Paris Attacks: The media debacle involving a female terrorism suspect

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I strongly condemn and am devastated by the recent terrorist attacks in France, in Lebanon, in Egypt and elsewhere. But I felt that I could not be silent about one of the latest examples of shoddy, irresponsible, salacious media coverage, related to the attacks. And in times like these, when panic is widespread, when violence and hatred and prejudice especially beget more violence and hatred and prejudice, this type of coverage is especially dangerous.

Following the 13/11 Paris attacks, there was a well-publicized police raid in the Paris suburbs in which part of a building was blown off and suspects killed, including a woman named Hasna Aitboulahcen.

Police_-_rue_de_la_République_Saint-Denis_-_18_nov_2015_(cropped)
Raid in suburban Paris where the female terrorism suspect died. “Police – rue de la République Saint-Denis – 18 nov 2015 (cropped)” by Chris93 – File:Police – rue de la République Saint-Denis – 18 nov 2015.jpg. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Commons.

Media outlets immediately jumped on the story, with The Telegraph and others labeling Aitboulahcen, a 26-year-old French woman of Moroccan descent, “Europe’s first woman suicide bomber.” Media also stated that she was the cousin of suspect Abdelhamid Abaaoud, believed to have been the mastermind behind the 13/11 attacks (with some media reporting this as a certainty as well). And here the problems start: Hours after these articles came out, authorities said they had mistakenly believed that Aitboulahcen had blown herself up during the raids, and that it was not actually known whether she was Abaaoud’s cousin; nor was it known if she had been at all involved in the Paris attacks, as The Washington Post pointed out.

Readers may say, “She was an extremist, anyway. Why give her any respect?” The dead woman has a family and friends, and they already have to deal with the grief of her death and implication in terrorism, which immediately leads to her being dehumanized. Perhaps they, as living human beings, could have been spared the grief of seeing their family member or friend wrongfully labeled a suicide bomber, which may be corrected, but will probably not be erased from the public’s consciousness – along with the erroneous articles that will remain online.

And they could have been spared the grief of the dead woman’s disgusting objectification, as well.

American and British media also reported that Aitboulahcen was a selfie- and social-media-loving, alcohol-drinking, serial-dating “party girl” who had no interest in religion and transformed into a jihadist rather quickly; some outlets even posted a photo of Aitboulahcen naked in a bathtub. So she is being publicly judged both for her “extremism” (the extent of which is merely speculated on rather than known) and for her previous lack of religion and “partying” ways. Headlines speak for themselves:

“Skanky suicide bomber used to be a selfie-taking party animal,” The New York Post, 20.11.2015

“EXCLUSIVE: Extraordinary selfie of terror mastermind’s cousin shows girl blown up in Saint-Denis siege who never read the Koran, liked to drink and smoke and had a reputation for having lots of boyfriends,” The Daily Mail, 19.11.2015

“Paris attacks: female suicide bomber Hasna Aitboulahcen liked wearing cowboy hats but joined an Islamic State terror cell,” The Telegraph, 20.11.2015

And the less sensationalist, but leading to similarly speculative articles:

“The French female extremist’s curious path to Islamist violence,” The Washington Post, 20.11.2015

“For Woman Dead in French Police Raid, Unlikely Path to Terror,” The New York Times, 20.11.2015

So, an extrovert who drinks and wears a cowboy hat cannot become an extremist? But if she wears a scarf and reads the Quran, she is more likely to? Recent reports may tell you otherwise, and you’d be surprised at what British intelligence has found about terror suspects’ profile. The spread of dangerous, grossly simplistic stereotypes driven by fear, emotion or the desire to sell more newspapers should be avoided in favor of more sensible investigation. Prejudice begets hate which begets violence.

And “slut-shaming” does nothing for any constructive debate; it is smut that distracts readers from the actual important underlying issues and sets us back decades in the fight against misogyny.

I wonder if a male terrorism suspect in Boulahcen’s position would have gotten the same treatment in the media, the same type of salacious scrutiny? I’d dare say not.

Salon.com picked up on the salaciousness and sexism of such media coverage, commenting in a Nov. 20 article:

“Reading these pieces, it’s hard to tell what the Post and the Mail think is the worse life choice for young women: Being ‘skanky’ or participating in a plot to murder as many people as you can before blowing yourself up during a police raid. Both pieces lovingly describe in the most macabre detail possible how Boulahcen’s body blew apart in the raid, and you can’t quite tell if they think it’s her just desserts for being a terrorist or for her previous life, which they clearly see as irredeemably slutty.”

The story gets perhaps even more outrageous: The woman in the infamous bathtub photo was not Aitboulahcen. The media wrongfully identified the woman, Nabila Bakkatha, as Aitboulahcen; but Bakkatha is actually alive and living in Morocco, the apparent victim of a cruel move by someone she knows who sold photos of her to newspapers saying she was the slain Paris suspect. And in their rush for clicks, media outlets irresponsibly published the photos, landing Bakkatha in a very unpleasant, if not dangerous, situation:

“My family was shocked, and some of my relatives are not talking to me anymore,” Bakkatha told CNN. “My life changed drastically, I stopped going to work, and I cannot go out anymore as I live in continuous fear.”

It is astounding to me that, with Brussels on lockdown and threats being recently reported at a Hannover stadium, some media outlets would still find the time to speculate and sensationalize regarding Boulahcen. But maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, considering the shoddy, fear-mongering coverage on refugees that unfortunately is destined to get worse, compounding xenophobia in an extremely delicate time.

With stories evolving this quickly and in such a volatile, bloodthirsty environment, it would be best to err on the side of caution rather than haphazardly going for sales and clicks. It would possibly destroy a lot fewer lives.

A Global Studies doctoral degree holder and former newspaper reporter, avid eater, pseudo-philosopher and poet, occasion-propelled singer, semi-professional socializer, movie addict, Brazilian-American nomad. In this space, she will share some of her experiences and (mis)adventures regarding various topics, with special attention to social issues.

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