Re: Copycat Terrorism: JoM Paper

Date: Wed Oct 03 2001 - 05:09:00 BST

  • Next message: Scott Chase: "Re: state of memes"

    Received: by id FAA26709 (8.6.9/5.3[ref] for from; Wed, 3 Oct 2001 05:13:37 +0100
    From: <>
    Message-ID: <>
    Date: Wed, 3 Oct 2001 00:09:00 EDT
    Subject: Re: Copycat Terrorism: JoM Paper
    Content-Type: text/plain; charset="US-ASCII"
    Content-Transfer-Encoding: 7bit
    X-Mailer: AOL 4.0 for Windows 95 sub 113
    Precedence: bulk

    Hi Paul.

    I agree with the basic thesis that the publicity is likely to cause copycat
    hijackings and attacks, as well as attempts. The media coverage both spreads
    the bad ideas and reinforces them with the attention terrorists seek.

    The matter of how best to handle it, however, seems to be an open question.
    It may well be that if some of the other attacks of recent years, such as the
    embassy bombings in Africa, the attack on the USS Kohl, etc. were given
    saturation media coverage, then there might have been more copying of acts on
    similar scale. But terrorists might also not have felt that it was
    "necessary" to go to something as big as the September 11 attack in order to
    get the US public and the international community to really take notice. If
    even the September 11 attacks had not brought massive media coverage, the
    terrorists might have simply concluded that they needed to do something far
    worse still, such as a nuclear, chemical, or biological attack.

    As bad as September 11 was, jolting the US and international communities to
    pay serious attention to terrorists may have been necessary to avert
    something on the scale of thermonuclear truck bombs, etc. The US population
    has a dangerously insular attitude that was amply illustrated by decisions
    being made by George W. Bush. After the Clinton administration had signed a
    treaty to secure 130 tons of Plutonium 239 that has been poorly guarded and
    poorly inventoried in Russia, Bush had suspended the agreement and cut the
    money the US had pledged. All apparently in service of the indulgent ideology
    of "giving the American people back their tax money." (Never mind that the
    USA is the world's largest debtor nation and should have been repaying loans
    during prosperous times.) Maybe the US population and politicians will start
    taking the matter of unsecured weapons of vast destruction seriously now.

    Some analogy might be made to the fact that it took Pearl Harbor to jolt the
    USA into doing its part in stopping the devastation begun by Hitler. Perhaps
    all the media attention given to the "day of infamy" at Pearl Harbor
    encouraged additional attacks against the USA in the early 1940s, but it also
    mobilized the country to do something about a very real and serious threat.
    If the event had been downplayed to the extent that the US did not enter
    World War II, the world today would certainly be a far different place. Time
    will tell whether the newly agitated and mobilized USA will do something
    helpful this time, or whether it will somehow make matters worse.

    So with the caveat against going to the opposite extreme of trying to
    downplay the September 11 attack, I agree that media people should try to be
    more careful than they have been in the way they report everything from
    school shootings to big terrorist attacks.

    Hague, A. 1983. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Building Thermonuclear Weapons.
    New York: Grinning Idiot Press.

    --Aaron Lynch

    In a message dated 10/2/2001 12:33:45 PM Central Daylight Time, writes:

    > Subj: Copycat Terrorism: JoM Paper
    > Date: 10/2/2001 12:33:45 PM Central Daylight Time
    > From: (Paul Marsden)
    > Sender:
    > Reply-to:
    > To:
    > A short comment appears in the Journal of Memetics (copy below) warning of
    > the risk of copycat terrorism following the recent terrorist attacks in New
    > York and Washington. It makes the controversial point that the political
    > and media reaction to the attacks has massively exacerbated the risk of
    > copycat terrorism.
    > Francis (Heylighen) has also forwarded me an interesting link to another
    > paper by Robert T. Holden from Indiana University who has produced archival
    > correlational evidence for the contagious spread of aircraft hijacks
    > Copycat Terrorism: Fanning the Fire - By Paul Marsden -
    > The political and media reaction to the recent terrorist attacks in the US
    > could trigger a spate of copycat terrorism. This would be the warning from
    > the body of research known as contagion psychology, the science of copycat
    > phenomena ranging from infectious yawning and laughter, through consumer
    > fads, fashions, and crazes, to the more serious contagions of eating
    > disorders, suicide, hysteria, violence, and even murder (Marsden 2000a).
    > Why should we expect our reaction to the recent disaster to trigger copycat
    > terrorism? Firstly, there is a chilling precedent. Twenty tears of US data
    > show that airplane crashes, some thought to be suicides involving the
    > deliberate killing of others, rise systematically and unexpectedly
    > media publicity of other of these 'murder-suicide' stories (Phillips 1980).
    > More worryingly, the amount of media coverage devoted to these events, by
    > television networks and newspapers, correlates positively with the rise in
    > subsequent `copycat' events. This is darkly consistent with the substantial
    > body of evidence for suicide contagion - the idea that suicides beget
    > suicide (Marsden 2000b).
    > Secondly, copycat terrorism makes compelling sense when we understand the
    > simple but deadly psychology of contagion. A phenomenon of `disinhibition'
    > can occur when suicidal or murderous thoughts - inhibited by conscience,
    > uncertainty or fear - are exposed to what is perceived as the positive
    > consequences of suicide or murder. When this happens, the mental conflict
    > between urges and inhibitions may be resolved, resulting in a suicidal and
    > possibly murderous mind being made up. Thought is free to become deadly
    > action. With a perverse irony, the global attention and blanket media
    > coverage accorded the U.S. terrorist attacks may actually help make up some
    > desperate minds and legitimise future murder-suicides.
    > So how can the risk of copycat terrorism involving murder-suicides be
    > reduced? Blanket censorship is obviously not a realistic option in a free
    > and democratic society. However, our reaction to such events could be
    > usefully informed by the practical and realistic recommendations of the US
    > CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and similar organisations
    > on how to contain and reduce the risk of contagion involving suicide (CDC
    > 1994):
    > - Avoid presenting the event as an accomplishment; for example, do not use
    > the term 'successful'
    > - Avoid repetitious or excessive reporting of the event
    > - Avoid sensationalising the event
    > - Avoid `how-to' descriptions of the event
    > - Avoid portraying the event as painless for those responsible
    > - Avoid presenting simplistic explanations for the event
    > - Avoid glorifying the event or those responsible for it
    > - Avoid giving a positive rationale for those responsible for the event
    > A quick glance at these recommendations reveals that each and everyone has
    > been violated by politicians and media alike in recent days: Repetitious
    > sensationalised accounts of an event portrayed as horribly effective in aim
    > and simple in explanation. As a consequence of our own reactions, borne
    > perhaps of a voyeuristic and morbid fascination for disaster, we may have
    > increased the likelihood of copycat terrorism. The equally sensationalist
    > accounts of a possible war may only serve to exacerbate this risk. Of
    > course, there is an urgent need to discuss how we tackle terrorism in a
    > world where technology and connectivity allows tiny minorities massive
    > leverage, but perhaps it is now time for a qualitative shift away from the
    > sensationalist coverage of the `what', `where', `when' and `who', and
    > towards a more informed discussion of the `why'. Only by understanding the
    > situation that led to the attacks can we hope to move towards an informed
    > solution that may help prevent them from occurring again.
    > References
    > CDC (1994) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. `Suicide Contagion
    > and the Reporting of Suicide: Recommendations form a National Workshop'.
    > Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Review, 43, (RR-6).
    > Marsden, P. (2000a) `Mental epidemics' New Scientist, 2237, 46-47.
    > Marsden, P. (2000b) The Werther Effect: Suicide Contagion - A Critical
    > Evaluation, Theoretical Reconceptualisation and Empirical Investigation
    > Doctoral Thesis - University of Sussex University of Sussex. Available at
    > Phillips, D. P., (1980). `Airplane accidents, murder, and the mass media:
    > Towards a theory of imitation and suggestion'. Social Forces, 58(4),
    > 1000-1024.
    > Dr Paul Marsden
    > tel: +44 (0) 777 95 77 248
    > email:

    This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
    Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
    For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing)

    This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Wed Oct 03 2001 - 05:18:51 BST