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By Invitation

Urban terror in the new media age

Witnesses to terror attacks need to take action or, at the very least, not become unwitting aides to publicity-seeking terrorists

The recent terrorist attacks in Jakarta, though claiming fewer casualties when compared to earlier attacks in Indonesia, have nonetheless caught the attention of the global media and have become sensational news by now.

By virtue of grabbing the headlines, those who were responsible for the attacks have already succeeded in securing at least one of their objectives:to make their presence known and to be talked about. This puts the media and the global fraternity of security analysts in a difficult position, where discussing such attacks also means giving the perpetrators of violence what they want, which is publicity.

For several years now we have seen how acts of terrorism have evolved and adapted to the realities of the media age we live in, where almost everyone in any modern city would be equipped with some form of portable communications technology. The availability of such technology, and the fact that we live in a virtual age where almost everything - from the contents of one's handbag, to what we eat for lunch - is photographed and instantly put on the Internet for the world to see, means that the urban landscape is more connected today than ever before. This is something that all radical groups, of whatever ideology or orientation, are well aware of. This has led to the evolution of a slightly different kind of terrorism, one that is a child of the media age we live in today.

THE NEW URBAN-VISUAL TERRORISM

From the attacks in Paris to Istanbul and Jakarta, we have seen how violent groups and individuals have targeted crowded modern cities that are well-connected via the medium of cyberspace. There is a pattern that is obvious here - these are modern, connected cities where no one is likely to get lost and where Internet connectivity is saturated.

Such urban environments foster a sense of common city feeling, where residents of Paris or Jakarta feel they belong to an urban community, complete with a lingo, street culture and insider references that only they can understand.


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

On the one hand, there is a positive thing about this: It lends a sense of common belonging to people who might otherwise feel a sense of alienation from living in crowded cities with populations that go up to tens of millions, allowing the people of London to feel like "Londoners" and the people of Paris to feel like "Parisians" - a virtual nation-in-itself that is distinct.

But to any militant who wishes to disrupt or weaken that sense of cohesiveness, that same sense of unity also renders such communities vulnerable in another way. For when Paris is attacked, thousands of others also feel vulnerable; and when Jakarta is attacked, then everyone who lives anywhere in that city feels he might be the next victim.In the face of such a threat,which is seemingly random (though it is not), communities in large cities need to develop a sense of collective agency.

BECOMING UNWITTING AIDES TO VIOLENCE?

Attacking densely populated urban centres is appealing to radical groups today for a number of obvious reasons: Military targets are more difficult to hit,and hostage situations often go awry and thus may prove counter-productive. However, an attack on smaller isolated communities, which may be more vulnerable and easier toterrorise, would not get the same attention as an attack on a larger population centre.

But one variable has made the modern city a more worthy target today than ever before: The near-universal availability of portable communications technology in the hands of a large number of people living closely together. In the incidents we have seen in recent months, the attackers have chosen to hit places with lots of ordinary people who are likely to be carrying some kind of cellphone with in-built camera or video capabilities. Living as we do in developed societies with extended comfort zones, anything out of the ordinary will likely be captured on camera and uploaded onto the Internet - and this is precisely what the attackers are hoping for.

Many of us have become passive spectators to events around us,and we have been captive to a form of popular media that glorifies violence to the point where it has become normalised. (Those who are appalled by the reports of violence meted out by some extremist groups today should note that the popular TV series Game Of Thrones features at least one beheading per episode, with throats slit, bodies impaled or flayed or burnt - and this is regarded as "entertainment"by many.)

In the case of the recent Jakarta attacks, note that many of the bystanders who witnessed the violence at close quarters were not able to prevent the situation, but many were willing to risk their lives or safety taking photographs and videos to be uploaded soon after. By doing so, they gave the attackers the media attention they desperately sought, even before the mainstream media managed to get to the scene. In such cases, we should ask ourselves: Are we then the unwitting accomplices to urban violence, and have we contributed to the notoriety of such radical groups?

FROM PASSIVE TO ACTIVE SOCIETIES

In the course of my fieldwork in what could be called "less developed" communities, I have often noticed that such societies are able to cope with crises on their own, without waiting for help or instructions from anyone. Among the people in the interior of Kalimantan or the sea nomads off the coast of Sulawesi, societies deal with problems by using their own initiative - as service centres like hospitals are far away.

In the face of the threat of urban terrorism,urban societies need to reconnect and develop a sense of collective agency which is empowering. A society that stands passively by and films an act of theft or an accident without offering any kind of help is... not a society in the first place, but rather a random assortment of individuals who have no sense of common social identity.

Conversely, in modern mega cities where people are often strangers to each other, passivity seems to have become the order of the day: If we see someone collapse on the pavement, we wait for the ambulance to arrive; when a house is on fire, we wait for the fire brigade to rescue the situation. But we need to ask: How did societies cope with such things like accidents and fires before the advent of the modern rescue service or fire brigade? Didn't people simply place the need of the community above all, and act?

In the face of the threat of urban terrorism, urban societies need to reconnect and develop a sense of collective agency which is empowering. A society that stands passively by and films an act of theft or an accident without offering any kind of help is, I would argue, not a society in the first place but rather a random assortment of individuals who have no sense of common social identity.

Contemporary forms of terrorism are the product of the here-and-now, and the media-driven age we live in. Radical groups, be they secular or religious, understand how such societies work and know where their vulnerabilities lie, and are quite likely to exploit them as long as such societies do not change.Hence, one way for urban communities to prevent such violence is by coming together as communities with agency and responsibility.

What, you might ask, can civilians do in the war against terrorism? For those trained in combat, putting up a defence against perpetrators of violence before the arrival of law-enforcement agencies can save lives, as a United States air force man and his friends did in thwarting an attack on a Paris train last August. For the rest of us, one simple act of altruism would be to stay vigilant, for the sake of others apart from ourselves.

And, at the very least, people can stop being passive spectators of violence, and unwitting promoters of panic and anxiety, too. Being unable to stop violence does not entitle us to promote it unintentionally.

  • The writer is an associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 26, 2016, with the headline 'Urban terror in the new media age'. Print Edition | Subscribe