On The Ritual of Political Scapegoating

Lessons From ‘The Portrayal and Punishment of Terrorists in Western Media

Tucker Lieberman
Feb 16 · 10 min read

In her 2019 book The Portrayal and Punishment of Terrorists in Western Media: Playing the Villain, Christiana Spens studies how terrorists after 9/11 have been portrayed in the mainstream media. She examines “what a terrorist represents“ and “the cultural world from which this figure emerges,” both in modern times and farther back in history, considering “iconic images and figures of the past who linger in the Western imagination.”

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Osama bin Laden. Image detail from the cover of ‘The Portrayal and Punishment of Terrorists in Western Media.’

She discusses how this very portrayal implies their eventual execution or exile. The portrayal of terrorists communicates “neo-Orientalist ideas” of “‘evil ’, ‘barbarism ’ and ‘impurity’” and “perpetuates colonialist attitudes.” There are also similarities with “past portrayals of witches, Guy Fawkes, and the victims of lynching in the American South.” Like witches, for example, terrorists are shown with “thin, angular limbs and faces, hooked noses and large chins, abnormal physical features, nudity, ragged clothes, and the wearing of hoods…highlighted by the use of a dark palette in all images, by the background features of weeds, decrepit natural scenes, storms, smoke, and association with animals.” The terrorist is often portrayed with physical, mental, or social differences, whether or not those are realistic portrayals of that individual’s features. The villain has an eye patch or a scar. This is how the story is told.

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Image by Susan Cipriano from Pixabay

A real terrorist has indeed “committed terrible crimes,” but the figure of a terrorist is also “a monster created by Western culture.” Both things can be true. A specific crime of political violence against civilians is framed “to represent a much wider, existential battle between good and evil.” What we recognize as “a terrorist” is a “caricaturish villain whose power and meaning goes beyond whatever a terrorist individual did or said.” This “is not to assuage them of guilt, or to suggest that they haven’t done terrible things,” but simply to acknowledge that the “representation” of the terrorist is distinct from the “reality.”

What’s a Terrorist?

The most objective, analytical definition of a terrorist is someone who targets civilians with violence to achieve political aims. Since the definition is politically neutral, the word could be used in a politically neutral way, but, in practice, it is not. First of all, the word is always pejorative, and, ever since the word’s origins in the French Revolution, terrorists themselves have not liked to be called terrorists. The word is used to condemn and discredit insurgent movements, taking away their “moral authority” and “political legitimacy.” Considered as a “speech act,” the word “terrorist” is “illocutionary”; it is a moral judgment that implies a request for corrective action against the criminal.

Also, today, in Western media, the word tends to be applied to Muslims. Non-Muslims who attack civilians, even when it is obvious that they have political motives, aren’t labeled as “terrorists.” (For example, Westerners who participate in “far-right groups,” she notes briefly, are usually exempt from this judgment.)

Terrorists epitomize the idea of a violent enemy: someone who is “other,” abnormally insubordinate, and deserves whatever punishment they get. Therefore, the idea of a “terrorist” encourages the formation of a national identity — especially, and specifically, involving the myth of American Exceptionalism. We can see “how society constructs its values around fairytales, and creates its ghost stories in the realm of propaganda.” A nation has strategic objectives here.

Cathartic Scapegoating in Political Myth

At the heart of a myth, Spens says, is a scapegoat.

In popular use, the word “scapegoat” often means someone falsely accused of a crime, but in this context Spens is using the word to mean someone against whom criminal accusations and trials are elevated to the status of pageantry. The people we call “terrorists” and “scapegoats” can really be guilty. She is asking about the meaning of the media’s behavior in helping to purge the criminal from society. In cases of terrorism, the criminal proceeding is rarely treated matter-of-factly; rather, it is ritualized.

How Does It Work Politically?

Collectively, when a nation experiences what is called “moral panic” or “social crisis,” it reenacts a narrative scapegoating ritual around the idea of evil. This story and ritual “heightens and then relieves” the nation’s anxiety.

The story calms us by telling us that everything makes sense. One criminal is selected to be portrayed as an “iconic villain” who has “become more, and less, than a person, by being turned into a symbol for something else.” The narrative justifies our collective choice to purge ourselves of him; his extreme punishment is supposed to end society’s problems, restore order, purify the culture, and instill a national belief in our own holiness (which is our perception of the social order); we achieve psychological closure through the ending of the story.

When we implicitly draw parallels with other recognizable villain characters, we suggest that the same punishment should apply to the new villain. Thus, when an average American sees an image of a terrorist, they are seeing the image that has been crafted for them, and the appropriate punishment for that terrorist is implicit in the image. They do not really see the specific individual terrorist; they see the myth in which the word “terrorist” has moral meaning, and they predict the inevitable end of that person’s life. His death will be sanitized and portrayed as morally unifying for everyone else.

Insofar as a terrorist is portrayed as a representative of evil itself, “they are given more power than they ever really had,” and those who react to this image of a terrorist “also give themselves more power than they would otherwise have,” as now they draw on collectively asserted moral authority to take action against the criminal.

How Does It Work Psychologically?

When we feel “contradictory and confused emotions about events that seem beyond comprehension” — that is, supremely terrifying and awe-inspiring — we want to “master” those emotions. A “sublime” violent event attacks social values and generates a social crisis. The crisis is felt as “chaotic” and “unsettling,” prompting “Realist, masculine efforts to create order.” If the sublime (which initially resists understanding) can be turned into myth, it will feel less threatening.

People who characterize terrorists to play a role in such myths are often “emotionally aware” of what they are doing. The perpetrators become icons (as does the terrorist attack itself). The terrorist icons are general as well as specific. They are “folk devils”; they are fetishized; they are meant to explain our anxiety and our moral panic; onto them, we project “our own neuroses and past crimes.” The “arch-villains” become “unreal, symbolic…characters in a story that can only end happily when they die.” When the terrorists are horribly punished — “contradictory, confusing and problematic” as their punishment may be — the public tends to receive it with some pleasure.

This is an “archaic reaction” as opposed to a “Christian reaction” (to use René Girard’s terms, which Spens quotes). In our retributive violence, we may find not so much procedural or ideological satisfaction but rather a racist urge to see the “other” killed as sacrifice or as entertainment. This is enacted collectively so that the in-group can reestablish its identity and its sense of peace, agreeing on a common enemy (who is now represented by a single person). As Girard wrote in I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (2001), “this double idolatry of self and other” produces conflicts that “are the principal source of human violence.”

What’s the Outcome?

Any dramatic tragedy includes a catharsis. A scapegoating has a catharsis, too, and it also has “political purposes.” The terrorist, by being scapegoated, is made “part of a wider social practice that far transcends anything they ever did or were in their individual lives.” Beyond merely procedurally justifying the terrorist’s execution, the scapegoating will ritualize their death and make it seem cause for celebration and national pride.

And yet, in another sense, the drama does not calm us, after all. Spens gives reasons in her text, of which I count three. First, the drama doesn’t accurately represent what is really happening. A story like this vastly simplifies the world: the terrorist is ejected, and our society is healed. But surely the ongoing, so-called “War on Terror” is far more complex. In the real world, we endure setbacks like “military defeats or stalemates.” The story we tell about the villain “boost[s] morale” but doesn’t really analyze the facts, so we don’t have the real information. Secondly, by exaggerating a threat to the state, the narrative may actually increase anxiety and panic in the short term. Thirdly, when we increase our nationalism and xenophobia, our democracy degrades, and this cannot solve our problems in the long term.

What I Gained From This Book

This book helped me make sense of two memories I have from when I was in college during the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Book cover: ‘The Portrayal and Punishment of Terrorists in Western Media’ by Christiana Spens
Book cover: ‘The Portrayal and Punishment of Terrorists in Western Media’ by Christiana Spens
The Portrayal and Punishment of Terrorists in Western Media: Playing the Villain

Immediately after the event, perhaps the next day, I remember one student in my philosophy classroom saying that he didn’t want to use the word “wrong” in reference to the event, in response to which another student became angry, challenging him: “How can you not say it was wrong?” At the time, I felt I understood the uncertainty and disorientation that the first student was trying and failing to communicate, but I did not have any better ideas about how to communicate it. Today I suggest that his (and my) inarticulateness in the moment might have been an example of a kind of “moral dumbfounding”: when we have a moral opinion we cannot explain or justify. More specifically, I believe the first student was trying to say that the major terrorist attack that dramatically killed thousands of people on television wasn’t just regular wrong but sublimely wrong. Insofar as we might, just a week earlier, have used the word “wrong” to discuss stealing a candy bar, that same little word was falling short in describing a terrorist attack. A terrorist attack wasn’t “wrong” in the sense that we could neatly label it, shrug our shoulders at it, deal with it procedurally, and forget about it. Rather, it was more profoundly wrong in a way that, for most people, required terror management. It needed to be approached in an entirely different way. It seemed to demand a more emotional, less procedural response. It prompted political mythmaking. Even those who did not personally crave, appreciate, or respect political myths as necessary for their own personal terror management would still have to acknowledge that such myths existed. Awareness of our social context and collective interpretation — namely, why the president spoke of a “War on Terror” — was part of being able to meaningfully use the word “wrong” in reference to the event. Even if we didn’t agree with or support a “War on Terror,” nonetheless that military initiative was a crucial context for comprehending and using the words “right” and “wrong” in modern American English. Without this context — which we did not yet fully have on Day 2, and some of us were already aware that we did not yet have it — the word “wrong” fell irrelevantly and flatly inadequate. If we had said of the terrorist attack, “Well, that was wrong,” we would have sounded to ourselves as though we were discussing a missing candy bar. And the doves and pacifists among us, no less than the hawks and militants, knew we had experienced a sublimely terrifying event. What the doves wanted was a way to express pain, fear, and profound moral revulsion without participating in the language of the political myth that was the War on Terror. The doves, I suspect, felt alienated from language itself, because the language was being swiftly coopted into the service of the War on Terror.

I also remember that, less than two weeks after the event, my college newspaper, The Brown Daily Herald, published an opinion piece by a student (“Love must guide us on our path to justice and action,” September 24, 2001). Nick Shere spoke about needing to be mindful of “the terrorist within” each of us: “As long as there is anyone outside our love, we are vulnerable to hatred and the acts toward which hatred pushes us. I do not ask you to withhold your anger or your justice from common criminals, let alone from those who commit extraordinary atrocities. But do not let even these force hatred into your heart,” he wrote. At the time, I noted the article in part because it was so different from the tone and approach of many other opinion pieces. “To love someone is to choose that they be real,” Shere wrote, “as real to you as you are to yourself. To choose not to love someone is to know them as unreal; they are fictive; they are already dead to you.” I suppose this is what René Girard called a “Christian reaction” (challenging the urge to participate in the political myth of scapegoating and redirecting that spiritual attention toward ourselves, trying to make ourselves better people since we may not be able to change anyone else) that might have been more popular earlier in the 20th century. Now, at least since the September 11 attacks and continuing into the 21st century, it is considered more socially acceptable to pursue the catharsis that comes with the scapegoating process, which Girard calls an “archaic reaction.”

So, this book — The Portrayal and Punishment of Terrorists in Western Mediawas helpful for me as I continue to unpack those two memories.

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Tucker Lieberman

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Writing on dignity, democracy, and the pursuit of truth. Author: ‘Ten Past Noon: Focus and Fate at Forty’ https://tuckerlieberman.com/ten-past-noon

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We publish inspiring stories about different topics for a productive and entertaining life

Tucker Lieberman

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Writing on dignity, democracy, and the pursuit of truth. Author: ‘Ten Past Noon: Focus and Fate at Forty’ https://tuckerlieberman.com/ten-past-noon

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We publish inspiring stories about different topics for a productive and entertaining life

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