Steve Sartori
Students watch television coverage of the World Trade Center attack in the Newhouse School’s Food.Com cafe.

Terrorists’ Media
Savvy Can’t Be Ignored
By Joan Deppa

We were puzzled as we watched television reports that a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers—and so were the TV morning-show hosts. Cameras stayed focused on the towers as everyone tried to understand what was happening. Diane Sawyer of Good Morning America was watching along with viewers when the second plane hit. “Oh, my God! Oh, my God!” she gasped. Seconds later co-host Charles Gibson said, “So this looks like some sort of a...concerted effort to attack the World Trade Center in downtown New York.”
      Though they may not have known it, Sawyer, Gibson, and their colleagues across the dial were following a “made-for-TV” script the terrorists had written for their two-part attack on the Twin Towers. The first strike got our attention—and put all the cameras in place. Speculation about whether it was an accident or an attack set the stage for the second strike, which resolved the argument. Following a reprise of instant replays we got the expected reviews. Gibson: “Terrifying, awful.” Sawyer: “We watch powerless. It’s a horror.”
      Here are some of the ways in which contemporary terrorists often conceive their attacks as acts of mass communications in ways familiar to professional communicators.


      Symbolic elements make the motives of the terrorists so clear that they can remain anonymous or even deny guilt, and still feel that they have delivered their “message.” This was the case with the bombing of Pan Am 103. In 1988 Pan American Airways was viewed as the American “flagship” carrier. The timing of the attack added to the symbolism. There is evidence that bombs were being built in October, but transatlantic passengers at that time would have been primarily from the ranks of business and government. By waiting until December 21, the bombers ensured that many families and college students would be aboard, implying retribution for the U.S. air strike on the home of Libya’s leader, as well as for the Navy’s accidental downing of an Iranian civilian airliner. Likewise, Timothy McVeigh chose to express his dismay over federal agents’ destruction of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, by striking a federal building on April 19, the anniversary date of the incident. The World Trade Center was seen as such an unmistakable symbol of American power that it was attacked twice, first with a truck bomb in 1993 and then with hijacked jetliners. Even the choice of the two U.S. airlines, American and United, may have been part of the message.

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Main Home Page Contents Chancellor's Message Opening Remarks
Reflections In Memoriam Time of Terror Lessons of Hope
Future Impact Voices

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