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IUK: Fisk - Lost in the rhetorical fog of war
By Robert Fisk
9/10/2001 2:40 pm Tue
'The Taliban have kept reporters out; does that mean
we have to balance this distorted picture with our own
09 October 2001
So, goodbye democracy. The Americans want the emir to close
down the channel's office in Kabul, which is scooping the world
with tape of the US bombardments and - more to the point - with
televised statements by Osama bin Laden. The most wanted man in
the whole world has been suggesting that he's angry about the
deaths of Iraqi children under sanctions, about the corruption of
pro-western Arab regimes, about Israel's attacks on the
Palestinian territory, about the need for US forces to leave the
So, goodbye democracy. The Americans want the emir to close down the channel's office in Kabul, which is scooping the world with tape of the US bombardments and - more to the point - with televised statements by Osama bin Laden. The most wanted man in the whole world has been suggesting that he's angry about the deaths of Iraqi children under sanctions, about the corruption of pro-western Arab regimes, about Israel's attacks on the Palestinian territory, about the need for US forces to leave the Middle East.And after insisting that bin Laden is a "mindless terrorist'' - that there is no connection between US policy in the Middle East and the crimes against humanity in New York and Washington - the Americans need to close down Al-Jazeera's coverage.
Needless to say, this tomfoolery by Colin Powell has not been
given much coverage in the Western media, who know that they
do not have a single correspondent in the Taliban area of
Afghanistan. Al-Jazeera does.
But why are we journalists falling back on the same sheep-like
conformity that we adopted in the 1991 Gulf War and the 1999
Kosovo war? For here we go again. The BBC was yesterday
broadcasting an American officer talking about the dangers of
"collateral damage'' - without the slightest hint of the immorality of
this phrase. Tony Blair boasts of Britain's involvement in the US
bombardment by talking about our "assets'', and by yesterday
morning the BBC were using the same soldier-speak. Is there
some kind of rhetorical fog that envelops us every time we bomb
As usual, the first reports of the US missile attacks were covered
without the slightest suggestion that innocents were about to die in
the country we plan to "save''. Whether the Taliban are lying or
telling the truth about 30 dead in Kabul, do we reporters really
think that all our bombs fall on the guilty and not the innocent? Do
we think that all the food we are reported to be dropping is going to
fall around the innocent and not the Taliban? I am beginning to
wonder whether we have not convinced ourselves that wars - our
wars - are movies. The only Hollywood film ever made about
Afghanistan was a Rambo epic in which Sylvester Stallone taught
the Afghan mujahedin how to fight the Russian occupation, help to
defeat Soviet troops and won the admiration of an Afghan boy. Are
the Americans, I wonder, somehow trying to actualise the movie?
But look at the questions we're not asking. Back in 1991 we
dumped the cost of the Gulf War - billions of dollars of it - on
Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. But the Saudis and Kuwaitis are not
going to fund our bombing this time round. So who's going to pay?
When? How much will it cost us - and I mean us? The first night of
bombing cost, so we are told, at least $2m, I suspect much more.
Let us not ask how many Afghans that would have fed - but do
let's ask how much of our money is going towards the war and how
much towards humanitarian aid.
Bin Laden's propaganda is pretty basic. He films his own
statements and sends one of his henchmen off to the Al-Jazeera
office in Kabul. No vigorous questioning of course, just a sermon.
So far we've not seen any video clips of destroyed Taliban
equipment, the ancient Migs and even older Warsaw Pact tanks
that have been rusting across Afghanistan for years. Only a
sequence of pictures - apparently real - of bomb damage in a
civilian area of Kabul. The Taliban have kept reporters out. But
does that mean we have to balance this distorted picture with our
So hard did a colleague of mine try, in a radio interview the other
day, to unlink the bin Laden phenomenon from the West's baleful
history in the Middle East that he seriously suggested that the
attacks were timed to fall on the anniversary of the defeat of
Muslim forces at the gates of Vienna in 1683. Unfortunately, the
Poles won their battle against the Turks on 12, not 11, September.
But when the terrifying details of the hijacker Mohamed Atta's will
were published last week, dated April 1996, no one could think of
any event that month that might have propelled Atta to his
Not the Israeli bombardment of southern Lebanon, nor the Qana
massacre by Israeli artillery of 106 Lebanese civilians in a UN
base, more than half of them children. For that's what happened in
April, 1996. No, of course that slaughter is not excuse for the
crimes against humanity in the United States last month. But isn't it
worth just a little mention, just a tiny observation, that an Egyptian
mass-murderer-to-be wrote a will of chilling suicidal finality in the
month when the massacre in Lebanon enraged Arabs across the
Instead of that, we're getting Second World War commentaries
about western military morale. On the BBC we had to listen to how
it was "a perfect moonless night for the air armada'' to bomb
Afghanistan. Pardon me? Are the Germans back at Cap Gris Nez?
Are our fighter squadrons back in the skies of Kent, fighting off the
Dorniers and Heinkels? Yesterday, we were told on one satellite
channel of the "air combat'' over Afghanistan. A lie, of course. The
Taliban had none of their ageing Migs aloft. There was no combat.
Of course, I know the moral question. After the atrocities in New
York, we can't "play fair" between the ruthless bin Laden and the
West; we can't make an equivalence between the mass-murderer's
innocence and the American and British forces who are trying to
destroy the Taliban.
But that's not the point. It's our viewers and readers we've got to
"play fair" with. Must we, because of our rage at the massacre of
the innocents in America, because of our desire to cowtow to the
elderly "terrorism experts", must we lose all our critical faculties?
Why at least not tell us how these "terrorism experts" came to be
so expert? And what are their connections with dubious
In some cases, in America, the men giving us their advice on
screen are the very same operatives who steered the CIA and the
FBI into the greatest intelligence failure in modern history: the
inability to uncover the plot, four years in the making, to destroy
the lives of almost 6,000 people. President Bush says this is a war
between good and evil. You are either with us or against us. But
that's exactly what bin Laden says. Isn't it worth pointing this out
and asking where it leads?