’s judgments, fears and beliefs about terrorism do not derive from direct experience of acts or people labeled as terrorists. This is why understanding the role of media in shaping beliefs about terrorism is so important. What we “know” about terrorism comes predominately from media.

That being said, Osama bin Laden understood that modern communications could be harnessed to create a mythic image, isn’t that correct?

By all accounts, bin Laden was very conscious of the role that media played in the achievement of his goals, and he intentionally used media – whether interviews, video-taped speeches, or distributed statements – to achieve those ends. An al-Qaeda associate remarked that “Sheikh Osama knows that the media war is not less important than the military war against America.”

Bin Laden himself is reported to have told the Taliban leader Mullah Omar that “up to 90 percent of his battle was fought in the media.” Peter Bergen quotes an al-Qaeda writer who celebrated the cost-saving impact of media in propagating the end point of terrorism – the creation of fear: “The giant American media machine was defeated in a judo strike from Sheikh bin Laden. CNN cameras and other media dinosaurs took part in framing the attacks and spreading the fear, without costing al-Qaeda a dime.”

Isn’t it ironic that bin Laden characterized the United States and the West as evil, just as the United States made him an avatar of evil? There was almost a comic book caricature quality to the battle of images and words between the United States and bin Laden.

Absolutely. One of our authors, Courtney Radsch, observes that “radical Islamists and neoliberals served each other’s political needs,” with each group strengthening its own identity by opposing itself to the other. In the US, she argues, “Al-Qaeda was constructed as an existential threat to the United States and its very way of life, turning the group from a physical security threat into an ideological enemy.”

How was the killing of bin Laden “framed” in the media?

Media around the world shared the news of Osama bin Laden’s death on May 2, 2011. In the US and Europe, his death was largely celebrated as a milestone in the Global War on Terrorism. Former president George W. Bush called bin Laden’s killing a “victory for America,” while television news showed crowds at the World Trade Center waving American flags and joining in choruses of Lee Greenwood’s “I’m Proud to Be an American.”

Four thousand tweets per second were sent during Obama’s speech announcing bin Laden’s death. Simultaneously, television media recorded meetings mourning bin Laden’s death that took place around the world, ranging from the Palestinian Territory to London to Egypt to Iran. Al-Qaeda used the media to remind followers that the ideas that bin Laden stood for did not die with him: “But can the Americans, with their media, agents, machinery, soldiers, intelligence and agencies kill that for which Sheikh Usama lived and that for which he was killed?”

Can you discuss the fascination with bin Laden’s body and whether or not to release photos of the corpse after the assault by SEALs in Abbottabad?

Because so much of the War on Terrorism was itself a war that took place in and through the media, the fascination with bin Laden’s body speaks to a desire to provide a visual closure to the War on Terrorism. Ironically, the fact that photographs of his body exist that cannot be seen aids and abets the power of bin Laden’s image, long after his death. The US Navy SEAL raid on bin Laden’s house in Abbottabad was a carefully orchestrated media event, including a mindful decision about how to confirm bin Laden’s death through a series of photographic images taken on-site before the team left Abbottabad.

The power of bin Laden’s image was a conscious factor in determining that there was a need for proof of death that was not itself an incitement to vengeance. The US government claims to have 59 photos of bin Laden dead. Legal controversy surrounds these photos, with their release becoming the subject of decisions by the US District Court and the US Court of Appeals for Washington, DC. A search on the internet shows a photo of bin Laden – dead, beaten and bloodied. However, the image, which circulated online for more than two years after bin Laden’s death, is a fake, an amalgamation of a photograph of the face of another man who had been beaten and the face of bin Laden.

In the epilogue to the book, it is mentioned that the assassination of bin Laden quickly became anticlimactic, because while he was a symbol of terrorism, terrorism continued and actually fragmented into more groups than al-Qaeda during the years of his hiding and after his demise. Did bin Laden become an obsession who had become less relevant except as a target of vengeance – and media and cultural sensationalizing over the years?

US media – the dominant media framers of the Global War on Terrorism – largely represents political arguments through the figure of individual political actors, both an astute economic strategy and a reflection of US predispositions to define leadership as aligned with “great men.” Bin Laden’s death has forced into media awareness the existence of multiple groups who organize themselves variously around aspirations for religiously defined communities; anger about US military presence; opposition to autocratic regimes; and more. The focus on bin Laden largely occluded awareness of these multiple, and often conflicting organizations, influencing not only media but government decision making.