Yesterday’s coverage of Osama bin Laden’s death was a rare victory for the spoken word over terrorism’s appropriation of the visual image.
There is a critical comparison to be made between the proliferation of violent visual images, both moving and static, which dominated the coverage of 9/11, and Obama’s simple yet effective televised announcement late on Sunday evening.
Over ten and a half years ago, the act of barbaric terror was perhaps less a question of the actual, brutal murder of thousands of innocent civilians; truly horrifying was the manner in which the act was committed. Fully aware of the precisely spectacular nature of their act, the real focus of the al-Qaeda plot was upon their visual representation of evil. The terrorists were highly conscious that the act itself played directly into the hands of a 24/7 rolling news agenda, where the unholy spectacle of two planes crashing into the World Trade Centre, of the zoomed images of helpless victims throwing themselves out of windows hundreds of feet in the air, would be repeated ad nauseam on Sky, Fox and the BBC.
On September 11 2001, terrorism appropriated, subverted and exploited the Western media agenda in pursuit of its own gains. And it almost won.
Now, the equation has been reversed. In many ways the most effective and direct riposte to 9/11 (over and above Bush’s War on Terror/Axis of Evil speech, pronounced as the West’s ‘official’ response), Obama’s simple statement at 3.35 UTC that American special forces had located and killed Bin Laden, has been the only effective video transmission of the event. That the actual attack on the compound was not recorded and televised, that no genuine visual evidence of a body has been released, is critical to the ideological and geopolitical repercussions of the event.
It is indeed beyond doubt that the implications of yesterday’s events will truly be borne out in the days and weeks to come. To declare victory in the War on Terror would be naïve. Yet certainly, at least for the time being, we can view the communication of bin Laden’s death as a victory for the West, and for the power and simplicity of spoken and written communication over visual images of terror.