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Friday, 12 October, 2001, 10:30 GMT 11:30 UK
War Views: Be honest, what did you think?
Dr James Thompson, senior lecturer in psychology at University College London, says that while people might disapprove of spin doctors trying to "bury" bad news following 11 September, we should be honest about our own responses.

Can anything be more disgusting than to use the Twin Tower bombings as an opportunity to hide away bad government news?

Her own behaviour flies in the face of conventional attitudes to grief

Just one hour after the bombings a UK government adviser was suggesting that this would be a good time to release controversial announcements. The world was grieving, and the adviser was plotting to exploit that grief.

Why does her behaviour disgust us? First of all, the practice of "spinning" news strikes most people as deceitful at any time. Second, choosing a moment when people are distracted by grief is underhand and scheming. Third, her own behaviour flies in the face of conventional attitudes to grief.

The horror

So, what are those conventional attitudes? It may seem odd to have to describe something which is so well known and so natural. People feel strong emotions of horror at a tragedy, and feel sympathetic to the plight of the victims.

Some may understand the victim's distress so keenly that they almost feel their pain.

Dreadful tragedies are often in the news, and we do not often interrupt our activities to grieve

Bystanders who witness a tragedy find it hard to continue their everyday duties, need to comfort one another, and are desperate to understand what has happened to the victims and to help if they can.

Many bystanders give immediate help, some give money, and a few give blood.

However, dreadful tragedies are often in the news, and we do not often interrupt our activities to grieve. We have become tele-visual bystanders who find it too emotionally draining to be devastated every day.

Identification with victims

Of course, this tragedy, involving four simultaneous hijackings of civilian airliners and their use as missiles is a spectacular new type of terrorism.

The murder of more than 6,000 people is no everyday affair. But the tragedy was particularly notable because the victims were people like us. Few people remember exactly where they were when the Hutus murdered the Tutsis, (or was it the other way around?).

Therefore, it would seem that the "conventional" response to tragedy depends on whether we identify with the victims. We might feel less condemnatory of the adviser if the outrage had been at a greater cultural distance, happening in a distant country to people of whom we knew nothing.

We can condemn the advisor for heartless opportunism

Beneath the public dismay, other personal and very natural reactions co-exist.

Many people have been more concerned about their own personal safety than about sorrow for the victims.

For others the reaction was: "How will this affect the economy?"

For some in the media the reaction was: "Big story, keep showing the spectacular pictures."

For yet others horror was mixed with condemnation of American foreign policy, and denial that any civilian can be innocent.

We can condemn the adviser for heartless opportunism, but it would be hard to say that all our own reactions were noble and selfless.

This is one of a series of differing opinions on the War on Terror which we shall be publishing in the coming days. You can send your view about this or other articles by using the form below.

Your comments:

I agree with her idea - it was exactly what a spin doctor should be doing, but was it really necessary? The media is so full of coverage of this war that any domestic story of any interest is buried deep.
Matt, UK

Let's not forget all the people who bought and sold shares on the stock markets immediately after the attacks, taking advantage of the drastic change in the economy that was certain to occur. Another example of "heartless opportunism" or simple acknowledgement of new market realities for the purpose of financial survival? Like it or not, the reasons for almost all our actions are rooted in the instinct to survive and prosper. Tough.
Paul Connor, Canada

The political adviser was undeniably wrong to do what she did, but she's not the only one. Where I work, a lot of people had an attitude of excitement, scanning the internet for the latest updates and rushing to be the first to tell people the news. There was certainly not an atmosphere of shock or sorrow, it's as if they were thankful for a break in their boring routine. I felt slightly sickened by this; I lived in New York and worked in the WTC for a period, and I couldn't stop thinking about the sheer number of people who lost their lives, and the terror and agony they went through. I wasn't "glued to my screen". I couldn't bear to watch it, as it was too upsetting.
Jon, UK

There was shock yes, but sorrow? I agree with Jon. It was strange to see people reacting with what seemed like morbid fascination and in some cases horrible excitement. We all react differently, but unfortunately in these times when bad things we see either via the television or the internet can be switched off when they become too much, our reactions, in the majority of cases, seem to veer towards an almost apathetic interest.

The adviser was spot on. She obviously didn't realise the extent of the tragedy when the memo was written, but was about to exploit the situation to get the bad news out of the way. As a spin doctor it is her job to make sure the government is seen in the best light. Using a large story to bury the bad news is just par for the course. Job well done!
Phil, UK

I dare say a few mildy embarassing annoucements were also made after England beat Germany 5-1 and the country was concentrating on this. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, I'm sure the adviser wishes she had had the benefit of it.
TIm Pyke, New York, US

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