The terrorists I party with
Another round for my friends
Part 3 It was a "fuel-air bomb" that would create "a superhot fireball". Anyone care to guess what I'm referring to here? A diabolical new weapon from some DoD skunkworks, perhaps? A metaphorical description of the space shuttle Challenger exploding, maybe?
Actually, that was how ABC News's The Blotter with Brian Ross described the comically dysfunctional car bomb found in London a few weeks ago. That's right, the device that was not a bomb in any sense. The device that could not have detonated even under absolutely ideal conditions, as The Register explained at the time.
In another article, Ross & Co called the device "a most lethal anti-personnel bomb", while BBC News ran a headline reading, "Police avert car bomb 'carnage'". This was based on a comment by counterterrorism official Peter Clarke, who said, and carefully, that if the device had been activated, "there could have been serious injury or loss of life". (our emphasis)
And Clarke is right: had the triggering mechanism worked, anyone standing beside the car at the moment of ignition could have suffered serious injury or loss of life. But that wasn't good enough for the BBC, which went for "carnage averted" instead.
And what about al Qaeda? Surely those devils must have been involved. The earliest reports strained to say it, but could only say that a suspect caught on CCTV looked to be of Middle East descent, and might have resembled someone believed to be a terrorist. But within a day or two, they all gave in to temptation, pretty much at once.
ABC's Ross & Co claimed in one follow-up item that the attack scheme "bears al Qaeda's trademarks" (of course, one of al Qaeda's more important trademarks is that their bombs are in fact, well, bombs.)
The Guardian reported that police were hunting for "a suspected al Qaeda-inspired terrorist cell after the discovery of two 'Iraqi style' car bombs, which UK officials said were designed to cause mass murder".
Every paper I read at the time went out of its way to work the phrase "al Qaeda" into the story, even though there was not one shred of evidence of its involvement.
Why did this happen? Because someone made the mistake of saying to a reporter that the London devices looked like ones used by al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), a different outfit from Osama bin Laden's original terrorist franchise based in Pakistan. The British and American press declined to note the distinction between the two groups, because "al Qaeda terrorists" is so much sexier than an accurate discussion of who's who in the world of international terrorism.
This al Qaeda nonsense was a deliberate distortion based on someone's observation that the devices looked like AQI bombs (although they certainly didn't function like them). And that was the tiny opening that the press had been begging for. The first step in mis-reporting was to "forget" that there was merely a superficial similarity between the dysfunctional London devices and a type of actual bomb used in Iraq.
The second step was to "forget" that al Qaeda and Al Qaeda in Iraq are separate outfits. Of course, it was inevitable that some paper would succumb to the ultimate temptation, and the Evening Standard claimed the honour by labelling the crew, "the al Qaeda car bombers" (believe me, if the fools behind the London car "bombs" and the Glasgow airport immolation are members of al Qaeda, then the war on terror has been won hands down, and the Bush Administration is modest to a fault for not taking the credit they deserve).
Journalists work off each other's stories. It's no secret; we all do it. There is not one journo alive who hasn't taken a morsel from someone else's story, accepted it as fact, filed it in his head, then coughed it up in his own work at some time.
Usually we get away with it because most of us are at least fairly diligent at checking facts before we publish them. But not always - which means that we copy each other's mistakes and fabrications too, and spread them. Sometimes, the result is merely laughable, like the established "fact" that 150,000 women in the USA die of anorexia nervosa every year, finally exposed as a fabrication by author Christina Hoff Sommers. That one had a great run: it started as a blurb by some ignorant or unscrupulous journo but soon rose to the status of conventional wisdom repeated in scores of news articles, and even women's health literature.
Sometimes, the consequences are serious and far reaching. It's one thing if misinformation causes us to overreact to anorexia: we look foolish and waste money and overdiagnose it. But when we are encouraged to overreact to terrorism, the consequences can include invading an impotent Middle East dictatorship and destroying it completely, acquiescing to government demands for powers not granted by a national constitution, and allowing politicians and bureaucrats to manipulate us with fear.
How did the Bush Administration get away with leading the US and its allies into the most self-defeating "war on terror" that could possibly be waged? How did it get away with invading Iraq on false pretences? How did it get away with assuming powers not granted by the US Constitution? How does it continue to get away with fighting a meaningless war in Iraq while the real al Qaeda smirks with satisfaction from the Pakistani villages where it operates? How does Bush get away with saying that the US is in Iraq fighting al Qaeda, when it is doing no such thing?
In a recent column criticising the Administration, Paul Krugman proposed that Bush is insulated from responsibility and even knowledge of his manifold tragic blunders and crimes by Washington loyalists, who Krugman calls the president's "enablers".
I say rubbish. The press has been the worst culprit in "enabling" the erosion of sane US domestic and foreign policy in the wake of 9/11. From that day, the entire American print and TV news corps resigned en masse, and took new assignments as dealers in unfiltered government propaganda.
The Bush Administration said that Saddam Hussein was acquiring nuclear weapons, and the media repeated it without bothering to wonder if it was true. The Bushies said Saddam had vast stockpiles of chemical and biological "weapons of mass destruction". No mainstream reporter questioned it: they'd all read New York Times hack Judith Miller's fantastic account of Saddam's secret chem/bio programmes. Every word of it was fiction - thousands of words in fact, article after article - fed to her by Ahmed Chalabi and his cronies, presumably at Dick Cheney's urging. Miller sucked it up like nectar, and everyone else in the press simply assumed that she'd verified the information.
Yes, the Bushies asked for the war, and yes, Congress authorised it, but the mainstream news industry enabled it. They literally sold it. The Iraq war could not have been undertaken if the American press had the spine to do their jobs, and had tried to verify what the Administration was claiming. The press would soon have discovered that the White House's story could not be verified. If American reporters had simply done what they're paid to do, the front page headlines of America's newspapers would have read: "No Credible Evidence of Bush WMD Claims", instead of "Shock and Awe".
The USA is stuck in Iraq, mired in a hopeless struggle against armed, violent people who were not their enemies four years ago, and it's all because the American press did not have the courage to research the Administration's claims. They did not seek because they did not want to find. They didn't want to learn the truth, because they knew that they wouldn't have the courage to speak the truth if ever emerged, inconveniently, before their eyes. If they had encountered the truth, they would have had to experience their own cowardice for not telling it. So they simply didn't ask.
They said they felt an obligation to encourage the American people to come together as they grieved for the atrocities of 9/11. They said this is why they did not look for, or report, the more unpleasant facts of life after a terrorist attack. They would support the government and redistribute its lies, because they did not want to make it more difficult for Americans to feel good about themselves, and their country, and their bumpkin president so tragically out of his depth.
I say rubbish. This is no different from the reason why journalists in repressive dictatorships keep silent; in the end, it boils down to two words: "I'm afraid". Certainly, when the threat is a bullet in the back of the head, being afraid is no disgrace. But when the threat is merely being called unpatriotic, or insensitive, the disgrace is, or should be, worse than any self-respecting adult would ever invite.
My terrorist buddies
So we have just seen two examples, one each of the two modes whereby the press enabled George W Bush to make such an enormous mess of things and get away with it. First, by sensationalising dangers and exaggerating threats, thereby frightening people and encouraging them to acquiesce to outrageous government intrusions and burdens on human rights and civil liberties without question. And second, by neglecting to check the statements of government officials for accuracy before passing them along for public consumption.
Before 9/11, there were occasions when I would be ashamed to say that I'm a journalist. At that time I covered Infosec primarily, and would occasionally wince with embarrassment when some dupe journo would inevitably believe that "hackers" posed a threat to life and limb. The press is always sowing fear to sell papers.
Since 9/11, I've needed to keep a supply of sick bags handy at all times. The fear mongering related to Islamic terrorists has now reached the level of terrorism itself. Wild exaggeration is the norm: every incident is a potential catastrophe; every wannabe clown is a battle-hardened jihadi; al Qaeda is everywhere and stronger than ever; Osama is ready to pounce at any moment.
What do we call people who sow fear, hoping to intimidate the public with threats of violence to advance their own interests? What's the word I'm looking for?
Yes, that's right; we call them terrorists. The Bush Administration certainly qualifies as a terrorist organisation: it has played the fear card for political advantage so many times, it's virtually impossible to cite an instance when they didn't exaggerate the threats facing Americans today.
But what about organisations with an economic rather than a political motive? News organisations want to sell papers and attract viewers - and fear sells. If public anxiety is encouraged through deliberate distortions and exaggerations, as the mainstream media have been doing shamelessly since 9/11, is that not pushing the envelope?
When the UK media inflates the nitwits behind the recent car "bomb" fiasco into al-Qaeda operatives, and this in turn gives Gordon Brown the confidence he needs to call for the detention-without-charge limit to be increased to 56 days, have we not just been manipulated by fear in the political realm? And is that not pretty much the standard definition of terrorism?
I'll confess it; I go down the pub and drink with colleagues in the press. So, yeah, I party with terrorists a few times a week, and I breakfast with bin Laden almost every day. It's a wonder I'm not in a cell down at Gitmo. ®