Obviously not. Everybody knows this. I mean, c’mon.
Modern Western society has a problem conceptualising attention. What is it? How does it work? If you have media companies that operate by turning content consumers into content producers, what behaviours are incentivised and what behaviours are not? Is this cultural engine incentivising behaviours that we think create good societies? What voices are drowned out that we need to hear?
When we confront the question of whether or not we should publish (or discuss) a terrorist’s manifesto, we necessarily engage a lot of theoretical puzzles that, frankly, most of the people in the media don’t like to think about. What we do know is that the media outlet that publishes a manifesto (or hot takes which, wink, wink, nudge, nudge, encourage you to read the manifesto for yourself) is going to secure an audience’s attention. We also know that these activities take place for the purpose of getting attention. A terrorist who kills a few dozen people but nobody notices is an ineffective terrorist. The terrorist does more than just kill; the terrorist communicates and finds an audience through violence or the threat of violence. Therefore, we just shouldn’t distribute a manifesto.
I want to crack this open a little bit more in three different ways. First, I want to show that this newfound interest in the message of a terrorist has a thinly veiled racist core. Second, I want to show that publishing a manifesto rewards the wrong kinds of behaviours and discussions. Finally, I want to show that a manifesto will always be unintelligble and publishing it has no public benefit.
Manifestos and racism: only white people get a manifesto
Osama Bin Laden is probably the world’s most famous terrorist. If you ask a person to name a terrorist, OBL ranks pretty high on the non-joke answers. The ordinary person on the street knows a lot about OBL. If you show somebody a picture of him, they could probably name who it is. They might tell you that he was the leader of Al Qaida. That he was responsible for the September 11 attack. They can tell you that he is Muslim, and that he is an advocate for something called Sharia Law (although they might not be able to tell you much, if anything, about the content of that Sharia Law).
What’s wild is that OBL is so extremely famous, and yet very few of us could quote him on anything. It would surprise people to discuss OBL in terms of political philosophy. Maybe it would surprise people less to discuss OBL in terms of theology — but only in an extremely limited sense of ‘He does not believe in “Real” Islam’.
In the Iliad, there’s a big war between the Greeks and the Trojans. The Trojans were from Anatolia; the Greeks were from all over Greece. Despite the fact that the Trojans were foreign, the Iliad has them speaking beautiful Greek. They are intelligible. They say intelligent things. They have rational beliefs and recognisable desires. In the Iliad, our enemies speak.
During the War on Terror, our enemies did not speak. Our enemies did not argue. They did not present reasons for why they were bringing us violence. They were monsters incapable of ordinary desires. They were alien in every way.
There were a few exceptions. The United States has a very long history of politically motivated violence on home soil, usually from nutcases with extreme conspiracy theories or Protestant religious views. Mysteriously, when the perpetrator is white, we want to understand their motives for why they did what they did. Far from being alien, we hunt for reasons to differentiate them from us, and therefore give them a voice to isolate themselves.
We see the same thing repeating now. How many terrorist activities did we have before somebody said: ‘Hey, let’s read his diary?’ Oh, it turns out we only want to disseminate their views when they’re white. What a shock.
DISSEMINATING A MANIFESTO INCENTIVISES VIOLENT ACTS
But — you might argue — maybe we should start disseminating the manifestos of non-white terrorists as well!
You’d be wrong.
We are rightly interested in the idea of civility politics, although often for bad reasons. Usually what happens is that we hear some bloviating old fart moaning that there’s not enough civility in politics. ‘Why don’t our political opponents respect the things that we respect?’ they ponder while also tweeting horrific opinions about the trans community.
The confusion is in the nature of civility: it is a goal not an obligation. It is the easiest thing in the world to be civil; it is much more difficult to be disruptive. If people are disruptive, it’s because being civil is not providing them with the outcomes they’re seeking.
Or, framed even more clearly, the person who calls for civility in politics has the onus of ensuring that civility meets the needs of everybody in society and doesn’t exclude marginalised voices.
Terrorism is so far outside of civility that the concepts are irreconcilable. It’s a form of direct coercion: I will communicate a message through violence. And the question becomes very blunt: to what extent should a person be able to communicate a message through the use of violence or the threat of violence?
The answer should be: not at all. And yet our media class keeps trying to erode this standard when they call to disseminate or publish a terrorist’s manifesto. Eroding this standard means that the terrorist has an effective pathway to communicate an idea to a wider audience. Perhaps they hate democracy; perhaps they hate that Western countries are funding Israel; perhaps they hate that women deny them sex. If they do not think that they can articulate this message through ordinary debate, our media class now provides them with a platform if they also commit an atrocity.
Deplatforming works. Nobody should be given an opportunity to say, ‘That terrorist, I disagree with what he did and it’s inexcusable, but he made an interesting point in his manifesto.’
Your armchair analyses of manifestos are shit. they are so shit.
Let’s say you inexplicably disagree with the above two points and you’re still adamant that you should be allowed to read and analyse a terrorist’s manifesto for yourself. This final point is the one that, for me, is the most persuasive: you don’t actually understand what you’re reading.
Here’s the real life example. Was Man Haron Monis a terrorist? In Australia, a terrorist is a person who uses violence (or the threat of violence) ‘with the intention of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause’ and with the intention of coercing the government or intimidating the public. When he took the staff and customers of the Lindt cafe hostage, people immediately started trying to understand his actions.
He had hostages hold up a flag against the window — a flag that was mistaken for the flag of ISIS. Clearly, this was religiously influenced terrorism. And then people found out about Monis’ Facebook posts in support of ISIS. Clearly, this was politically influence terrorism. What more evidence do you need? Flag. Facebook posts. Clearly terrorism.
Academics still disagree about this one. Yes, there was the flag and, yes, there were the Facebook posts, but it was not clear that Monis was acting with the intention of advancing any particular political or religious cause. The Inquest held the view that it was a terrorist event, but recognised that reasonable people disagreed: ‘Even with the benefit of expert evidence, it reamins unclear whether Monis was motivated by IS to prosecute its bloodthirsty agenda or whether he used that organisation’s fearsome reputation to bolster his impact.’ (As an aside, there is a rather useful analysis of the role of mental health in discussions of terrorism in the report.)
The problem always lies in the extent to which we can view a manifesto as genuinely articulating the view of the author, but this is exactly the point that armchair analyses take for granted. No matter how incoherent or insane the manifesto’s content, disseminating or publishing the manifesto assumes that this is a genuine articulation of the ideological beliefs of the terrorist. Anders Breivik copied and pasted thousands of pages of nonsense from other authors, and the Internet spent days pouring over it for clues about his political beliefs. Beyond ‘This guy had some really weird views’, there’s nothing there. Or the terrorist behind the Christchurch massacre. Pages and pages of hot takes have been published by people staring into the chicken entrails left behind on webforums and blogs, but there’s nothing substantively there to analyse.
Proper analysis of these materials takes months and, even then, experts will disagree about the meaning. But the media doesn’t want to put in the hard work, so it instead cherrypicks the information it wants to fit a preconceived narrative about the sorts of people who commit atrocities (always Outsiders). Your average journo who spends 51 weeks per year writing about political gossip is not mysteriously going to transform into a radicalisation expert for the one week per year when there’s a manifesto in circulation.
For this reason, and this reason alone, there is also no public benefit to publishing, disseminating, or discussing the manifesto. The audience is going to come away misinformed by any discussion, usually with a reinforced view of what they already believed (‘atrocities are committed by Muslims or the mentally unwell only’; ‘we should give more powers to security agencies to monitor everybody at all times’).
Don’t circulate the manifestos of terrorists, ffs.