SOLOMON: Terrorism, Television and the Rage for Vengeance

News & Politics

We stare at TV screens and try to comprehend the suffering in the aftermath of terrorism. Much of what we see is ghastly and all too real; terrible anguish and sorrow.

At the same time, we're witnessing an onslaught of media deception. "The greatest triumphs of propaganda have been accomplished, not by doing something, but by refraining from doing," Aldous Huxley observed long ago. "Great is truth, but still greater, from a practical point of view, is silence about truth."

Silence, rigorously selective, pervades the media coverage of recent days. For policy-makers in Washington, the practical utility of that silence is enormous. In response to the mass murder committed by hijackers, the righteousness of U.S. military action is clear -- as long as double standards go unmentioned.

While rescue crews braved intense smoke and grisly rubble, ABC News analyst Vincent Cannistraro helped to put it all in perspective for millions of TV viewers. Cannistraro is a former high-ranking official of the Central Intelligence Agency who was in charge of the CIA's work with the contras in Nicaragua during the early 1980s. After moving to the National Security Council in 1984, he became a supervisor of covert aid to Afghan guerrillas.

In other words, Cannistraro has a long history of assisting terrorists -- first, contra soldiers who routinely killed Nicaraguan civilians; then, mujahedeen rebels in Afghanistan ... like Osama bin Laden.

How can a longtime associate of terrorists now be credibly denouncing "terrorism"? It's easy. All that's required is for media coverage to remain in a kind of history-free zone that has no use for any facets of reality that are not presently convenient to acknowledge.

In his book "1984," George Orwell described the mental dynamics: "The process has to be conscious, or it would not be carried out with sufficient precision, but it also has to be unconscious, or it would bring with it a feeling of falsity and hence of guilt.... To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies -- all this is indispensably necessary."

Secretary of State Colin Powell denounced "people who feel that with the destruction of buildings, with the murder of people, they can somehow achieve a political purpose." He was describing the terrorists who had struck his country hours earlier. But Powell was also aptly describing a long line of top officials in Washington.

It would be very unusual to hear a comment about that sort of hypocrisy on any major TV network in the United States. Yet surely U.S. policy-makers have believed that they could "achieve a political purpose" -- with "the destruction of buildings, with the murder of people" -- when launching missiles at Baghdad or Belgrade.

Nor are key national media outlets now doing much to shed light on American assaults that were touted as anti-terrorist "retaliation" -- such as the firing of 13 cruise missiles, one day in August 1998, at the Al Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, Sudan. That attack, depriving an impoverished country of desperately needed medical drugs, was an atrocity committed (in the words of political analyst Noam Chomsky) "with no credible pretext, destroying half its pharmaceutical supplies and probably killing tens of thousands of people."

No one knows the exact number of lives lost due to the severe disruption of Sudan's meager drug supply, Chomsky adds, "because the U.S. blocked an inquiry at the United Nations and no one cares to pursue it."

Media scrutiny of atrocities committed by the U.S. government is rare. Only some cruelties merit the spotlight. Only some victims deserve empathy. Only certain crimes against humanity are worth our tears.

"This will be a monumental struggle of good versus evil," President Bush proclaimed. The media reactions to such rhetoric have been overwhelmingly favorable.

But the heart-wrenching voices now on the USA's airwaves are no less or more important than voices that we have never heard. Today, the victims of terrorism in America deserve our deep compassion. So do the faraway victims of America -- human beings whose humanity has gone unrecognized by U.S. media.

Underlying that lack of recognition is a nationalistic arrogance shared by press and state. Few eyebrows went up when Time magazine declared in its Sept. 10 edition: "The U.S. is at one of those fortunate -- and rare -- moments in history when it can shape the world." That attitude can only bring us a succession of disasters.

Norman Solomon's latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media." His syndicated column focuses on media and politics.

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