Today, We Weep
A most horrendous attack on America and Americans was made today, an attack that itself cut deep into the heart of democracy and freedom in ways we will only fully understand in times to come. Today the world has changed, all changed utterly. In the immediate aftermath of the terrible devastation we watched live on TV all over the world, we could only register shock and horror. In the long-term aftermath it is imperative we understand why, and where we are to go from here.
There is an understandable call for vengeance. The American form will come swiftly and will come hard. This battle will be a battle fought on many fronts, and of course, it will be an ideological battle that fights for freedom. Whatever one thinks of American foreign policy, whatever legitimate grievances, criticisms, protests, and objections, not one of the tens of thousands brutally murdered today deserved to die. We must ask ourselves hard questions about how we dissent from power; how we protest against what we perceive to be wrong. If we are fighting for life, for human rights, for justice, for freedom, for democracy, is violence, terrorism, armed struggle against ordinary people how we achieve it? Make no mistake: today's events in America were not an act of political dissent, but an act of murderous political oppression. It was an attack on ordinary men, women and children, black and white, Christian and Muslim, Arab and Jew. We should not be fooled by any notion that this was an attack on the American political system. It was a genocidial act perpetrated against innocent American humanity.
This past week we have seen blast bombs thrown at young children in an attempt to highlight grievances felt in the loyalist community. Rightly such actions were condemned. Those who used a jumbo jet to decimate the World Trade Towers cannot be far from the murderous fundamentalists who howled their rage at four year olds. Nor are they far removed from those who brought us the horror of Omagh, Bloody Sunday, Enniskillen and other terrible days. This action against America we must also condemn. Murderous fundamentalism or state sponsored terrorism can have no place in the new world into which we begin to step. Today, we weep.
The Turbanization of Terrorists
This morning the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked by hijacked airplanes. In a taped statement released by White House officials, President George W. Bush said that the United States was attacked by a "faceless coward." However, the U.S. press proceeded to provide the public with the perpetratorıs face, a face that was, not surprisingly, nonwhite and foreign. Soon enough, an even crisper visage for this "faceless coward" emerged: the face of Osama bin Laden.
In the immediate aftermath of this string of violent incidents, the mass media ran the gamut of forseeable reportage; experts and witnesses alike were asked to speculate on what exactly happened. How many people were killed? What were the authorities doing to deal with the resultant wreckage? Where was President Bush? Was he safe? Did Secretary of State Colin Powell seem "shaken"? Predictably, the mass media also scrambled to play the blame game. An unsurprising, albeit reckless, pattern of US news coverage emerged. With the ease of habit, the U.S. press turbanized the terrorists. At times this was done subtly, while at other times blatantly, but the implication was clear: this terrorist attack was the result of foreign plotters. More specifically, every major television station not-so-tentatively floated the name Osama bin Laden as the mastermind, as, it was argued, only he has the resources to pull off such a well-coordinated, complex attack. Despite the wholly unsubstantiated nature of these claims, this media frame became commonplace, revealing a neo-xenophobic tendency that is firmly embedded in mass media coverage of terrorism.
On major-network television, speculative finger-pointing emerged with fanatical force. The possibility that the attacks might have been plotted by a domestic group was virtually non-existent. After casually thinking aloud on NBC that the terrorists might be from Iran, Iraq, or Libya, Senator Orrin Hatch (R/UT) exclaimed zealously, "We're going to have to go after those bastards." On CNN, John McCain (R/AZ) said that this "is clearly an act of war." Oliver North went so far as to say that Congress should declare war (subtly assuming that the act was perpetrated by a foreign entity and not a domestic group). Alexander Haig shared this assumption when, on Fox News, he said, "We should declare war on terrorism." Haig proceeded to refer to Saddam Hussein, criticizing the United States government for allowing him to live beyond the Gulf War. Military man Ken Allard unequivocally blamed Osama bin Laden for the attacks, while NBC simultaneously flashed a photograph of the turban-clad bête noir on the TV screen. Even the supposedly neutral anchorman Tom Brokaw opted to thump the drum of jingoism, describing Palestinians who were celebrating in the streets saying "God is good."
We heard Brokaw and various other reporters ask leading questions to get interviewees to speak of solutions in terms of how we might prevent the recurrence of a terrorist act. The responses called for heightened security, bigger defense budgets, and immediate retribution. In this line of thinking, prevention comes in the currency of force. These tactics quickly ossify into assumptionsnaturally we need more force. Suddenly fascism's fingerprints slowly begin to raise. Civil liberties are cast aside (temporarily, of course, officials assure us) in order to increase surveillance of allegedly dissident groups, both domestic and international. Yet, experience tells us that ingenuity can skirt constraints. As more obstacles are put forth, those who wish to overcome those obstacles will learn to find the gaps, which might even occur where the apparent strengths are. The operators of a very powerful defense system, for instance, might learn to defend the United States against the most sophisticated missiles. Yet weapons can be created from items that pose, in their dayjobs, as conveniences, as we saw today. The weapons were not bombs dropped from fighter jets, but rather were the planes themselves. The terrorists did not even need to obtain expensive weaponry. Instead, they transmogrified the seemingly banal into powerful weaponry. The situation was that of a parasite who finds a host.
So where does that lead us? Not to easy solutions that Oliver North can spit out in a Fox-News soundbite (a soundbite which included him mentioning with a smug half- chuckle that his cabdriver today was Afghani-- a reference, it seems, to North's assumption that the terrorists are Afghani-- and that he paid that driver "very well"--a reference, it seems, to buying his safety, since the man's nationality made him an enemy).
A major assumption propagated by the mass media was that the attacks were part of a well-funded plot hatched by a large terrorist organization with international connections. Military and civilian officials alike -- from Ken Allard to Orrin Hatch -- echoed this sentiment in interview after interview; soon enough it coagulated into a public fact. This emergent public fact conveniently pointed the accusatory finger of expert opinion at Osama bin Laden. But are these assertions -- that the attacks were expensive endeavors funded by elaborate terrorist networks -- necessarily correct? Couldn't a group of four guys (or girls for that matter), from Kansas (or Oklahoma) have scraped together the requisite airfare and weaponry for four simultaneous hijackings? Airline flight schedules are public documents. Weapons used to coerce the pilots and crew members -- guns, knives, dirty syringes, lethal pharmaceuticals or whatever -- can be purchased in any major city. This rather facile scenario is as unsubstantiated as the other claims that were being floated on the major television networks, but of course, neither this possibility nor its myriad derivatives were ever seriously considered on the air.
This mode of mass-media inquiry is not only irresponsible, itıs dangerous. In the proto-fascist environment that xenophobic finger-pointing is likely to engender, civil liberties are swiftly sacrificed on the altar of national security, voices of dissent readily sacrificed on the altar of national unity. The mass media have a responsibility to ask important questions, even if they cause official sources discomfort. Why, for example, might a group of people -- foreign or domestic -- want to carry out such an attack? The mass media also have a responsibility to embrace the world in all its complexity, refusing to accept simple explanations. If they don't, the unquestioned public facts will become political grist for a host of egregiously bellicose maneuvers, including bloated military budgets, uncritical national missile defense plan approval, and even military attacks on countries harboring people who have been labeled terrorists. The attacks on New York and Washington, DC, were horrendous acts that have sent and will continue to send ripples of agony throughout US American society. But that does not mean that the mass media have a carte blanche to act irresponsibly. In these times of pain and peril, we must demand that news outlets act with both prudence and deliberation. In the meantime, if the mass media won't question their assumptions, we must.