Thursday, June 24, 2004

Terrorism and Publicity Stunts

I wrote this nearly a year ago, for a now defunct little webmag called "The Second Hand," but it seems to be worth posting, as long as I'm posting all of the things I've got stored up. I could just link to it instead. I only ever wrote four columns for our little 'zine, and one of them was just an introduction.

But this one still feels relevant. I still think this way, still worry about this stuff. So here's what I'm going to do. I'm going to link to the other two Second Hand Columns, and post one.

Here's one about "New Political Directions"

Here's a sort of meditation on what duty might mean in the modern world.

And here's the one on terrorism and publicity stunts, which I originally entitled "Desperate, Dangerous, Democratic."

What do you do to advance a lost cause? If you want independence for your people, or animal rights, or a ban on billboards, or maybe to stop a war, and you fear most people couldn't care less... How do you change anything?

There seem to be a limited number of options. Either you figure out who has the power to do what you want done, and convince them, or you replace them, or you do your best to get the world's attention, to apply the (eventually) irresistable pressure of popular opinion.

Consider the relative merits: lobbying your leaders works only if your leaders listen. Ultimately this means you have to have something with which to negotiate. If you have power to broker, money or an audience or influence or information, then you can play politics and hope to win your cause as your prize. This is diplomacy and espionage and spin and Josh's job in the West Wing.

But what if you've got bubkiss? In that case, you call yourself a "grass roots movement" or "people's army." The people who do have power call you subversive, or, this is worse, they ignore you entirely. You can run a third-party candidate or you can plan a coup d'tat. You will have better luck with either of these in a former Soviet state than in America. Success gives the status quo enormous intertia.

So that leaves option three. You get everybody's attention. It worked for Gandhi, twice. It worked for Martin Luther King. It worked for Martin Luther. When it works, it becomes impossible to imagine a world in which it hadn't. Go ahead--picture a 2003 with segregated schools. Doesn't the end of Apartheid seem historically inevitable? Like the Protestant Reformation. When people say that history is the result of social forces, they mean that, somehow, once everybody buys into an idea, its consequences start to happen. You can see it now on a different scale with cigarettes; you can't imagine movie stars lighting up in every scene or politicians waving cigars today. But tobacco has been killing people for centuries, and in the fifties nobody could have imagined it would be banned in bars in several states. You make your own inevitability.

That's if you win. First you have to make your beliefs into conventional wisdom. First people have to hear you, or at least hear of you. That's tough. Stand on a soap box? Buy a full page ad in the New York Times? Here's one I heard recently: anti-nuclear activists climbed on the roof of a power plant (a security scandal) and spray-pained their message in huge letters. You can picket; you can march; you can go out on a Green Peace boat. All of these amount to the same tactic--courting the news cameras. Court cases are good for this as well, and hunger fasts worked for the suffregettes.

But here's the thing: suicide bombs work even better. There's nothing like violence to make people take notice. The World Trade Center had no military value. But now everybody (at last) knows Osama Bin Laden's name, and watches his tapes. Make your own list of terrorist groups and their causes--all they want is for you to know what they're doing, you and as many people as possible.

Sometimes this kind of violence comes from violent personalities, psychosis, wherever other kinds of violence comes from. But sometimes these are desperate measures from desperate people. Sometimes the causes are good. Consider John Brown. What if to right the wrong you see in the world, you have the start the Civil War?

The problem is particularly poignant for war protesters, because they absolutely can't resort to violence without hypocrisy. There have been such hypocrites, of course. Vietnam protesters blew up university science buildings. People where I live worried some about the February 15th protests in Seattle, because of incidents during the WTO protests there. I rode in an airport van with some men--steelworkers' union and carpenters' union, I think--who'd flown in for that and they made me a little nervous, I admit, squeezed between them three to a seat. I knew other people who attended these protests, though, who insisted that they were essentially peaceful, that "the media" focussed on the few real rioters.

But there wasn't any violence in the recent war protests for the media to focus on. As a result, they were hardly reported at all. Compare what you remember of the WTO protests to what you heard about February 15th, 2003. There were somewhere in the neighborhood of ten million protesters in six hundred cities world-wide, but they probably got less coverage put together than did those few window-breakers in Seattle in 1999.

I was one of the ten million, part of an amazingly diverse crowd of about 700 in Tacoma, Washington. People held hand-made signs variously shrewd ("We Are Not Distracted From the Real Issues") and shrill ("No Blood for Oil"). Some of them had relatively long arguments like, "Would we be so cavalier about starting a war if it were our children being bombed?" and on the back "Intermediate steps save innocent lives". Some made more interesting points: "Pro-Troops, Pro-Peace" and "Honor Dr. King, Oppose War with Iraq" and "Let's Hear it for Old Europe" and "This is What Democracy Looks Like". But here's the one that one of the speakers mentioned from the stage, approvingly: "Frodo Failed! Bush has the Ring." Some of the chants from the handout that went around: "Not a penny, not a dollar, we won't pay for war and slaughter!" "1,2,3,4, Not in our name any more!" and, with even less convincing scansion, "Let the inspections work: no war!" There were dozens accusing Bush of planning the attack purely for cynical economic reasons (rarely was his name spelled without a dollar sign in it) and for oil, demanding his impeachment. One group carried a huge carnival clown face with "Bush" in red paint on the forehead. And a few of the speakers were, frankly, nuts.

When the news helicopter went overhead everybody (except for a few people who seemed to think it was military, or a deliberate disruption) cheered and held up their signs in its direction. There were some signs that I winced to be seen standing behind. And yet, I realized, the stupider signs made better news. They were more interesting, genuinely. There were "Vets for Peace," "Patriots for Peace," "Raging Grannies for Peace," Franciscans and Dominican monks for peace, but none of those is actually as funny as the "Pooches for Peace," a half dozen dogs in specially printed blanket-things. If I were an editor, I'd put a shot of them in the story. Do these ridiculous slogans do more good or harm? On the one hand, attention (your attention, dear reader) is a priceless commodity, and these capture it. On the other hand, they trivialize an issue that is really about human suffering and complex policy decisions. Watching footage of gun protesters in Bowling for Columbine, the parts where ordinary people try to get organized and don't shout anything, made me realize how rarely I've ever seen coverage like that in the news. The people who represent a movement in public are almost always the extremists; the pictures are of dramatic moments with the frenzied pumping of fists.

Cranks, victimhoom, and violent attacks. That's how you get your cause in the news. And victimhood is proving depressingly hard to arrange these days, since authorities have caught on and are not so willing to cooperate by shooting into crowds (though Michael Moore got some kids who were shot at Columbine to protest the sale of cheap ammunition at K-Mart, a tactic that worked beautifully when he came back the next day with local TV reporters).

Here's what I'm worried about. I'm worried that the attention seeking tactics are going to stop working. There are simply too many groups competing for our sympathy, now. Journalists are aware that everyone is trying to get into the news these days, and tend to loftily ignore a lot of the deliberate publicity stunts. Perhaps if Gandhi pulled a hunger strike today, nobody would know or care. There's too much news for anyone to follow, and we already suffer from "compassion fatigue." Along with all of the good causes and real news, we are also inundated by advertising, campaign promises, Martha Stewarts, and celebrity love lives. In reaction to all of this we develop a cynical skeptism to everything we see in the media. It's harder to get us to listen to anything that sounds like a serious message for more than a few minutes, and a lot harder to get us to really care. Doesn't this reduce per-eyeball value of the traditional methods? But if the power of popular opinion is diluted, then the lost causes may have to resort to increasingly desperate measures. More roof-climbers and slogan-spouters at first, probably, but then, more rioters? More suicide bombers and coup attempts? What else can they do?

I don't know how to prevent this, except, perhaps, to follow the news from several different sources and try to care as much as I can about everything, even if I feel helpless. The protest I participated in is pointless if nobody saw it on television at home, and gave the issue some thought. I feel a responsibility to do listening duty as well. I fear the biggest cause of terrorism, in the end, could be more and more people tuning out anything short of an explosion.

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