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Beyond TV, Some Sobering Realities

In times of crisis, the purpose of television news is to tell a simple, clear story that depends as much on imagery as on facts. Seen in that light, the continuous coverage of the terrorist attacks and, now, the bombing runs over Afghanistan has resembled George W. Bush in his better moments. Like the president, TV has communicated the broad essentials of the war on terrorism without getting too deeply into the complications that are sure to arise.

This is why print remains essential. The media-absorption process might be described this way. Television provides pictures, images, impressions. The next morning's newspapers explain and sort out what was flashing on the screen the night before. And the elite press -- upper-end magazines, the op-ed pages of national newspapers, and the like -- attempts to divine what it means.

Of particular value are last week's New Yorker (dated October 8) and this past Sunday's New York Times Magazine, both of which challenge some of the central notions put forth by President Bush: that this is not a war against Islam (it's not, but it nevertheless looks like one in many respects); that we can increase security without endangering our liberties (that hasn't been the case in Britain); and that better intelligence will be essential in winning the war against terrorism (true, but the CIA is in far worse shape than anyone had imagined).

Perhaps the most horrifying -- and, therefore, important -- contribution is from the New Yorker's Jeffrey Goldberg, who traveled to Egypt in order to learn how that country's Muslim clerics and intellectuals were responding to the September 11 terrorist attacks. Egypt, unlike Osama bin Laden's homeland of Saudi Arabia, is a place of overpopulation and desperate poverty. Thus it's hardly surprising that bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization has a distinctly Egyptian cast. Yet Egypt also has an educated, highly sophisticated elite that would presumably be immune to the prejudices and superstitions of the masses.

If only it were so. Goldberg interviewed a prominent surgeon, a former Marxist who had found religion, who calmly explained that the Branch Davidians, with the help of Israeli intelligence, were behind the attacks on the World Trade Center. Goldberg also surveyed the so-called moderate Egyptian press, which, among other things, regularly praises Hitler and denies that the Holocaust ever took place. Goldberg quotes from a column written in one of these "moderate" papers; the piece calls for the Statue of Liberty to be destroyed, asserting that "the age of the American collapse has begun." Writes Goldberg: "This is not an uncommon theme among members of the Egyptian intellectual class."

In the New York Times Magazine, Andrew Sullivan provides the thematic framework for the disturbing particulars unearthed by Goldberg. In a piece provocatively titled "This Is a Religious War," Sullivan argues that the war against terrorism is essentially a war that pits the West against — well, not against Islam per se, but against a fundamentalist, cultlike form of Islam that resonates with millions of people in the Muslim world. Sullivan writes that "it is a war of fundamentalism against faiths of all kinds that are at peace with freedom and modernity." That argument may be overly simplistic, but Sullivan makes a compelling case that it's also true, at least in a broad-brush-stroke kind of way. Certainly Sullivan's thesis is a better aid to understanding the terrorist threat than Bush's repeated assurances that "Islam is a peaceful religion." Well, yes, but terrorists are killing people in the name of Islam.

Elsewhere in the Times Magazine, Jeffrey Rosen takes a close look at what a domestic war on terrorism has meant in Britain, where an estimated 2.5 million surveillance cameras have been installed around the country, supposedly to keep an eye on IRA fighters. The principal results of such constant surveillance, Rosen finds, are that dark-skinned men feel intimidated, and that bored security guards divert themselves by trying to zoom in on young women having sex with their boyfriends. Rosen warns that "if we meekly accede in the construction of vast feel-good architectures of surveillance that have far-reaching social costs and few discernible social benefits, we may find, in calmer times, that they are impossible to dismantle."

Veteran investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, writing in the New Yorker, finds that the post–Cold War CIA is a demoralized, overly bureaucratic agency whose essential mission — recruiting on-the-ground spies — has lagged badly, partly as a result of human-rights concerns and partly because few people (as one source memorably put it) want to spend their lives with diarrhea. Hersh's article is flawed because he fails even to mention the revisionist thinking that has kicked in since September 11; after all, before the terrorist attacks it seemed to most of us like a good idea to prevent the CIA from stirring up potentially dangerous havoc. (In one startling passage, a source sneers to Hersh, "Are we serious about getting rid of the problem — instead of sitting around making diversity quilts?") As Slate's Timothy Noah notes, no one is engaging in more revisionism than Hersh himself, who made his reputation exposing the seamy underside of American intelligence.

Still, Hersh's piece is essential and sobering reading for anyone concerned about how ineffective the CIA has become in its ability to prevent terrorist attacks before they take place.

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