Pressure Cookers: Social Media, the State, and Terrorism

By Dashiell Dronyk, M.A. Candidate in Intelligence & National Security, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.

Federal prosecutors recently announced they will seek the death penalty for Dzokhar Tsarnaev, accused terrorist and Rolling Stone cover boy extraordinaire. Using simple bombs made from pressure cookers, Dzokhar and his older brother, Tamerlan, killed three people and wounded over 260 at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon. The subsequent manhunt and media circus featured the massive display of force and frequent absurdities that are to be expected in the strange land that is post-9/11 America. They also paralyzed the city and resulted in two more deaths: an MIT police officer shot dead by Tamerlan, and the elder Tsarnaev himself at the hands of law enforcement.

I bring up the unhappy tale of the Tsarnaevs in response to this week’s Hot Topic theme not just because it is timely. The Boston bombings are a good example of the sheer sense of insecurity terrorists are able to create in a society, even with relatively low-scale attacks. Considering that, mere months after this event, the RCMP foiled a very similar plot in Victoria, it is worth taking a look back at Boston.

Terrorism scholars like to characterize terrorist action as a weapon of the weak. It is a low-cost, high-impact strategy that can be used to call attention to political grievances and, occasionally, win concessions from much stronger targets (i.e. states). The tools used in terrorism are at times as rudimentary as kitchen knives and yet the fallout of even the least-ambitious attack can succeed in having consequences that go far beyond immediate damage to lives and property. This is because the tactical objective of every terrorist is spectacle. From the perspective of the terrorist, more complexity or more ordinance may serve this objective better, but, as the events in Boston demonstrate, this need not be the case.

This brings us back to the aforementioned massive display of force and media circus. The symbiotic relationship between the two turned the Boston bombings into a decidedly post-modern event for those not directly affected by the crisis. Thanks to the notoriously awful coverage by conventional media, and the inexorable proliferation of smartphones, I (and, I am sure, thousands of others) were able to remain on top of events with social media. The result was the surreal experience of “watching” the bombings, the emergency response, the lockdown of a major American city, the manhunt, and the separate dramatic showdowns that resulted in the death of one Tsarnaev and the capture of the other unfold, literally, in real time. The effect of this immediacy, together with the overwhelming response by law enforcement and security services, was to amplify the sense of danger media coverage of terrorist attacks inevitably imparts. It also fuelled the same kind of breathless speculation that caused so much embarrassment for the mainstream media (though the wannabe Carrie Mathisons on Reddit somehow succeeded in breathlessly speculating with even less scruples than the New York Post).

In short, the Tsarnaevs only began the spectacle that unfolded in Boston one April when they ruined hundreds of innocent lives. Thanks to the actions of the authorities who hunted them, and, indeed, their very targets, the magnitude and significance of the Tsarnaev’s actions in the public imagination grew to a level the brothers may not have been able to achieve on their own.  As Canadians face the persistent (if relatively unlikely) threat of a terrorist attack on our soil, we should consider these lessons. Building “resilience,” to terrorist attacks features prominently in Canada’s official Counter-terrorism Strategy. Policymakers, journalists, and citizens alike should ask whether, should the unthinkable happen, a Boston-style response would help or hinder this goal.

Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic LicensePhoto  by  Rebecca_Hildreth
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Categories: Media and Terrorism

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