Are we losing it? Have the recent acts of terrorism caused us to cut our moorings in a flood of outrage and frustration?
I have been asked to respond to recent Nation articles by Christopher Hitchens (website, September 24; magazine, Oct.
With the news media playing such a pivotal--and questionable--role during the current crisis, we have asked Michael Massing, a contributing editor at the Columbia Journalism Review, to comment on the coverage in the coming weeks.
A few minutes into ABC's World News Tonight on September 21--the night after George W. Bush's speech to Congress--Peter Jennings somberly noted that it was "time for all Americans to begin learning more about Afghanistan." I immediately perked up. Since the calamitous events of September 11, the networks had focused heavily on the human and physical toll of the attacks and on the nation's fitful efforts to come to terms with them. And they performed admirably in those initial days, consoling and comforting the public even as they were informing it. But as the days passed, and as the government prepared to strike at Osama bin Laden and his Afghan hosts, the need for some sharp political analysis became urgent, and here, on cue, was Jennings, promising a mini-tutorial.
Leaning forward, I looked expectantly at my TV screen--only to find it filled with the pale, bespectacled face of Tony Cordesman. Cordesman, of course, was a ubiquitous talking head during the Gulf War, and now he was back, holding forth in the same nasal monotone. He dutifully recited some basic facts about Afghanistan--the small size of the Taliban army, the limited number of tanks and aircraft at its disposal, the scarcity of bombing targets on the ground. "The job is extraordinarily difficult if not impossible if you set deadlines and demand instant success," Cordesman burbled. Then he was gone, and the program was back to its ongoing coverage of victims, heroes and terrorists. We learned nothing about the level of support for the Taliban, about the strength of the opposition, about America's long history of involvement in the region.
The segment was typical. As the nation prepares to go to war, the coverage on TV--the primary source of news for most Americans--has been appallingly superficial. Constantly clicking my remote in search of insight, I was stunned at the narrowness of the views offered, at the Soviet-style reliance on official and semiofficial sources. On Meet the Press, for instance, Tim Russert's guests were Colin Powell and (as he proudly announced) the "four leaders of the United States Congress"--Dennis Hastert, Richard Gephardt, Trent Lott and Tom Daschle. "How did the events of September 11 change you?" the normally feisty Russert tremulously asked each. Seeking wisdom on the question of Why They Hate Us, Barbara Walters turned to former Bush communications director, now senior White House counselor, Karen Hughes. "They hate the fact that we elect our leaders," Hughes vacuously replied. On NBC, Brian Williams leaned heavily on failed-drug-czar-turned-TV-consultant Barry McCaffrey ("Americans are natural fighters," McCaffrey fatuously informed us), while on The Capital Gang Mark Shields asked former Middle East diplomat Edward Walker, "Can the antiterrorism coalition really count this time on Saudi Arabia?"
To a degree, such deference reflects TV's customary rallying around the flag in times of national crisis. Such a stance is understandable; in light of the enormity of the attack, even atheists are singing "God Bless America." But the jingoistic displays on TV over the past two weeks--the repeated references to "we" and "us," the ostentatious sprouting of lapel flags, Dan Rather's startling declaration that "George Bush is the President, he makes the decisions and, you know, as just one American, he wants me to line up, just tell me where"--have violated every canon of good journalism. They have also snuffed out any whiff of debate and dissent; the discussion taking place within the Bush Administration is no doubt more vigorous than that presented on TV.
But there's more than simple patriotism at work here. The thinness of the coverage and the shallowness of the analysis seem a direct outgrowth of the networks' steady disengagement from the world in recent years. Since the end of the cold war, overseas bureaus have been closed, foreign correspondents recalled and the time allocated to international news sharply pared. Having thus plucked out their eyes, the networks--suddenly faced with a global crisis--are lunging about in the dark, trying desperately to find their footing.
No outlet has seemed more blinkered than CNN. The network that once emulated the BBC has instead become another MSNBC, and while it can still count on Christiane Amanpour to parachute into the world's hot zones, and on the game efforts of such on-the-ground assets as Nic Robertson in Kabul, the network has seemed thoroughly flummoxed by the complex political forces set in motion by the events of September 11. Consider, for instance, that famous brief clip showing a clutch of Palestinians celebrating the attack on the World Trade Center. Within days, word began circulating on the Internet that the footage had actually been shot during the Gulf War. The furor became so great that CNN eventually had to issue a statement describing where it got the tape (from a Reuters cameraman in East Jerusalem who insisted that he had not encouraged the celebration, as some claimed).
The real scandal, though, is that CNN repeatedly showed the clip without commentary, without attempting to place it in the broader context of reactions from the Islamic world. What were people in Gaza and the West Bank actually saying? Where were the interviews with clerics in Cairo, editorial writers in Amman, shopkeepers in Jakarta and schoolteachers in Kuala Lumpur? It was certainly not hard to obtain such views--witness Ian Fisher's sparkling dispatch from Gaza in the New York Times ("In the Gaza Strip, Anger at the U.S. Still Smolders") and Peter Waldman and Hugh Pope's excellent front-page roundup in the Wall Street Journal: "Some Muslims Fear War on Terrorism Is Really a War on Them; West Undercuts Islam, They Say, by Backing Israel, Autocratic Mideast Rule."
Not all was bland on CNN. Jeff Greenfield, for one, made some genuine efforts to probe the Islamic world's complex love-hate relationship with the United States. On September 20, for instance, he had a spirited discussion with Afghanistan hands Barnett Rubin of New York University and Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland, along with Farid Esack, a Muslim scholar at Auburn Theological Seminary. Far more representative,though, was "What Do We Know About Islam?" an exceedingly brief Sunday segment in which a Christian minister and a Muslim cleric offered very vague observations about relations between Christianity and Islam. It was followed by an interview with a Muslim-American who assured us that "Islam means peace." Shot in Boston and New York, the segment drove home how CNN has lost that precious journalistic ability to work the streets of the world and discover what's really taking place there. Given CNN's critical part in keeping the world informed, one can only hope that it will soon regain its bearings.
The Bush Administration is blocking efforts to rein in offshore banking.
Citigroup proclaims that its "private bankers act as financial architects,
designing and coordinating insightful solutions for individual client needs,
with an emphasis on personalized, confidential service." That is so colorless.
It might better boast, "We set up shell companies, secret trusts and bank
accounts, and we dispatch anonymous wire transfers so you can launder drug
money, hide stolen assets, embezzle, defraud, cheat on your taxes, avoid court
judgments, pay and receive bribes, and loot your country." It could solicit
testimonials from former clients, including sons of late Nigerian dictator Sani
Abacha; Asif Ali Zardari, husband of Benazir Bhutto, former prime minister of
Pakistan; El Hadj Omar Bongo, the corrupt president of Gabon; deposed
Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner; and Raul Salinas, jailed brother of the
ex-president of Mexico. All stole and laundered millions using Citibank
(Citigroup's previous incarnation) private accounts.
One lesser-known client, Carlos Hank Rhon of Mexico, has been the object of
a suit by the Federal Reserve to ban him from the US banking business. Hank
belongs to a powerful Mexican clan whose holdings include banks, investment
firms, transportation companies and real estate. Hank bought an interest in
Laredo National Bank in Texas in 1990. Six years later, when he wanted to merge
Laredo with Brownsville's Mercantile Bank, the Fed found that Citibank had
helped him use offshore shell companies in the British Virgin Islands to gain
control of his bank by hiding secret partners and engaging in self-dealing, in
violation of US law. One of the offshore companies was managed by shell
companies that were subsidiaries of Cititrust, owned by Citibank.
The Fed says that in 1993, Hank's father, Carlos Hank González, met
with his Citibank private banker, Amy Elliott, and said he wanted to buy a $20
million share of the bank with payment from Citibank accounts of his offshore
companies, done in a way that hid his involvement. Citibank granted him $20
million in loans and sent the money to his son Hank Rhon's personal account at
Citibank New York and to an investment account in Citibank London in the name
of another offshore company.
Citigroup spokesman Richard Howe said, "We always cooperate fully with
authorities in investigations, but we do not discuss the details of any
At press time, there were reports that Hank had negotiated a settlement
with the Fed, which the parties declined to confirm.
Nothing tests our commitment to principle like terrorism. Before September 11, America banned assassinations of foreign leaders; now the Administration is considering abandoning that prohibition. Before September 11, more than 80 percent of the American public felt that racial or ethnic profiling was wrong; today, that consensus is rapidly eroding, as FBI agents detain dozens of suspects solely because of their Arab or Muslim identity and associations. Ten years ago, Congress repealed McCarran-Walter Act provisions making mere membership in various political organizations a deportable offense. Now the Administration seeks authority to detain and deport aliens accused of virtually any tie to a terrorist group--defined expansively to include any group that has or might use weapons.
The September 11 terrorist attack undoubtedly warrants a comprehensive review of our intelligence and law enforcement capabilities. But what is needed is better-coordinated intelligence and more targeted law enforcement, not broad-brush legislation that simply throws more power at government agencies that have already shown a proclivity to abuse the power they have.
This country has a long tradition of responding to fear by stifling dissent, punishing association, launching widespread political spying and seeking shortcuts around the Constitution. Few Americans opposed the imprisonment of antiwar dissenters during World War I, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II or the anti-Communist laws of the McCarthy era. We now acknowledge that those initiatives were wrong, but have we learned from our mistakes?
To some extent we have. No one has yet proposed making membership in a Muslim organization a crime, detaining all Americans of Arab descent or Muslim faith, or criminalizing dissent. But in 1996, after the Oklahoma City bombing, we resurrected guilt by association, criminalizing any material support to any foreign group deemed terrorist by the Secretary of State, even if that support consisted of sending human rights pamphlets to an organization fighting a civil war. And now the INS seeks unprecedented authority to lock up and deport as a "terrorist" any alien remotely associated with a any group that has ever used force--even if the alien himself has no connection to violent acts.
And all indications are that the FBI continues to operate as if guilt by association is the rule. While the September 11 terrorists were training for and coordinating their conspiracy in Florida, the FBI was spending vast resources investigating Mazen Al Najjar, a Palestinian professor from Tampa who spent three and a half years in detention on secret evidence and charges of political association. Al Najjar was released last December when an immigration judge found no evidence that he posed a threat to national security. And while the terrorists were conspiring in New Jersey, the FBI focused its efforts on Hany Kiareldeen, a Palestinian in Newark detained for a year and a half on secret evidence for associating with terrorists. He was freed after immigration judges flatly rejected the government's charges as unfounded; the FBI's principal source was apparently Kiareldeen's ex-wife, with whom he was in a bitter custody dispute and who had filed several false reports about him.
The government already has adequate powers to combat terrorism. It has authority to wiretap any person suspected of working for a foreign government or organization, without any criminal predicate whatsoever. It can prosecute and freeze the assets of those who provide aid to terrorist organizations. It can bar entry to members of terrorist organizations, and it can detain and deport any alien who has engaged in or supported a terrorist act.
When, in less turbulent times, a bipartisan National Commission on Terrorism appointed by Congress recommended steps to improve our response to terrorism, it advocated none of the measures now advanced by Attorney General Ashcroft. Its advice was to streamline and coordinate existing authority, but that entails hard work and substantial turf battles; it's far easier, but far less effective, to give the FBI still more power to spy on the American people.
The drumbeat now begins, as it always does in time of war: We must accept limitations on our liberties. The FBI and CIA should be "unleashed" in the name of national security. Patriotism means uncritical support of whatever actions the President deems appropriate. Arab-Americans, followers of Islam, people with Middle Eastern names or ancestors, should be subject to special scrutiny by the government and their fellow citizens. With liberal members of Congress silent and the Administration promising a war on terrorism lasting "years, not days," such sentiments are likely to be with us for some time to come.
Of the many lessons of American history, this is among the most basic. Our civil rights and civil liberties--freedom of expression, the right to criticize the government, equality before the law, restraints on the exercise of police powers--are not gifts from the state that can be rescinded when it desires. They are the inheritance of a long history of struggles: by abolitionists for the ability to hold meetings and publish their views in the face of mob violence; by labor leaders for the power to organize unions, picket and distribute literature without fear of arrest; by feminists for the right to disseminate birth-control information without being charged with violating the obscenity laws; and by all those who braved jail and worse to challenge entrenched systems of racial inequality.
The history of freedom in this country is not, as is often thought, the logical working out of ideas immanent in our founding documents or a straight-line trajectory of continual progress. It is a story of countless disagreements and battles in which victories sometimes prove temporary and retrogression often follows progress.
When critics of the original Constitution complained about the absence of a Bill of Rights, the Constitution's "father," James Madison, replied that no list of liberties could ever anticipate the ways government might act in the future. "Parchment barriers" to the abuse of authority, he wrote, would be least effective when most needed. Thankfully, the Bill of Rights was eventually adopted. But Madison's observation was amply borne out at moments of popular hysteria when freedom of expression was trampled in the name of patriotism and national unity.
Americans have notoriously short historical memories. But it is worth recalling some of those moments to understand how liberty has been endangered in the past. During the "quasi war" with France in 1798, the Alien and Sedition Acts allowed deportation of immigrants deemed dangerous by federal authorities and made it illegal to criticize the federal government. During the Civil War, both sides jailed critics and suppressed opposition newspapers.
In World War I German-Americans, socialists, labor leaders and critics of US involvement were subjected to severe government repression and assault by private vigilante groups. Publications critical of the war were banned from the mails, individuals were jailed for antiwar statements and in the Red Scare that followed the war thousands of radicals were arrested and numerous aliens deported. During World War II, tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans, most of them US citizens, were removed to internment camps. Sanctioned by the Supreme Court, this was the greatest violation of Americans' civil liberties, apart from slavery, in our history.
No one objects to more stringent security at airports. But current restrictions on the FBI and CIA limiting surveillance, wiretapping, infiltration of political groups at home and assassinations abroad do not arise from an irrational desire for liberty at the expense of security. They are the response to real abuses of authority, which should not be forgotten in the zeal to sweep them aside as "handcuffs" on law enforcement.
Before unleashing these agencies, let us recall the FBI's persistent harassment of individuals like Martin Luther King Jr. and its efforts to disrupt the civil rights and antiwar movements, and the CIA's history of cooperation with some of the world's most egregious violators of human rights. The principle that no group of Americans should be stigmatized as disloyal or criminal because of race or national origin is too recent and too fragile an achievement to be abandoned now.
Every war in American history, from the Revolution to the Gulf War, with the exception of World War II, inspired vigorous internal dissent. Self-imposed silence is as debilitating to a democracy as censorship. If questioning an ill-defined, open-ended "war on terrorism" is to be deemed unpatriotic, the same label will have to be applied to Abraham Lincoln at the time of the Mexican War, Jane Addams and Eugene V. Debs during World War I, and Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening, who had the courage and foresight to vote against the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964.
All of us today share a feeling of grief and outrage over the events of September 11 and a desire that those responsible for mass murder be brought to justice. But at times of crisis the most patriotic act of all is the unyielding defense of civil liberties, the right to dissent and equality before the law for all Americans.
The United States cannot dodge its responsibility by withdrawing from the World Conference Against Racism.
CNN, regularly derided as 'liberal' by conservative commentators, is only liberal if that word stands for 'somewhat sane.'