9/11: Barbarians Past The Gates

On September 11th, when barbarians got past the gates, Washington’s reaction to the tragedy was reflexive. The US government did not perceive the attacks as a major act of international terrorism requiring global cooperation to identify and apprehend the surviving co-conspirators; instead, President George W. Bush informed the world that September 11th would be regarded as an “act of war.” This would justify an unlimited resort to massive force, with little regard for the lives of innocent bystanders (one definition of terrorism). After all, any solution other than a military one would make the President look like a “wimp,” and everyone knows that rules of international order do not apply to us.


Here is a thought experiment. Imagine that in September of 2001, the suicide bombers of al-Qaeda, having determined that a successful mass murder operation against the “civilized world” should be directed instead against France, successfully murdered over 3000 Frenchmen and tourists, while bringing down the Eiffel Tower in the bargain. It is obvious that the UN would have called this a “crime against humanity” and that the US — indeed almost everybody — would have agreed. However, the US would surely have added that it would be appropriate for France to participate in an international investigation — not conduct a unilateral military action, such as bombing a foreign country.


Meanwhile, back in the real world, the ostensible task of the major media in 2001 was to assist America to understand the causes and prevent a recurrence of the tragedy. Yet when President Bush misled the nation by misrepresenting this act of international terrorism as an “act of war,” the US media compounded the fault by issuing war-whoops instead of providing a forum for open discussion. Talking heads sputtered like amateur analysts (always of the hawkish military stripe) about how the American people may “not be willing to wait much longer” before responding in kind. Pundits asked a shocked nation to regard this new crisis as a war between white hats and black hats, e.g. “democratic nations, which must pull together” versus “evil terrorists” (James Rubin). The display of a unified US government and media (acting in concert) was remarkable, as media pundits seconded President Bush’s vow to exact vengeance, not justice.


The reaction from America’s most distinguished thinkers was usually on paper and off camera. On September 12th, 2001, I wondered why I was watching the televised reaction to the tragedy of undistinguished novelist Tom Clancy rather than distinguished activist Noam Chomsky. Susan Sontag responded to President Bush’s address by declaring that his remarks exacerbated her feelings of depression, because he sought to reassure America by reminding the nation of its undimmed strength. Even if our enemies make our tallest buildings collapse, he declared, “we are strong.” Sontag’s rejoinder (published in the Sept. 24 edition of The New Yorker) was apt: “Who doubts that America is strong? But that’s not all America has to be.” Sontag’s reasonable words caused her to be denounced as a “traitor,” a reaction that implicates the media in the inculcation of a widespread jingoism in US culture.


Because they are not stupid, American journalists often ask the right questions; because they are not independent, they usually take mendacious answers at face value — but only when it is our leaders who speak. In October, 2001, the Taliban contradicted themselves by claiming at one point that they did in fact know the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden. The media was quick to note the contradiction. CNN’s Michael Holmes declared that the Taliban’s recent statements “appear to contradict earlier stories” denying knowledge of his whereabouts. CNN journalists were eager to ask them to “reconcile” their new statements with their earlier ones. I tried to recall the last time these same journalists compared contradictions in statements from Washington. I failed. Given the reams of media discussion about US policy, with constant questioning of high US officials as to “where we are now,” it seems remarkable that we never hear talking heads (at least occasionally) asking a US official to reconcile a current statement with yesterday’s lies and evasions! Behind the rhetoric, the prevailing siege mentality continues to be exploited to jettison fundamental American values, and, in an election year, to ludicrously claim that only a Republican administration can protect the populace (see David E. Sanger and David M. Halbfinger, “Cheney Warns of Terror Risk if Kerry Wins,”  September 8, 2004).


However, wartime censorship especially reveals the extent to which Washington is more concerned to manipulate public opinion than to encourage open discussion. On October 10, 2001, the New York Times (NYT) reported that, following an admonitory telephone call from the National Security Advisor, Condoleeza Rice promptly received assurances from CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox that they would agree not to broadcast “transmissions from bin Laden’s al-Qaida group without first screening and possibly editing them” (AP, “Bush Adviser Calls Networks Over Message From Bin Laden,” NYT, October 10, 2001). In a craven response to Miss Rice, Fox News issued a ringing declaration: “We believe a free press must and can bear responsibility not to be used by those who want to destroy America and endanger the lives of its citizens.” Not only is war a continuation of politics by other means (Clausewitz), but war reporting is now an extension of public relations by other means. Those who suspect that the media operates to keep the domestic population passive and ignorant received new and stark evidence for this view during the prompt US “response” to the attacks — against Afghanistan. On September 26, while standing next to Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, President Bush stated (in a familiar pre-war locution) that the United States had no quarrel with the Afghan people (David Stout, “Bush Says Fight Is With Afghanistan, Not Afghan People,” NYT, September 25, 2001). “We have no issue and no anger towards the citizens of Afghanistan,” the president told his American audience, knowing that few Afghans have televisions sets, so would not be able to hear his reassuring words (and later call him a liar). With great power politics, the gap between words and deeds can become a yawning chasm. In an election year, citizens are especially obligated to analyze Presidential rhetoric: if George W. Bush’s fight was “not” with ordinary Afghans, this could mean either that 1) civilians were not killed, or that 2) Pentagon planners regarded them as “collateral damage.” Similarly, in 1991, during the first Gulf War, Bush the Elder stated: “The United States has no quarrel with the Iraqi people. Our quarrel is with Iraq‘s dictator, and with his aggression.” At this time, B-52 bombers and Tomahawk cruise missiles were wreaking devastation in two countries, leaving 200,000 dead, mostly innocent civilians and conscript soldiers.


In October of 2001, to win hearts and minds, George W. Bush committed $320 million in food aid to Afghan civilians. Before September 11th, however, the plight of Afghans was of no more concern to Washington than the plight of Palestinians, Kurds, and many others. When the Soviet invaders left Afghanistan, so did the United States, and the people of Afghanistan, having no further strategic value, were left to stew in their own juices. Given this history, we must agree that the United States government felt “no anger” towards Afghanistan — just supreme indifference, as usual.


In September of 2001, while watching the heart-rending scenes in New York City, the portraits of heroism and in-depth interviews of the victims of this crime against humanity, the contrasting picture between CNN coverage today and ten years ago struck me again. In 1991, with the “necessary work” in the Gulf completed, the city of New York was host to the official welcoming home of the troops from the Persian Gulf. The “Canyon of Heroes” was the site of a large ticker-tape parade, as the American people proudly showed their pride in military power, used (in this case) to slaughter 200,000 civilians and conscript soldiers. The 12,000 pounds of confetti dropped on the heroes symbolized the blunted moral sensibilities of those of us invited to join a jingoistic parade.


In Iraq in 1991, most of the two hundred thousand casualties were innocent women and children (and conscript soldiers). What was the reaction in the civilized West? This was not September of 2001, so we were cheering, proud of our military hardware, and happy that the media kept us so “well-informed” about the “pin-point accuracy” of their missiles, which we saw going through chimneys, over and over again. What was happening on the ground was none of our business. Since 2001, the major media encouraged us to memorize the names of all the victims of September 11th. The contrast couldn’t be starker. When we bomb “them,” it’s a video game, fun for the whole family; when “they” bomb us, it is proof of their barbarity: don’t they understand who the important people are? Why do we find it unreasonable to consider that such quasi-racist attitudes helped to generate the hatred and fear which ultimately leads to terrorist training camps in the first place?


In an interview at that time, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer merely nodded when he heard such remarks as “I’m not privy to all that information, and the leadership needs to keep some information secret.” However, the “secrets” that the American people want to learn are not strategic details: our democratic duty is to gain sufficient information to assess the actual policy of our government, as opposed to the self-righteous pablum Washington continues to serve up. Yet that probing journalist Blitzer heartily agreed, adding that “perhaps someday, we can read about it in the history books!” Good advice, but Blitzer failed to add that the history books will overwhelmingly contradict media depictions of recent wars. Of course, I could be wrong: it is possible that the history books will someday depict with a straight face US air power providing “food aid” to hungry Afghans, where the US military conducts operations to target only “bunkers” (not shelters), with “smart bombs” (not B-52s), operating in Iraq but not against the people of Iraq (having no quarrel with them — although 200,000 of them mysteriously and violently died in 1991).


On October 4th, 2001, the BBC reported that Washington began pressuring Qatar to “rein in” (read: censor) the independent television station Al Jazeera, whose TV journalism is free from state interference, which results in the airing of “anti-American views” (read: dissenting voices). The State Department also attempted to block the Voice of America radio station from airing an interview with a Taliban representative. That same year, with unintended irony, reflexively hawkish media commentators commonly described Al Jazeera as the “controversial” Arab TV network. (To TV journalists, the independent network is controversial because their bosses do not like it.)


Next, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer descended from rebuking talk show hosts (and telling a free people to “watch what they say”) to claiming that unedited broadcasts of clearly “anti-American” (read: anti-US government) “diatribes” are “a forum for prerecorded, pre-taped propaganda inciting people to kill Americans” (NYT, Nov. 10, 2001). The claim that unedited statements might contain “coded messages” was a nice touch: but the real target for Washington was to maintain a pro-US slant and avoid confusing Americans with inconvenient facts and alternative perspectives.


One month after all this, on November 13th, an AP dispatch revealed that the Kabul office of Al Jazeera was obliterated by a US missile. Fortunately, on this occasion, only equipment was destroyed. However, the wording of the report was revealing. It stated that “the missile’s target was unclear” — since it is beyond the realm of possibility that the Pentagon, which had denounced the independent station for producing “inflammatory propaganda,” could stoop so low as to add a few independent journalists to the expanding numbers of civilian casualties.


The picture we receive is uniform: we are reasonable, they are recalcitrant; we are the Civilized Nation, they are the (ignoble) savages. We love freedom; they hate freedom. When they bomb us, it is proof of their barbarity; when we bomb them, it is also proof of their barbarity, because our government wouldn’t do such a thing unless to protect civilization from the barbarians. Contemporary history is a palimpsest on which ideological inscriptions prevent any understanding by the majority, until a history book is written to set the record straight — and does so by correcting (at some distant future date) the self-serving bias of respectable and well-funded right-wing historians!


It is far more difficult to see bias at work in the humanistic coverage of the September 11 attacks, when the depiction of heroism of ordinary people comes naturally — because we have seen the enemy and he is “not us” (in the accepted right-wing formula). For reasons that have much to do with psychology, it is far easier to recognize media bias when it uncritically assists to sell the external violence of a phony war. For example, media coverage leading up to the invasion of Iraq is now a major scandal. A University of Maryland media study found that most viewers who heavily rely on the major TV networks believed at least one of three pre-war myths: that Weapons of Mass Destruction had been found in Iraq, that Saddam Hussein had been directly linked to 9/11, and that global opinion supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq for the sake of “regime change.” As of this writing, this debacle —engineered by a brutal cabal of Pentagon planners and far rightists — has led to the deaths of more than 1000 Americans, and at least ten thousand Iraqis: and the complicity of the major media in selling a war on false pretenses is now firmly established.


However, further reflection on the disgraceful media coverage after 9/11 is in order, especially after Americans witnessed the spectacle of George W. Bush explaining to the American people why they hate us. Bush’s speechwriters apparently told him to say that the motives of the Islamist terrorists did not extend beyond a hatred of “freedom.” (Underestimating the intelligence of the American people is a longstanding feature of Republican political rhetoric.) Yet numerous Americans have begun to question — with no assistance from the major media — the pretense that September 11th was nothing more than an (apolitical) mass murder operation.


To attempt to comprehend the minds and motives of terrorists is a rational desideratum, for the sake of self-preservation. Given the dismal reporting of the US corporate media, this requires reading between the lines. In October of 2001, instead of providing relevant context, CNN talking heads merely parroted Pentagonese: “The US is in no way at war with that country [Afghanistan], just the regime that dominates it” (Major Garrett). Talking heads are so distant from objectivity that they cannot perceive that the September Suicide Bombers might have said the same thing: “We are not at war with the American people — whom we terrorists regard as ‘collateral damage’ — we are merely at war with the regime in Washington that dominates it. This is why we attacked symbolic sites at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, not Universal Studios or Disneyland.”


Since the Iraq invasion, the impending US elections have compelled many Americans to reflect upon their responsibility to the planet, and given the extent of US power, to reflect on the apparent willingness of political elites to abuse this power for self-serving ends. On September 11th, ordinary Americans should have lost their innocence and naïveté, as well as their peace of mind: but not if Washington and its media lapdogs continue to have their way.


Richard Alan Leach is an English instructor and editor with the Pohang University of Science and Technology, in Pohang, South Korea. In addition to his academic writing, he has written for a variety of progressive publications, including Towards Freedom, Touchstone Magazine, and Peace Magazine, as well as numerous newspaper articles, book reviews, and editorials.

Leave a comment