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Battle of Symbols

Television as Weapon

"The 19 men who changed the world on Sept. 11 used as their primary weapon not box cutters or jet airliners but something more American and much more powerful: the television set. The box cutters and the planes were tools in constructing the great master image, the Spectacular; the television set was their delivery vehicle."

Mark Danner
The New York Times (10/16/2001)

Most agree that the attack on the twin towers was an attack on a key symbol of American financial power. Yet the attack, centered within New York City, could also be viewed as an attack on the world’s great symbol of media and communications technology. In some respects, this was perhaps the greater symbol attacked.

Whatever the case, it is obvious that the terrorists had learned much from American media and communications. While American media responded heroically in the weeks following the atrocities, the real story was not this response but rather how effectively American media and communications had been hijacked against itself. Importantly, the terrorist message was not carried on terrorist controlled media but on American media. Did this foreshadow the crafty turncoat use of modern media in coming battles of symbols?

Growing up within the ubiquity of an invasion of American media into their culture, the terrorists had learned well from American media. And, American media needed to learn something new about media from them.

As terrorist activity grew around the world, the need seemed to be for greater publicity and "audience share" than actual people killed, although killing lots of people dramatically seemed an effective way for the terrorists to gain publicity. This emerging new publicity need of terrorism was presciently noted in the late 80s by Brian Jenkins in his article "Future Trends in International Terrorism" from Current Perspectives on International Terrorism (1988) edited by from Robert Slater and Michael Stohl.

Jenkins noted the growth of terrorism commenting "The increase in the volume of terrorist activity has been matched by the geographic spread of terrorism - a slow, long-term trend … The number of countries experiencing some sort of terrorist activity has increased each year … [as] the total volume of terrorist activity grows …" Jenkins importantly saw this leading to perhaps a need for greater publicity rather than more terrorist actions. A great audience for small actions might be better than a small audience for large terrorist actions.

"Will terrorism escalate? Simply killing a lot of people has seldom been a terrorist objective. Terrorists want a lot of people watching not a lot of people dead … Unfortunately, as we have seen in recent years, things are changing. Terrorist activity over thee past twenty years has escalated in volume and in bloodshed … Terrorists can no longer obtain the same amount of publicity with the tactics they used ten years ago. They have to escalate their violence in order to keep public attention."

As Jenkins observes, "Terrorists have become technically more proficient, enabling them to operate on a higher level of violence." This new technical proficiency was sadly on display in front of their greatest audience in history on September 11th.

Box Cutters And A Disaster Spectacular

The real power of the terrorists came more from their utilization of the power of media than from their willingness to sacrifice their lives for Allah.

The sacrifice to Allah story came under suspicion after September 11th with reports of the strange final week of the terrorists. There is the story of terrorist Atta and crew in a topless bar in Florida drinking it up the night before the atrocities and boosting loudly that they were going to pull off something terrible.

Their concern was less about the image of their conduct in America and more on the symbolic image they would leave in American mass consciousness. As Mark Danner observed in The New York Times, their real weapon was not dime store box cutters but the indirect "purchase" of hundreds of hours on American prime time television. In effect, the terrorists hijacked American media in addition to the four airliners. It was the largest media buy and advertising campaign in American history with a "brand" burned forever in American consciousness, its horrifying "logo" represented by a 767 jet crashing into the world’s greatest symbol of capitalism.

Everyone is aware of the spectacular images of the attacks (no less than a leading symbol of American technology attacking a leading symbol of American capitalism). But a large reason they are aware of these is because of the timing of the events, the fact that they were on weekdays during that important media periods called morning "drive time" rather than relegated to a media "backwater" of weekend, afternoon or late night television. A large part of the terrorist "media strategy" was in this timing.

The attacks, a little after 8:00 AM on a weekday, assured that most of the nation would be at home and able to see the events live on their home television sets rather than at work and away from direct access to television. The use of two planes in the World Trade Center attacks, the second within minutes of the first, assured live media attention would be focused on the first building and the second plane would garner a greater television audience.

Rather than interrupt afternoon soap operas, the Jerry Springer genre of "confrontational" gladiatorial television, the sacrosanct Oprah Winfrey Show or old science fiction movies on late night TV, the attacks were at that important "drive time" for maximum audience share. In the Eastern time zone, Americans were just leaving the home or arriving at work. In the Central time zone they were gathered around the breakfast tables, the "musak" of morning television in the background. In the Mountain and Pacific time zones they saw much of the horror unfold as they flipped on their televisions, the most horrible and unthinkable type of "wake-up call" one could imagine. And too it was something that most American children saw live on television, unlike the Kennedy assassination when most of the nation’s children were in school and away from television.

All of this helped insure that the symbolism of the event would have the highest audience share possible, burning the live image in the maximum number of Americans in a key audience share time for television.

But it was also in the spectacular images the terrorists were able to "produce" that showed they knew how to manipulate American symbols. Perhaps they had even seen grand American film disaster spectacular like Irwin Allen’s The Towering Inferno (1974). It was the image of the spectacular they wanted to create in the "studio" of world television. A symbol that would be burned into the consciousness of millions forever. In the end, it was so much greater than just another common suicide mission for the cause in some media poor city of the middle east. By choosing the capital of symbol making and symbol transmission they assured the power of their own symbolic message.

They may have been irrational and evil but they did understand an important point. They understood the battle of symbols between the West and the Islamic world was a one way affair in that most symbols were produced and broadcast from America into the Islamic world. Very few went the other way and came from the Islamic world to America. For one thing, the factions they came from in the Islamic world could hardly afford a serious advertising campaign of their "brand" image into the free-world. The hijacking of the four jets was their method of purchasing this commercial television time.

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Copyright © 2001 John Fraim