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opinion | Robert Zaretsky

A modest proposal: Limit free speech to stop terrorism

Armored vehicles surrounded an SUV following a shootout with two suspects in Wednesday’s shooting in San Bernardino, Calif.
Armored vehicles surrounded an SUV following a shootout with two suspects in Wednesday’s shooting in San Bernardino, Calif.(KNBC via AP)

It is a melancholy object to those who trawl the Internet and surf the cable stations, when all they see, day after day, are videos of spinning red lights and sprinting SWAT teams, and all they hear are the breathless voiceovers of reporters and endless interviews with friends of relatives of the victims. And as we gaze at undated photos of the suspected terrorists, all we know is that while the authorities are still seeking the political or ideological motives for the massacre, we already know the suspects’ deepest motive: to have us gaze at their faces.

It is no less melancholy to those who listen to the usual suspects, on the right and left, debate and discuss, to hear the same arguments trotted out about the Second Amendment. The remedy for one side is fewer guns, while the remedy for the other side is more guns. The expedient for one side is preventing criminals and mentally ill from buying guns, while the other side’s expedient is preventing those who in flight from countries where weapons are a dime a dozen from entering our country. The cure for one side is background checks for those who wish to buy guns, while the cure for the other side is religion checks for those who wish to settle here.

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But for all the talk about the Second Amendment in our lives, we might consider the possibility that we are debating the wrong amendment. Instead of revisiting the right to bear arms, let us instead revisit the right to free speech — or, more precisely, the right to broadcast, as our media see fit, certain types of news events.

Does an act of terrorism terrorize if no one hears or sees it? For modern terrorists, the answer is clear: Apart from its closest of relatives, fascism, no “ism” depends more dearly on the media than terrorism. Whether it is the work of a foreign terrorist organization or of a lone domestic terrorist, the act itself must be spectacular. Without spectators, the raison d’être evaporates. From Al Qaeda’s felling of the towers to ISIS’ severing of heads, the murderers always have one eye on the theatrical nature of their act. In ways that Prospero himself could never have anticipated, the confluence of postmodern communications and premodern barbarism has made all the world a stage.

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Thanks to the ubiquity of screens, it no longer takes an army to shock and awe a government or its people. All it takes is a small band, a pair of brothers, a married couple, or a loner to shock and awe us. As Don DeLillo observes, popular culture had once been the territory of the artist. But now, thanks to the reach of the media, it has now been claimed by bomb makers: “They make raids on human consciousness.”

Of all the expedients we have considered, we have ignored one possibility. It might be easier to control the flow of information that it is to control the flow of firearms. In a word, easier to propose a certain kind of censorship, one that would not hinder the means of terrorism — guns and bombs — but instead its ends: Its ability to attract an audience. If we see ISIS as an organization striving to sell its brand to potential buyers, or local terrorists as individuals trying to sell their stories to a world that had ignored them, the answer lies in depriving then of their stages.

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Inevitably, we associate censorship with those who are trying to terrorize us. Whether we locate them in the sports stadium of ISIS-controlled Raqqa or the Gulag of the Soviet Union, the killing fields of Pol Pot’s Cambodia or Hitler’s death camps, totalitarian regimes have been built on the twin pillars of terror and censorship. This has been the grim case so often in the modern era that we are incapable of seeing censorship as anything but inimical to our values.

But this was not always the case. Prior to the Enlightenment, most thinkers assumed tyrannies cultivated private liberties — the distractions and decadence of their subjects, after all, allowed tyrants to remain in power. By the same token, a republic of free individuals imposed limits on such liberties in order to maintain the republic’s wellbeing and independence. In “The Republic,” Plato famously exiled the poets: The virtues of censorship, he claimed, protected the virtues of the citizen.

Nearly two millennia later, and to the horror of his fellow philosophes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau revived and revised Plato’s arguments. He deplored not just the power of spectacles to distract citizens from the real duties, but also the pretension that they were sources of civic and moral education. The medium had already become the message in the 18th century: “Vice or virtue? What is the difference, provided that the public is overawed by an impression of greatness?”

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Needless to say, what Rousseau meant by the “impression of greatness” is terribly different from what a terrorist means by it. Not so different is the manner in which such impressions tear at the bonds of community and basis of democracy. While Rousseau had Molière in mind, we might instead think of our media as the amplifier, if not author, of these impressions. And it is for the media to reassess its role when the next happening happens.

We can no more re-amend the First Amendment than we can the Second Amendment. But paradoxically, reassessing the consequences of the first might prove less polarizing among Americans than the second. It is, of course, essential that news of terrorist attacks be broadcast. Nothing must stand in the way of our right to know. But perhaps something — if not laws, at least the civic sense of news organs — should stand in the way of transforming these events into spectacle. What if they were to be stripped of that spectacle? If they were shortened to one more item on a news broadcast, shunted to a special section of a newspaper, and starved off the sensationalist framing they are given by cable news producers?

Such first steps might seem either too modest or too fantastic. But I am not so violently bent upon my own opinion as to reject any offer, which shall be found equally innocent and effectual.


Robert Zaretsky is a professor at the University of Houston and is author most recently of “Boswell’s Enlightenment.”

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