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Unethical Morality in 'Documenting' Terrorism

David H. Fleming's picture

Drawing on Deleuzian models of filmthinking, this paper turns its attention to chilling post-9/11 televisual news reports and journalistic documentaries covering terrorist events, to explore the extent to which the depiction of terrorism in the Western world has increasingly become infected by the logic and tropes of dramatic and spectacular entertainment. With specific regard to the screening of real images of death bound up in such events, it becomes important to interrogate the apparent slippage and blurring between reality and fiction, and probe into the universal and relative moral perspectives surrounding such events. To highlight the extent of these problems, I turn to the complex web of ethical and moral issues surrounding and interpenetrating the depiction of terrorist acts in Dan Reed’s 2014 documentary 'Terror at the Mall' (US/UK), which covers Al Shabaab’s (an extremist Somali insurgency group affiliated with Al Qaeda) 2013 “siege” of the Westgate mall in Nairobi, Kenya. To best get at these issues I compare this HBO and BBC produced film with two other televisual reports covering the same events: NBC News Dateline’s Nowhere to Run (US, 2013) and KTN’s The Inside Story: Wolves at Westgate [The news behind the news of the 2013 terror attack in Westgate] (John-Allan Namu, 2013, Kenya). Consideration of how these three different films edit together raw footage, emotionally prime their viewers, evaluate the events, and seek out the truth helps uncover some of the salient ethical and moral issues bound up with the screening of unsimulated images of terrorism, suicide and murder in today’s highly mediated world. After adumbrating a pragmatic distinction between moral and ethical forms of film and filmmaking, I explore the extent to which the two Western films think the events in a different manner from the Kenyan documentary.

Author Name: 
David H. Fleming
Fleming, David H. (2016) ‘Unethical Morality in ‘Documenting’ Terrorism: Terror at the Mall, Nowhere to Run, Wolves of Westgate,’ SubStance 45:3, pp. 66-83.