Media and Terrorism

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International Journal of Comparative Sociology http://cos.sagepub.com/

Terror, Media, and Moral Boundaries
Nachman Ben-Yehuda International Journal of Comparative Sociology 2005 46: 33 DOI: 10.1177/0020715205054469 The online version of this article can be found at: http://cos.sagepub.com/content/46/1-2/33

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Terror, Media, and Moral Boundaries
Nachman Ben-Yehuda* ABSTRACT
The relationship between terror and its presentation in the media is examined. The process of presenting terror is characterized as a method of challenging, negotiating, and redrawing moral boundaries. On the one hand, examining the terror–media relationship in this fashion enables us to transcend issues involved in taking a stand regarding the contents of specific acts of terror. On the other hand, making a stand regarding the nature of terror requires a moral decision. Any such stand regarding the content of terror, in terms of its explanation and justification, is thus based on a moral agenda that can be deciphered from the way it is presented. I use the case of political assassinations and executions to illustrate this terror–media connection through the conceptualization of negotiating moral boundaries. Keywords: assassinations, media, moral boundaries, terror, war

Introduction ‘One person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter’ is a common statement. And, indeed, some famous world leaders were incarcerated or hunted as ‘terrorists’, only to appear years later as genuine freedom fighters for peace. Israel’s Menachem Begin and South Africa’s Nelson Mandela are just two illustrations. How can one make such a distinction? And on what grounds? I will argue below that such statements are morally bounded, and that making them requires explicit or implicit invocation of some moral context. To be meaningful, this suggested contextualization must be framed within a historical perspective. Moreover, the decision about whether one is faced with a genuine case of terror or of a fight against cruel oppression or occupation has a strong moral element. It is this moral element that dictates both the type and nature of responses and the presentation of the act or acts. However, examining terror from a moralistic point of view alone (that is from a ‘right’ versus ‘wrong’ perspective) may create myriad points of view, dictated by the different symbolic-moral universes of the examiners. One way of avoiding this kaleidoscopic view is to regress to mere chronologies of events, devoid of social context, focusing on temporal sequencing made to show that earlier events somehow caused later events. Alas, this is a barren and boring * Hebrew University Jerusalem, Israel.

Copyright © 2005 SAGE Publications www.sagepublications.com (London, Thousand Oaks, and New Delhi) Vol 46(1–2): 33–53. DOI: 10.1177/0020715205054469

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INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF COMPARATIVE SOCIOLOGY

approach, not to mention its questionable validity. Terror needs to be viewed in its social, political, and – most important – moral context. An alternative approach is to transcend specific moral contents and examine the interaction between terror and moral boundaries. Such a discourse can allow us to avoid the dilemma that opened the article and may enable us to cope with it in a more productive way. The rhetoric of moral boundaries gives us a powerful tool to do just...
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