“It´s an act of terrorism”, said José Sarney, president of the senate in the Brazilian state of Rio de Janeiro, a few months ago in an interview with the “Globo”, Brazil’s most popular TV channel. He was talking about the tragic events of March 2006 in Rio de Janeiro´s Tasso de Silveira Municipal School where a 23 year old young man called Wellington Meneses de Oliveira, an ex-student of the same educational center, entered the building and shot students, teachers and staff leaving a fearful tally of 11 dead and 22 injured. In a final flourish, when the terrifying episode seemed to have ended, the disturbed man shot himself.
A few hours later, the media revealed a suspicious connection between the terrible massacre and a letter found at Wellington’s place in which the young man asked for the forgiveness of God for “what I have done”, and gave some explicit instructions about what to do with his dead body: it was not to be touched in any circumstances by “impure” people; it would have to be carefully washed and cleaned, dried and wrapped in a white sheet. These kinds of strange and extremely specific requests gave grounds to the press to speculate about a possible linkage between the killings and Islam. It became almost natural to find headlines like the “marksman’s letter looks like the ones left behind by the 9/11 terrorists”. To put an end to such speculation, the president of the National Union of the Islamic Entities of Brazil had to make a public declaration denying popular rumors about an Al-Qaeda operation center in Brazil (it seems that there were people who talked about a possible Al-Qaueda attack on Rio’s landmark statue of Cristo Redentor!).
Obviously, the popular imagination can easily be farflung. But it does not become farflung of its own accord, it moves with the generous help of the mass media’s mismanagement of information where politician’s positions really do play a significant role. However, the point is that this particular way of referring to a criminal act in terms of “terrorism” was no isolated occurence in Rio de Janeiro.
Seven months prior to this, in September 2010, the same Brazilian city – the most visited international tourist center in South America, and at the same time a microcosm of a truly unequal society – had been the object of several street attacks against local authorities and attacks launched from the “fabelas” against the civil population. In response to the general commotion, city major Eduardo Paes said that all of these “terrorist actions” were nothing less than the reaction of criminal bands involved in drugs trafficking to recent government security policies.
It seems that calling every kind of “criminal action” that involves the disadvantaged population an “act of terrorism” has become, in Rio de Janeiro, the main resort of official speech to hide the truth about the key social issues that simmer beneath the surface of the tourist view of the city. These are just two recent examples but I am certain that if we dug a little deeper we would soon find many others. The 9/11 tragedy gave Rio de Janerio’s public authorities a really great way of avoiding, once again, shouldering their historical social responsibilities for the most depressed and marginalized sectors of the city.