Neither a man nor a crowd nor a nation can be trusted to act humanely or to think sanely under the influence of a great fear." Bertrand Russell
When I was at school and in the playground, it was amazing how – from time to time – there would be a sudden murmur which would grab everyone's attention. "Fight!" And suddenly, as if from nowhere, a great magnet would pull everyone into a milling circle around a couple of boys, inevitably boys, fighting.
The audience had no effect on the protagonists who continued to lay into each other. There was a buzz of excitement in the crowd and the noise level would rise. Eventually the teachers would turn up. They would push through the excited children who were jostling and straining to get a better view, grab hold of the combatants and pull them apart.
As they fought their way into the centre, they would try to disperse the crowd with fatuous injunctions. "Off you go, there's nothing to see here". Clearly there was something to see. Why else would we be there?
These sorts of remarks are also made by the police trying to clear bystanders or control crowds when there has been an accident or a fire or someone is taken ill in the street.
Magnetic effect sells newspapers
It is the magnetic effect of these occurrences that sells newspapers and glues us to our television screens: terrorist events, natural disasters, major accidents, abductions, wars. The effect is visceral.
No doubt there is a psychological explanation for the power of the reaction. We slow down to see what we can of an accident on the motorway. We are drawn to the crowds of a football match; we have to see the latest film; and when true drama unfolds we are sucked in to the spectacle. The instinct to join in, to be part of the crowd, is the same in all these examples and television, in particular, ensures we can indulge our ghoulish tastes.
Ruthless exploitation of raw feelings
This instinct is used to manipulate us and is the raison d'être of news coverage in all media. And because media empires enrich themselves by feeding this appetite, they are only secure when they have enough material to excite their audience. They are driven by the imperative of maintaining income. And they are ruthless in exploiting our raw feelings in order to do so. Because of this, they distort reality.
Multiple deaths in a spectacular train wreck or air crash are therefore more exciting than the 3,201 deaths and 28,954 injuries sustained in a typical year on British roads. This is almost 62 deaths a week, 9 deaths every single day. Compare this with an average of 23 rail passenger deaths per year over the last 12 years. In terms of passenger miles travelled, the rate of death on the roads is about eight times as high as on rail. But train crashes grab the headlines and our attention.
The thrill factor would not matter so much if it did not damage the political process. The government has its agenda distorted by the barrage of attention focused by the media and is tempted to legislate by knee-jerk reaction. Even if it avoids this trap, it invariably wastes millions of pounds on public enquiries.
These usually end in a whitewash, or in vague conclusions, or they are simply ignored because the moment has passed. At the same time, MPs are diverted from screening legislation on less flashy subjects as they too are sucked into the media driven frenzy. As a result, less than satisfactory legislation goes through without sufficient scrutiny.
The government, anxious to wrest back control of the agenda, attempts to manipulate the news itself. This process – that takes up an increasing part of its time and attention – has come to be known as spin.
As a result of spin, perspective is lost, priorities are distorted and the government loses our respect.
So far, I have used everyday examples to make my point. But things get even more out of hand when there is threat of war or terrorism.
On 9 September 2001, when terrorists flew planes into the twin towers, the Pentagon, and attempted to attack another location just over 3000 people died. In the same year, the number of people who died on US roads was 42,196. The 9/11 death toll represented just three and a half weeks of road casualties. It also compares with an average of 2000 general aviation deaths each year in the USA in the 1990s. And, interestingly, ten times as many American die from gunfire each and every year (almost 30,000).
But the drama and newsworthiness of 9/11 cannot be denied. Rubbernecking went into overstretch. Not only that, but it was easy for politicians and the media to stimulate fear in the population.
In response to the attacks of 9/11, the US embarked on two wars. So far in Iraq it has lost 3400 soldiers and in Afghanistan 319. So the cost of this response in American lives has now surpassed the number of people killed in the attacks. In terms of money the cost of the 9/11 events was calculated at $27 billion (loss of life, property etc. etc.). The financial cost of the response in the Iraq war alone passed $378 billion in March 2007.
At least 63,000 deaths
Perspective and priorities go out of the window when policy is built on a visceral reaction to a dramatic event. If we add a minimum estimate of the number of Iraqis killed (60,000 is the lowest estimate – other estimates, also from reputable sources, put the figure in the hundreds of thousands), the numbers become stark:
- terrorist action: 3000 deaths,
- American reaction: 63,000 deaths (minimum estimate)
This represents a factor of over 20:1. But it is not an exceptional ratio. Between 1968 and 1981, Palestinian terrorists killed 284 Israeli civilians. Yet between 1968 and 1975 (a shorter period), Israeli retaliation killed 3500 Arab civilians in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria (a factor of over 12:1). And the vast majority of these casualties, on both sides, were bystanders. Civilians not combatants. People like you and me.
Add to this the huge cost of mounting the war and the terrifying instability that has been exacerbated in the Middle East. Then think back to the event that started the ball rolling – the initial 3000 deaths on the East Coast of the USA. Just one tenth of the number of deaths from gunfire tolerated each year. We can now see how effective the hijacking was; how our rubbernecking helps the terrorist to do his work.
Puppets in the White House
It was child's play for the designers of the 9/11 attacks to pull the strings of their puppets in the White House. With minimal expenditure of their own resources (a US commission estimated that the cost to the terrorists of mounting the 9/11 project was half a million dollars, one 756,000th of the cost of the Iraq war so far), the terrorists have created a mayhem from which only they and their allies have benefited. They have finally achieved what they have been trying to accomplish for so long: open civil war in the Middle East. And they could not have done it without the help of George Bush.
Perhaps it would have been better if our teachers were right, if they had been able to persuade us, as kids in the playground, that there was nothing to see. Perhaps we should wean ourselves off acting on gut instinct when something dramatic happens. We pay a high price to feed our addiction to real-life drama.