When to Keep Quiet

by Zachary Justus

The recent terror plot to blow up a high octane gas-line underneath JFK airport has raised important concerns within the United States and abroad. One recurrent theme has been the increased importance of protecting so-called “soft targets.” Another, less visible trend concerns the increasingly global scope of terrorism and an interesting case study in proper public response to terrorism.

The details of what exactly happened continue to emerge, but at this juncture several points seem to be clear. First, at least four individuals have been arrested for plotting to blow up a high octane gas line that runs underneath JFK international airport. Second, at least one of the people arrested was a former cargo worker at JFK. Third, the individuals involved in the plot appear to have strong ties to Trinidad, Guyana, and Jamaica.

The nationality of the alleged perpetrators comes as a bit of a surprise to anyone who associates terrorism with the Middle East. Jamaica is supposed to be a tourist spot and a place to relax, not a hotbed of international extremist violence. This deviation from typical character has prompted legitimate concern from many Jamaicans who fear that this episode will sully their attractiveness as a tourist destination.

Within Jamaica there have been several attempts to curb any international misgivings about the area. Jamaicans worried about the region’s attractiveness or relations with the United States have done their best to mend ties and protect one of the regions most profitable industries.

One response not directly related to tourism came from Islamic Council of Jamaica President Mustafa Muhammed who called upon Muslims all over the globe to participate in a movement against terrorism Muhammed said “It (silence) gives the wrong impression that we agree [with terrorists].what we need is an international cry from Muslims – a conference, where we meet and pledge to do whatever it takes to ensure that if these people (terrorists) come where we are, they will get no peace.” Other Jamaican Muslims have joined Muhammed’s chorus calling for an end to violent extremism.

Of course, Muhammed’s words are not altogether different than those of many politicians, religious leaders, and concerned citizens who have urged terrorists to lay down their arms. The question is why is it different when a Muslim says the same thing?

Principles

First and foremost, this is an issue of credibility. Communication inquires into the nature of credibility started with Aristotle and have continued strong and steady since. McCroskey (1968, 1970, with Tevan, 1999) has spearheaded much of the modern credibility research, most of it concludes that trustworthiness, competence, and goodwill are the defining attributes of credibility. It is obvious, yet worth saying that credibility is ultimately determined by the individual(s) receiving the message. What one person may find credible (speaking from the Oval Office) can be the grounds for complete disregard for another individual.

Analysis

The local Muslim population in Jamaica has been in an ideal position to speak out against the JFK terror plot from a credibility standpoint. The position of Muhammed and his supporters satisfies all of the major criteria for speaking from a position of credibility to local Muslim audiences:

  • Trustworthiness: this attribute of credibility involves familiarity and the identification of common interests. People are more likely to trust other individuals when they know them and/or identify common interests. In the case of Muhammed, his voice would be more powerful to local Muslims both because he is a Muslim and because he is local.
  • Competence: it is unclear from available materials whether Muhammed is perceived as competent by locals. However, it is clear that he certainly does not carry the negative baggage of other individuals who frequently speak out on the topic of terrorism.
  • Goodwill: in the case of Muhammed, goodwill wraps back into trustworthiness. His position within the community as leader of Islamic Council of Jamaica means that he is personally invested in the community as a member. People would have to know that he would not advise against his best interests.

Muhammed appears to satisfy all of the major criteria for speaking to local Muslim audiences on the issue of terrorism. Within the United States we should embrace his rational, honest perspective. He even advocates working closely with the authorities, remarking, “if anyone is adamant about hostility and we cannot rid them of it, then we will have no choice but to get the law of the land involved.” However, we should not endorse too loudly.

Corman, Hess, and Justus (2006) noted, “while engaging sympathetic Muslim communities, it is important to avoid attempts to control their messages” because doing so will sap their credibility. At this stage, it seems prudent to go even further, when a good message from a credible local source emerges, simply leave it alone. If US officials were to repeat the same message it would likely detract from the power of Muhammed’s words by association. Put another way, this is a good time to keep quiet.

Further Reading

  • McCroskey, J.C. (1968). Scales for the measurement of ethos. Speech Monographs, 33, 67-72.
  • McCroskey, J. C. (1970). The effects of evidence as an inhibitor of counter-persuasion. Speech Monographs, 37, 188 – 194.
  • McCroskey, J. C. & Teven, J. (1999). Goodwill: A reexamination of the construct and its measurement. Communication Monographs, 66, 90 – 103.