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Once again, U.S. audiences were rattled by the news on March 22, 2016 that ISIS had attacked another European capital—this time Brussels, killing 31 people and wounding at least 316. This attack came on the heels of another ISIS-led murder spree in Paris on November 13, 2015 that claimed the lives of 130 people and injured another 368. Just as with the Paris attacks, Americans and other global citizens showed solidarity with Brussels through social media and lighting up national monuments with Belgian colors.
However, it wasn’t long before many started asking why there was such a quick rush to show solidarity with Paris and Brussels when innocent people were dying at the hands of terrorists in places like Turkey, Nigeria, and Syria. In light of the Twitter hashtags #JeSuisParis and #JeSuisBruxelles, London’s The Guardian asked in March after 31 were killed at the hands of terrorists in Turkey, “Where is Ankara’s ‘Je Suis’ Moment?”
The truth is that Americans, in general, don’t tune in to international incidents of violence or loss of life unless they meet one of three categories:
- The consequences could have an impact on their lives or communities,
- there has been a staggering loss of life or amount of destruction,
- or they can personally connect or relate in some way to the victims.
A good example of this was the 2004 earthquake that struck below the Indian Ocean and killed over 230,000 people in 14 countries. The entire world was glued to the tragedy on televisions and in newspapers as the death toll climbed, and charitable Americans wanted to know how they could help. Plane crashes—especially those that crash under mysterious circumstances—are also generally a big media draw, although the combined loss of life isn’t particularly large.
But media coverage and American viewer attention to terrorist incidents outside the U.S. is more complicated to explain. Bombings, mass shootings, kidnappings, and other attacks that can be labeled as terrorism-related occur across the globe with shocking regularity. However, American audiences tend to hear or read about them only in passing unless one of the three conditions listed earlier is met. Added to the complexity of the reasoning behind which tragedies U.S. media and audiences pay attention to is the concept of expectation.
Generally speaking, U.S. citizens consider Western Europe to be a “safe zone.” Historically speaking, European Union (EU) countries have not experienced major terror attacks resulting in massive loss of life like our 9/11. European capitals are significant tourism draws for American travelers, and most would never think twice about their safety visiting Rome, Vienna, or Lisbon, aside from trying to avoid pickpockets. This is a large part of the reason why the terrorist attacks in London in 2005 and 2012, as well as the Madrid commuter train attack of 2004, drew so much media attention and U.S. viewer interest. They could have been there when it happened. They may have friends or family members or work colleagues who live there and may have been affected.
It Could Happen Here Next
But most concerning for American audiences when they see an ISIS-sponsored attack on a Western city is the plausibility that such an attack could happen here next. Of course, the political boundaries and travel logistics for attackers in Europe are different, and many would say those obstacles are more easily overcome. Even though the loss of life in the Paris and Brussels attacks was relatively low, psychologically speaking the impact of geography draws more U.S. media and viewer interest, combined with the expectation that these cities and countries are safe for its citizens and tourists.
This is not the case for many non-Western countries where tragic terror attacks occur, often incurring larger losses than those in Europe. Ankara has drawn the closest comparison because the attack there occurred just over a week prior to the Brussels attack with similar casualty numbers. Turkey is also aiding the U.S.-led coalition of countries fighting ISIS in Syria, and is a secular nation somewhat caught midway between Europe and the Middle East. Many American tourists have visited Istanbul and other major Turkish cities, and the U.S. military has several bases there.
Third World Terror Attacks
However, the expectation of violence in Turkey is different than Western Europe. Turkey has been plagued by domestic terrorism for decades—mostly emanating from Kurdish separatist groups like the PKK and TAK. The sad reality is that American media outlets and audiences care little about the domestic problems of foreign countries, even if the violence involves groups labeled as foreign terrorist organizations by our own State Department. This is why we rarely hear anything about loss of life related to the FARC in Colombia, kidnappings and murders by Boko Haram in Nigeria (although Michelle Obama’s involvement temporarily spiked U.S. interest), or bombings by the MNLF in the Philippines. We expect bad things to happen in those countries, which have historically been plagued by conflict. Some may go so far as to say U.S. media and viewers don’t care about terror attacks that happen in Third World countries or that affect only minorities. However, we also never hear about ETA attacks in Spain or IRA attacks in Ireland.
It’s true to some extent that U.S. media coverage has an impact on what we, as American viewers pay attention to. If we want to know what’s happening in Nigeria or Turkey (if their media isn’t being blocked by the government) or Indonesia, we have to make the effort to search the Internet or tune into a channel like BBC World News, Al Jazeera English, or CNN International—channels often not available in basic cable packages. No one can tell U.S. audiences what they should care about or pay attention to, or U.S. citizens who they should stand beside or identify with after a terrorist attack. However, to oversimplify the reasons why more attention is paid to one country over another and ignore the complexities of media and U.S. audiences is to ignore human nature.