September 19, 2001
By Terry Joseph
AS AMERICAN television taught us this past week, terrorists are mentally deranged cowards, bearded men with suicidal tendencies who, in fits of religious zeal, whimsically vaporise the bodies of thousands of innocent people at a throw and in spectacularly gruesome fashion.
That definition is not to be confused with other less covert activities like programming the minds of hundreds of millions, through non-stop repetition of expertly selected images and carefully chosen language.
Now, lest you misconstrue any of this: The bombing of the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon are acts of cold-blooded murder that, like other similar crimes of whatever origin, deserve widespread publicity and should not go unpunished.
But it did appear as if US television network executives took up a position in the game. Fearing a waning of global sympathy for crash victims and the star spangled banner during the period required to upgrade America's prime suspect to the status of definite culprit, prime time went full-time.
According to New York Times columnist Patricia Cohen, some children of impressionable age actually thought each replay of the bombing sequence was fresh news of other buildings being hit by planes.
Cohen also quoted Tad Fruits, director of photography at the Indianapolis Museum of Art as saying: "We're on news overload."
Good for him! Most viewers hadn't even been allowed the facility of distilling personal conclusions, network television having done it all and so effectively. Of course, there always is that point at which repetition turns to brainwashing, but when cleverly executed its subtleties often escape the victim's notice.
Network news no longer disturbed itself with prior investigation or subsequent analysis, but delivered only selected perspectives. The internationally acclaimed journalists at television's powerhouses felt no need to explain anything that didn't fit neatly into the big picture, as is their habit in other circumstances.
We did discover, though, that New York exempted the WTC towers from certain safety requirements enshrined in its building codes and that minutes before the second tower was hit, security officials halted an evacuation, telling employees it was safe to return to the upper floors.
US President George W Bush, meanwhile, whipped up a powerful western alliance, albeit against an enemy yet to be definitively identified, but wanted dead or alive all the same. To echo the perennial plea of capital punishment abolitionists: "What if it wasn't him?"
But perhaps we're past that stage now, although for a nation that didn't have a clue prior to the disaster, its conclusions about precisely who masterminded the tragedy were remarkably swift. And remember, America's military judgments since 1946 have been anything but irreproachable.
The explosion of nuclear devices on non-military targets in Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought closure to World War II, by leaving a grisly legacy of mutants and scorched earth. US foreign policy, its treatment of blacks right at home in the sixties, the My Lai Massacre and the training of Osama bin Laden into whatever they call him today, are just a few of the many things America must reconcile before its integrity regains the halo.
And while Big Brother seeks to close ranks by fashioning news, one backlash is already evident. People of Middle-Eastern descent are being hounded and persecuted in the land of the free, all because they (however remotely) resemble the bin Laden stereotype.
It is euphemistically called "collateral damage", a term we can expect to hear repeatedly in the coming days as the US prepares to bomb Afghanistan back to the Stone Age, notwithstanding the widely known fact that Afghanistan is already there.
Pakistan, now caught between its Afghan allies and pressure from the western alliance to co-operate, must have cringed yesterday when the US State Department ordered all Americans to leave that country, the very place to which Afghan refugees have been fleeing.
Poor Afghanistan, bereft of military targets (the Soviets fixed that) can only offer human beings already under the yoke of the Taliban to shield bombardment from the air. And to capture bin Laden using ground troops is going to mean the death of m any thousands of Americans and Afghans and still may not produce the result desired by the alliance.
What it would more than likely mean is a holy war of unprecedented proportions, since Pakistan will first have to allow itself to be used as the allies' launch pad and the Nation of Islam cannot be depended upon to cheer along any such incursion.
Such a war is obviously what bin Laden (or whoever) deliberately set out to provoke last week and if President Bush is not extremely careful, the wily terrorist will get it on a platter.