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Paris Response: American vs. European Media


After the shooting and bomb attacks that occurred in Paris last Friday, the American media landscape tackled themes that have been familiar since right after our 911 attacks. “Terrorists have struck! Where are they coming from? How do we stop them? Aren’t you terrified?”

But the responses provided by European news outlets are of a different character entirely.

TIME’s website published a brief piece laughably titled “Here’s Everything You Need to Know About the Paris Attackers.” It’s mostly about Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected mastermind of the attacks who was killed yesterday, and Salah Abdeslam, an accomplice who remains at large. The eight attackers are not mentioned apart from being dead, and the venues of the attacks are briefly described. “Everything you need to know,” indeed.

Contrast with this lengthy piece in Germany’s _der Spiegel_ which, if not presenting “everything you need to know,” it at least provides much more depth and context. It examines where the attacks occurred–where they fit into the overall character of Paris and French culture–as well as the attack strategy used by ISIS in operations such as this.

I’m not here to single out TIME, though. There is a larger problem in how American news sources are reporting about the Paris attacks. While Italy’s l’Espresso has a piece that starts with the Italian Defense Minister explicitly saying that the defeat of ISIS will not be achieved through military means alone, CNBC is quick to promote former CIA director R. James Woolsey suggesting that the US needs to take the fight to ISIS immediately. In fact, European outlets like _Zeit _and FAZ display a panoply of detailed coverage, discussing how to dissuade radicalized citizens from violence and cautioning against a hasty rush to war. Fox News, though, is reporting that the US Defense Department is seeking to loosen its rules of engagement with regard to ISIS–in other words, to step up the intensity of military actions, regardless of civilian deaths and injuries.

If you survey American coverage, there is much nuts-and-bolts discussion of how to improve our security. Suggestions range from banning Syrian refugees–the US Congress is voting to make it harder for them to get in, and numerous governors are vowing to keep Syrian refugees out of their states even though they have no power to do so–to outlawing encryption that doesn’t have backdoors for US intelligence services to exploit. To be fair, I am mixing the actions and statements of politicians with media coverage, but there is a reason for that. In the US, there is an incestuous relationship between the political class and journalists in and around Washington. Journalists need access to politicians and government analysts; those same politicians and analysts want friendly reporters they can talk to. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement, as journalists get information they can report, citing credible sources, and politicians and government analysts make connections within the media world that they can leverage into future career prospects. It’s been said that there is a revolving door between government office and lobbying, and it’s just as true that there’s a revolving door between government service and punditry. Today’s politician is tomorrow’s Fox News commentator. This hampers one of the key functions of journalists, which is to critically examine, rather than mindlessly parrot, information offered by government sources.

But this is hardly the only problem with how American media are treating the Paris attacks. Candidates running in the Republican Presidential primary agree that ISIS needs to be fought militarily, but offer little in the way of concrete details as to how to go about it. Certainly, any discussion of the root causes and aggravators of terrorism, such as “realist” American foreign policy during the Cold War and ongoing drone strikes, seems to be out of the question. After 911, American journalists and politicians failed to examine why anyone would want to attack us, and even though we were not the victims of the Friday the 13th attacks, our leaders and reporters have little interest in understanding the whys and wherefores this time, either. Instead, it is an excuse to have another bout of xenophobic fearmongering and to ponder just how many more liberties we should have to give up in the name of fighting terrorism.

Ultimately, the divide between American and European reporting and political leadership comes down to a capacity and willingness for self-reflection and examination. American leaders and pundits avoid asking difficult questions about the ways in which our foreign policy might foment radicalism and result in terrorist attacks. They would rather focus on tough talk about who wants to defeat ISIS the most, and how we can most effectively crack down on radicals at home and abroad. The European mentality, though not perfect, is more circumspect. Long-term issues with the integration of Muslim immigrants and their descendants are well-known and gaining more and more attention, as it seems the governments and cultures of countries like France and Germany understand that ISIS’ brand of radicalism does not spread unless it finds fertile minds to inhabit. Of course, Europe is hardly uniform: Germany’s efforts at combating radicalism are ahead of France’s, and Friday’s attacks have offered the perfect opportunity for the countries to learn from one another. It is becoming clear that political conflicts in Belgium have inadvertently made Brussels a haven for jihadists–but with a bright light shone on such a problem, there is likely to be much more done about it.

I sometimes feel as though I’m beating a dead horse with regard to Americans’ lack of understanding and insight with the regard to the world around us. It is perhaps good, then, to close with an op-ed from Switzerland’s NZZ, which makes the central point beautifully:

The free world is now under an enormous stress test, because the danger of overreaction is enormous. The essence of terrorism is, as the term coined by Robespierre implies, the sowing of fear. Political parties who live by fomenting xenophobia will make every attempt to exploit this wave of terror for quite nationalistic purposes, and people with authoritarian or racist tendencies will see themselves confirmed in their attitudes. Under no circumstances should Europe make the mistake of the United States and escape democratic oversight: The effects of this error on basic democratic values ​​are catastrophic. ... If we undermine our liberal order and our fundamental values ​​in the name of self-defense, then we give radical Islamism the victory it seeks.

ISIS and religious radicals will never be defeated solely or even primarily through military means, nor by eroding and abandoning our most cherished values. Before we can even begin to understand the roots of terrorism, we must first acknowledge this.

And we need a media culture willing to facilitate this kind of introspective discourse.

Photo by ell brown