"America Under Attack": Guilty Or Not, Here We Come

Walking home through empty streets, as New York shut down early on the day of the World Trade Towers apocalypse, one was struck at how dazed and stunned people seemed. There was an eerie silence punctuated by ambulances and police cars racing from place to place. Cops guarded post offices, police stations and the bus terminal, as if the terrorists would be back. The mayor gave press conferences from "a secret location" as if the Osama bin Laden brigade had targeted him, clearly a conceit wrapped up as a security consideration.

I had spent the morning following events on the web and the radio. At home, I was finally able to experience the day's turmoil that many media outlets were saying had "changed America forever," in the way most Americans experienced it -- on TV. I watched for five hours, jumping from channel to channel, network to network. It was, of course, wall to wall catastrophe, with each outlet featuring its own "exclusive coverage." Some credited to others but each with somewhat distinctive angles of the same scene -- that jet plane tearing through the World Trade Center. And when we weren't seeing that horrendous image being recycled endlessly, used as what we in the TV business used to call "wallpaper" or B-roll, other equally compelling images were on the screen: the Pentagon on fire, huge clouds of smoke coming out of the buildings, buildings collapsing, people jumping from high floors and running in the streets. It was on for hours, over and over again, awakening outrage and then oddly numbing it by overexposure.

The reporting focused first on the facts, the chronology of planes hijacked and national symbols attacked. And then the parade of "expert" interviews began, featuring virtually the same group of former government officials and terrorism specialists on each show. Even Ronald Reagan's favorite novelist Tom Clancy was given airtime to bang the drum for giving the military and CIA everything it says it will need to strike back. He was on, no doubt, because for many, these events seemed like a case of reality catching up with fiction.

You could imagine the show bookers all working overtime from the same Rolodex, shuttling these pundits-for-all-seasons from studio to studio, from CNN to Jim Lehrer's News Hour to CBS and back again. How many times have we seen these soundalike soundbite artists like former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger and generals like Norman Schwartzkopf waxing tough for the cameras? They were itching for "action."

I heard no one saying that violence breeds violence or that a massive retaliation may only invite more of the same. The only critical edge to the coverage involved raising the question about why so many official predictions about imminent terrorist threats went unresponded to for so long. These concerns were raised, but quickly sidelined by discussions of national complacency and/or naïveté about the world. How the U.S. intelligence apparatus could have missed this was taken only as evidence that it needs more money, not a different policy. No mention was made of the cutbacks in international news coverage that keeps so many Americans so out of touch with global events.

Suddenly, we had moved from the stage of facts to the realm of opinion and endless speculation about what America would do and, then, what America MUST do. The anchors were touched when members of Congress spontaneously erupted into a bipartisan rendition of "God Bless America" on the Capitol steps. They paused reverentially to go live to the White House for a presidential address that turned out to be five minutes of banalities and rally-round-the-flag reassurances. Who was it that called patriotism the last refuge of scoundrels? The news anchors certainly never used that line.

Missing was any discussion of possible motives by the alleged terrorists, why would they do it and why now? What was their political agenda? There was no mention of September 11th as the anniversary of the failed Camp David accords. There was certainly no mention of the fact that State terrorism by countries be they the U.S., Russia, Iraq, Afghanistan or Israel often trigger and harden counter-terrorism by guerrilla forces. There was virtually no international angle offered in most of the coverage except a few snatches of file footage of Osama Bin Laden fondling an AK47. Bin Laden looked like a cartoon figure, like Ali Baba in cartoons from my youth, not the insane militant terrorist that he is. It must be said that most of the journalists I saw were cautious about attributing this to him, perhaps because of early blame to Arabs of the Oklahoma City bombing of a federal building, which turned out to be the work of an American.

NBC carried the only substantive report I saw on why Palestinians consider America complicit in the attacks against them. It did mention that Hamas and Bin Laden denied involvement and even featuring a condemnation of the violence by Arafat. That was reported by the always excellent Martin Fletcher, a Brit who is as informed about what is happening on the ground there as most of the anchors and reporters here seem not to be. I saw one other soundbite from a Middle Eastern politician, one call to arms from Ariel Sharon and one message of resolve from Tony Blair. That was it for foreign response. CNN carried eerie videophone footage of an attack on an arms depot in Kabul, Afghanistan but it turned out not to be connected. Some on-air reporter explained that it may have been part of that country's ongoing civil war. Another replied, "Oh, are they having one?"

As the coverage wore on, George Stephanopoulos, ex-President Clinton's former boy wonder, now an ABC commentator, popped up with Peter Jennings to explain, on the basis of his experience on the inside, that in situations like this, governments need a scapegoat and someone to demonize and predicted they'd find one, fast! Jennings, to his credit, reminded viewers that in the past our counterattacks against terrorist incidents were hardly triumphant. He and the other national anchors were far more restrained and cautious than the local stations. I was impressed by the flashes of responsibility that seeped through the appeals to national resolve.

Also missing was much discussion of the economic consequences, although on ABC there was the suggestion that this event might send the world economy into a recession, as if we don't already have one. (Oil prices went up today and the exchanges were closed.) Later, on the same network, Diane Sawyer brought this aspect home by holding up financial documents that littered the streets. You got a sense of how serious this is by a constant replay of a phone number for employees of Morgan Stanley, the investment bank that was the largest tenant in the World Trade Center. If they lost top managers and key employees, as is likely, this will have an economic impact.

It was only back on PBS, in one of Jim Lehrer's interminable beltway blather sessions, that one got an inkling of what the Bush administration may actually be planning to do, once the final fatality count sinks in and the sadness of the funerals and mourning begins. Then, as everyone expects, Americans will go from shock to outrage. One of Lehrer's mostly conservative experts, Bill Kristol, editor of Rupert Murdoch's Weekly Standard, passed on a high-level leak. Namely, that the U.S. will link Bin Laden to Sadam Hussein.

Recall that Dubya said he would "punish" states harboring terrorists. No one really spent much time discussing what that meant. Now Rupert's emissary was predicting that the game plan might be to ask for a declaration of war against Iraq to "finish the job." (The next morning, the demagogic face of Murdochworld summed up its feelings with this headline on a New York Post column by Steve Dunleavy calling for bombing Kabul and legalizing assassinations: "SIMPLY KILL THESE BASTARDS!") There was no discussion of any evidence implicating Iraq, or explanation of the economics of the oil situation there, which U.S. companies currently tap in abundance. You can bet that as this terrible tragedy is formally cranked up into an ongoing national crisis, there will be even more calls for war. Failing economies often need rely on a good one to get back on track.

So, is another Gulf War in the offing? Will Son of Bush "finish" his father's failed Desert Storm? That is a real possibility, suggesting also that more media manipulation is on the way. The coverage on Tuesday night was tilting in the direction of whipping up the outrage with no alternatives to war even discussed.

This possible Let's Get Iraq scenario wasn't discussed in any depth, perhaps because there is no footage to show yet. But you heard it here first: the road to revenge may just take us back to Baghdad, guilty or not. Will international terrorism be wiped out then? Will we then get the faceless "them"? It was a bit frightening to hear many of the on-air wise man speak of the next steps as a long difficult struggle that will take national resolve and may lead to restrictions on the freedoms we have long prized. This line of thinking could well lead to an antiterrorist campaign targeting domestic protesters as well. Historians will recall that the mysterious fire in Germany's Reichstag set the stage for the rationalizations used in the Nazi terror.

Will God then bless America only when the cruise missiles start flying? I thought only the bad guys spoke in terms of holy war.

Stay tuned.

P.S.: I must admit that I share much of the popular emotional outrage at the carnage. If we could have afforded it, we might have had an office there. In fact, I used to work out of CNN's bureau when it was based at the World Trade Center and have been in and out of those towers over the years. It is terrifying and traumatizing to realize that it is gone, like one giant bloody amputation from the body of the city. This was not just an attack on symbols but real people, not just at world capitalism but at urban culture. I am, I realize, in a kind of shock, working on automatic pilot. It is at least something to do.

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