The Malevolence Of History

Robert Fisk, currently Middle East correspondent for the British daily the Independent, has covered wars the old-fashioned way for 30 years, from Northern Ireland to Afghanistan. He has lived in Beirut for 25 years, through the Lebanese civil war and the Israeli invasion in 1982. His book, Pity the Nation, is an account of the events of those years and his own experiences reporting them. He has interviewed Osama bin Laden three times and was the only Western journalist to witness the fall of Kandahar. On his return to Pakistan in December last year, he was nearly beaten to death by a mob of Afghan refugees enraged by “Amrika bombardikeh.” True to form, he wrote of the experience, “If I was an Afghan refugee in Kila Abdullah, I would have done just what they did.”

A 16-city North American speaking tour brings Fisk into Montreal to deliver the keynote address to the Canadian Association of Journalists’ National Writers Symposium on Nov. 16 and a free lecture at Concordia on Nov. 17. The Mirror contacted Fisk over the phone at his home in Beirut.

Mirror: There’s a line in Pity the Nation to the effect that, “You have to see the battle to report the battle.” Do you still think it’s possible to work that way? Do you still think it’s necessary?

Robert Fisk: Yes. The moment we say that we can’t report the battle, we’re finished. I think we have to go into the battle. I think it’s ever more dangerous for journalists, but at the same time, ever more necessary. The ability of the people controlling the battle on the winning side, which usually means the Americans, has reached such a zenith, that unless there are reporters to say, “Hold on a second, it’s not like this…”

M: “—and I saw it.”

RF: Yes. I believe it’s a journalist’s job to say, “This is what is happening. I tell you this. Don’t ever tell me you didn’t know.” I think our compatriots in the press are mouthpieces for governments. This year I interviewed Amira Haas—

M: Of [Israeli daily] Ha’aretz?

RF: Yes, of course. And I asked her for her definition of journalism and she gave me the best definition I’d ever had. She said, “Journalism is about monitoring the sources of power.” I used to think it was about, you know, telling the truth and being the first witness to history—which is true. But monitoring the sources of power is what we should be doing. The American press doesn’t do it. The Canadian press, unfortunately, largely doesn’t do it, the British press largely doesn’t do it. Monitoring the sources of power—what a wonderful definition.

M: There must be some tricks of the trade you’ve picked up over the years?

RF: You’ve got to know the difference between incoming and outgoing shellfire. You’ve got to work out from the sound of an incoming shell, bomb or rocket, how far away it is. One thing you learn very quickly is that the sound and the picture don’t synchronize the way they do in the movies, because in real life sound travels slower than pictures.

Standing up to armed men

M: I want to ask about self-censorship, and the common temptations to it. You’re getting information from some fairly dangerous people, you learn something they don’t really want published. Do you have a responsibility to face them down every time they object to something?

RF: If someone tells me something and attaches to it some kind of agreement, like, “You will not say the following,” I opt out. I’m not going to deal with them. I take a lot of risks with my life in the Middle East, indeed in December last year on the Afghan-Pakistan border, I almost got killed. I’m not going to do that, I’m not going to take a risk with my life, and then start playing patsy with a bunch of gunmen. No way.

M: It’s easy enough to maintain neutrality by slapping everyone down when they do the wrong thing. There’s no shortage of wrong things…

RF: No, no, no. You’re wrong. It’s much easier to maintain neutrality by saying that everyone has their right to their version of the truth, what actually happened, and everyone has to have their little say in the story, whether they’re lying or whether they’re telling the truth. That’s the problem.

M: By reporting the bad things that everyone does, you can maintain your evenhandedness that way. Does talking about the good things that one participant does compromise your neutrality?

RF: Not at all. From the point of view of my personal safety, which matters to me, I wish people would do things right more often. Because I want to live. Every morning, given the current situation, Russia, Chechnya, Bush, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, I wake up with a feeling of foreboding every morning. And I’m the guy who has to go to the wars.

It’s not Hollywood. War is real, war is primarily not about defeat or victory, it is about death. I’ve seen thousands and thousands of dead bodies. Do you think I want to have an academic debate on this subject?

The big unasked question

M: The subject of your Concordia talk is “Journalism and Sept. 11” and the failure to ask, “Why?” What did you expect to see in those first few days [after the attacks]? What would you have liked to see?

RF: On Sept. 11, I was flying to America and my plane turned ’round and went back to Europe. I called the office on the plane’s satellite phone and I said, “Okay, this has happened, but we have to ask the question why.” They said, “How long do you need to write it?” and I said, “I’ve written the first two sentences and the rest I will dictate from my head.” You can look up my story from Sept. 12, 2001 [http://www.independent.co.uk/story.jsp?story=93623]. Apart from the first two sentences, everything else was all written in an airline seat on a satellite phone over the Atlantic.

M: You expected to see other people asking and answering the question why?

RF: No, I expected nobody to ask why. The night of Sept. 11 I was back in Europe. I was doing radio shows. I kept saying, “Why, why, why?” and the other guy on the show, [Alan] Dershowitz, started calling me a dangerous man. He said to be anti-American is the same as to be anti-Semitic. I said, “This is outrageous. This is not true. We must ask the question why.” So when I come to give lectures, my intention is to try to open that debate.

The looming Afghan mess

M: There’s a dispatch you quote in Pity the Nation, filed seven days after the Israeli invasion [of Lebanon], in which you use the words “quagmire,” “humiliation” and “defeat.” Are you predicting the same thing for the American invasion of Afghanistan and the Pakistani Tribal Area?

RF: I was in Afghanistan in August in the desert around Kandahar. I went up to villages outside Kandahar which had been raided by American special forces. In one village, called Hajibirgit, an 86-year-old village leader had been killed. I found parts of his skull in the mosque. An eight-year-old girl, when stun grenades were thrown into the village, ran away and fell down a well and drowned. Many of the men in the village were taken away to Kandahar to be interrogated. They said they were interrogated naked. The body of the 86-year-old man was taken there too, the Americans wanted to identify who’d been killed. After a week, they were released and taken back to their village where they found that all their property had been looted by the neighbouring village, which apparently had told the Americans that all the people in that village were Al Qaeda. So another 1,000 Afghans would like to kill Americans, and you can see why.

Almost every night in Kandahar there are shooting incidents against the Americans, just as there were a short time after the arrival of Russian troops. I remember the first ambush of Russian troops in Afghanistan in 1980, it was exactly the same spot where seven Americans were killed in an ambush by Al Qaeda this year.

M: Shah-I-Kot?

RF: Yeah, Shah-I-Kot. I actually remember being invited to a Soviet Army press conference in Bagram, the same place which is now the American Air Force headquarters, by a Soviet general who said, “We have now beaten the terrorists. There are only remnants left.” I went to one of these American press conferences, and an American colonel said, “We have now basically beaten the terrorists. There are only remnants left.” And I sat there thinking, you know, “How old am I? Am I 20 years younger or am I my age?”

The long shadow of history

M: Anything else that I haven’t touched on that you think is important to say for this –

RF: Yes, that is the malevolent influence of history. We live under its dark shade and we cannot break free from it. No Palestinian can break free from 1948. No Israeli can really break free from 1933–45 in Europe. We search desperately for justice from history and history is a very, very cruel dispenser of justice. I don’t know what the answer is.

But I notice it and I feel it and I live with it. One of the problems, I think, is that we live through the old. We keep saying that if we want to have a new life we must re-educate the young, but I think we must re-educate the old so that the young can be free. :

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