Another day, another bombing. The images of children killed by government airstrikes in rebel-held Aleppo last week were horrific to behold, but they were not surprising. Such images have become tinged with that precursor of contempt – familiarity. Like it or not, horrendous violence against the innocent is apparently such an expected part of what we see on the news every day that it is possible for most media outlets to deem it unworthy of top billing. In fact, that day most news websites chose to report first on news of President-elect Trump’s cabinet choices, rather than sick children murdered in a hospital bombing. Yet both stories concern the effects of people with extreme views doing something to change the world. This is not intended to be a direct comparison between Islamic State (ISIS) and Trump. Nevertheless, both have expressed views that many parts of the Western world considers dangerous and divisive. The main difference is that the actions of ISIS are, for now, far more visible and violent. Why, then, do news agencies continue to prioritise coverage of the extreme views of Trump and his malcontents – and those in the West with legal authority? These figures will be referred to here as the ‘executive extremists’ – people with extreme views who have achieved executive power in Western liberal democracies.
The answer is not simple. News coverage of the horrors of violence caused by extremist regimes goes back many years, but one of the first times that people in the West were directly exposed to images and stories of such violence was during the Vietnam War. The unlawful massacres and ‘death marches’ initiated by both the Viet Cong and the Khmer Rouge in the 1960s and 1970s were widely reported in the USA. As non-governmental extremist groups, people viewed these groups as illegitimate extremists without authority; they had not been elected and did not have international law on their side. Of course, news agencies conveniently hushed up war crimes committed by the Allied side at the same time, but a myth was nevertheless born in the western mind: so long as democracy and capitalism exist in a country, people with dangerously extremist views will remain impotent and illegal.
This method of reporting has followed us throughout the last fifty years. As each extremist government, group or dictator has been exposed, deposed or in some cases brought to power, news agencies immediately look at ways to ‘Other’ the actions of these forces. Leaders like Idi Amin of Uganda, Pol Pot of Cambodia and Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines all achieved power in theoretically legal ways – either through widely accepted military coups or through technically legal elections. But as soon as the brutality of their extreme regimes was exposed, the media immediately made it clear that these people had gained power through corruption, bribery or brute force. The dogma said that they were incomparable and completely other to Western governments: such a thing never would and never could happen in a functioning democracy.
The West has become desensitised to violence caused by extremism. The idea of innocent people with dark skin being killed by regimes with origins we can barely get our heads round has been normalised. It feels very distant – both geographically and politically. It could never happen to us.
And maybe this is the reason why news agencies are choosing to prioritise what is happening in the West now. Dead children in Aleppo are expected and outside our sphere of influence; elections in Europe and the USA should, conversely, not be dangerous. We have checks and balances to keep out the crazies: we have democracy. Furthermore, the rhetoric we are hearing is nothing new. People like Marine Le Pen in France and Norbert Hofer in Austria who claim Muslims have no place in their respective countries are repeating sentiments that have been around for as long as people of different religions have moved around the world. Mike Pence, when allegedly expressing support for conversion therapy and the stripping of rights for the LGBT community, is not the first white American man to say as much either privately or publicly. These extreme views in the West are the sort of thing we might expect of right-wing non-governmental groups like the Ku Klux Klan in the USA and PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West) in Europe. The difference, however, is that the people expressing these views are not fringe extremists. These are people very much in the political mainstream. Le Pen’s Front National could secure victory in the presidential elections in France next year. And the man who, according to some sources, believes that gay and transgender people can be ‘cured’ if they are given electroshock treatment is the Vice President-elect of the most powerful country in the world. They are the executive extremists – mainstream, legitimate and right in our backyards wielding executive, legal power over how we lead our lives – and the media doesn’t know how to react.
Another day, another right-wing politician elected. It won’t be long before we will become as desensitised to images of Trump sprouting xenophobic, misogynistic, and homophobic abuse as we already are to dead children in Syria. The media needs to stop making the distinction they have for so long between ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ extremists. Firstly, our democracies are not thriving: a woman can lose an election despite winning the popular vote by millions of votes. A country can sacrifice billions of pounds, countless jobs, and membership of an unparalleled regional community based on a mandate of less than 2 per cent in a referendum. And secondly, having a legal mandate to govern does not justify the actions or beliefs of an extremist. These executive extremists are winning legally and fairly in democratic elections, and even those who are most shocked are already becoming accustomed to this. It is our collective responsibility, but especially that of the free press, not to normalise whatever they might do next.