What Terrorism Coverage Has To Do With Terrorism- Notes from Ankara a Month On
In the wake of a string of violent terror attacks across the globe in recent months, public debate about whose terror we mourn has reignited and ebbed along with the whims and attention spans of 24/7 news cycles. The continents of Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America have all been hit by Da’esh, even as they lose territory in Syria and Iraq. Various non-state actors as well as regimes seeking territorial control have perpetrated acts of terror in Lahore, in Ankara and across Southeastern Turkey, and in the state of Oregon, to name just a few.
I don’t need to spend time back in Ohio to have a sense of the discourse surrounding national security right now in the States. I spend enough time engaged in U.S. media, political analysis and social media (with a VPN of course) to know how things are playing out at home.
I’m also in a somewhat unique position to know what it’s like to be in the places that are mentioned (or not, or not enough), to go about life there. I’m both a consumer of U.S. media, and a resident of a place subject to the whims of what they deem ‘relevant’ reportage.
As someone who has taught in classrooms for refugees full of Iraqi children from Mosul and Basra. As someone who has been in living rooms with emotionally and physically scarred Syrians, living testaments to the power of the human will.
As someone who sometimes misses class so she can skip riding past blast sites on a crowded city bus in the Turkish capital.
As an acquaintance and admirer of Peter Kassig when our paths were lucky enough to cross in Beirut in the summer of 2012, the headlines and the drama and the blunders and the horrors that are U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East are not just fodder for fascistic Presidential candidates and season finales of viral Netflix series.
The role of the United States in the Middle East is not just a campaign platform sub-heading. It is not just as Hillary Clinton would apparently view it, an opportunity to be a loyal spokesperson and ensure an increase in stock value for the military industrial complex. The role of the United States in arbitrating disputes in the region is not, cannot be ‘neutral,’ and the Donald supposes he and it can be, and nor are his comments regarding Islam and Muslims, as Da’esh’s latest propaganda video makes clear.
The role of the United States is influenced by many aspects of life: education, language, pop culture, currency rates, politics, war and peace. Alliances, lived experiences, entertainment, flashy headlines and politicians stump speeches, economic hopes and, yes, conspiracy theories all play a role in shaping the image of American abroad.
Let me give you an example.
On the morning of October 10, twin suicide bombings tore through groups of dancing activists a peace meeting, killing 106 people , with at least 275 injured. Despite being covered as a pro-HDP rally, or even a “Kurdish” rally, I know it to have been a diverse group of citizens speaking out against violence and oppressive systems, and for inclusivity, social change and even peace. In attendance were unionists and communists, youth organizations and soccer fans. Sunni, Alevi, Turkish, Kurdish, Arab, Christians, Jews and atheists, Hijabis and punks, toddlers and grandmothers were all there. Who killed them? The government tells us it was Da’esh, retaliating for the loss at Kobane.
It was the largest act of terror in the history of the Turkish Republic. College kids covered in the blood of their friends, mothers and children, grandfathers and schoolteachers waited for hours outside state hospitals in case their blood type was needed in treating victims.
The lesson was clear: Avoid large public gatherings. Don’t attend protests.
Standard security precautions in a foreign country anyway (or the United States, for that matter).
On Wednesday, February 17 as post-work rush hour was just starting to abate, a car bomb driving down a congested main road downtown made a military transport convoy its target, 30 and injuring 60. I had just popped up from the nearest metro station, and was sitting down for some dinner out and a glass of wine with friends after work when the table shook and we watched a mushroom of smoke plume up and burst across the evening horizon. It was explained to me that if the offices of the Pentagon were arranged like the U.S. Capitol office buildings, this bombing would’ve been on First and A. To make the analogy harsher, the Parliament building is about a quarter mile away.
The perpetrator? An organization known as TAK, the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons, an offshoot of the PKK (who denounces them for not taking civilian lives into account). They claimed to be acting in retaliation for the actions of the Turkish state, the ongoing conflicts in the Southeastern part of the country, and across the border in Northern Syria, Iraq, and autonomous territories.
The lesson? Avoid government or military areas. Avoid rush hour. Walk fast…?
On the evening of Sunday, March 13 a car bomb, again perpetrated by TAK, ripped through the transportation hub adjacent to Kizilay Square and Guvenpark in Central Ankara. This was a bombing equivalent to one in Kola in Beirut, Dupont Circle in DC, Grand Central in New York… In a city with such a distinct layout and so much of the population dependent on public transport, I’m not even sure those analogies suffice. The bombs shattered store window glass for at least 3 blocks and the lives of 38 (so far, with 125 wounded) and the innocence of us all.
All of us here, anyway.
What’s the takeaway supposed to be now? Change your commute? Leave home only when necessary?
There’s another set of lessons enmeshed in this tragic chain of events, and the role of conventional and social media makes it abundantly clear.
After Paris, the citizens of Ankara stood in solidarity and in horror with the people of Paris, feeling its pain as fresh as their own from the month before. And then, in that raw grief, they asked along with the citizens of Beirut: “hey, where’s our Facebook safety check in?” “Where are our national flags on your profile pictures?”
Perhaps if Shakespeare were limited to 140 characters and resided in Ankara these days, he may have just left it at, “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”
When the Facebook safety check in feature was activated in the hours following the February 17 attack, people were intrigued and appreciated that it was turned on. I personally didn’t know what to think. I wondered if the people “liking” my safety back in the States would have ever known I’d been at risk if not for some Zuckerberg publicity stunt. I wondered how many of them knew that l needed to be logged into on out-of-country VPN service to access social media sites like Twitter and Facebook in the hours following the bombing.
On the evening of March 13, Turkish media began buzzing. Reports were coming out that the U.S. Embassy had warned its citizens of the attack in advance. In reality, two days prior they had published a standard alert about the risk of an attack in a different part of town, but that nuance was lost in the storm of fear and confusion following that night. Everyone I interacted with in the days that followed had the same set of questions: how did they know? Why weren’t Turkish citizens warned as well? The media conversation grew to such a roar that the Embassy put out a statement explaining the citizen alert procedure by which they obtain the information which informs their decision to alert citizens and Embassy staff: they claimed the information came from Turkish government sources.
With that clarification, the winds on that brewing storm of public opinion were deftly blown back at the Turkish state, rather than American citizens living in Turkey, though a wide variety of Turkish media has now made a habit of publishing U.S. Embassy security messages for the benefit of the general public. The ultimate lesson from this incident though, remains the same, which leads me back to the original premise of this article.
What the United States does (or does not do) matters here. What the United States says (or does not say) matters here. When combat missions or aerial campaigns are debated or announced back in Virginia, they are put into action here, in Turkey, and the consequences are tangible.
Last year 22 U.S. soldiers lost their lives fighting terrorism in Afghanistan. Last month the number of victims of terrorism in Ankara alone was more than triple that number.
So when the U.S. media debates Obama’s discernment process in determining military action or accepting Syrian refugees (there are about 3 million here, but it’s apparently not a ‘crisis’ until they cross west of Turkey), when presidential candidates demonize an Abrahamic faith with over one billion adherents globally or talk about seeing if sand can ‘glow in the dark,’ when Turkey is held up as an indispensible NATO ally in the fight against terror, people here pay attention. So when that same U.S. media is virtually silent in the face of mass acts of terror against civilian populations here, do you think they don’t notice?
The lack of nuanced, thorough, and egalitarian coverage of tragedy perpetuates the cycle of radicalization which leads to such events occurring in the first place. The 24/7 media cycle hashing out the gory details and running features on the lives of the victims in Brussels, but remaining essentially mute after similar attacks in places like Ankara, reinforces the same notions propagated by Da’esh and others: is an indelible distinction between Islam and ‘the West,’ that Muslim lives do not register in the conscience of the U.S. military or general public, that we’ll use your military base to start wars, but we won’t mourn your dead.
Something as seemingly straightforward as a security warning from a U.S. Embassy or an ordered evacuation of dependents of U.S. personnel can be perceived as an explicit prioritization of life, and an imperialist one at that. As those families pack their bags and get on planes back to the United States, think of the message that sends to their Turkish friends and neighbors about the assumed privileges Americans abroad embody, and the inaction of that privilege in the context of the value of civilian life. The United States, in the name of a ‘war on terror’ simultaneously occupies the land and airspace of our ‘allies’ for military gain and while ignoring the ultimate sacrifices of civilians in those countries, victim to the same monstrosities our governments are allied against. To where, exactly, should those men, women and children flee?
If the American public can’t bring itself to empathize with the people of the Republic of Turkey and other nations impacted by terrorism on a human level, they should at least be aware that it is exactly that disregard for the humanity of the victims of terror which fuels the terrorism they so fear.