In the wake of the devastating attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, many media pundits focused on one theme: retaliation. For some, it did not matter who bears the brunt of an American attack:
"There is only one way to begin to deal with people like this, and that is you have to kill some of them even if they are not immediately directly involved in this thing."
former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger (CNN, 9/11/01)
"The response to this unimaginable 21st-century Pearl Harbor should be as simple as it is swift-- kill the bastards. A gunshot between the eyes, blow them to smithereens, poison them if you have to. As for cities or countries that host these worms, bomb them into basketball courts."
Steve Dunleavy (New York Post, 9/12/01)
"America roused to a righteous anger has always been a force for good. States that have been supporting if not Osama bin Laden, people like him need to feel pain. If we flatten part of Damascus or Tehran or whatever it takes, that is part of the solution."
Rich Lowry, National Review editor, to Howard Kurtz (Washington Post, 9/13/01)
"TIME TO TAKE NAMES AND NUKE AFGHANISTAN."
Caption to cartoon by Gary Brookins (Richmond Times-Dispatch, 9/13/01)
"At a bare minimum, tactical nuclear capabilites should be used against the bin Laden camps in the desert of Afghanistan. To do less would be rightly seen by the poisoned minds that orchestrated these attacks as cowardice on the part of the United States and the current administration."
Former Defense Intelligence Agency officer Thomas Woodrow, "Time to Use the Nuclear Option" (Washington Times, 9/14/01)
Bill O'Reilly: "If the Taliban government of Afghanistan does not cooperate, then we will damage that government with air power, probably. All right? We will blast them, because..."
Sam Husseini, Institute for Public Accuracy: "Who will you kill in the process?"
O'Reilly: "Doesn't make any difference."
("The O'Reilly Factor," Fox News Channel, 9/13/01)
"This is no time to be precious about locating the exact individuals directly involved in this particular terrorist attack.... We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity. We weren't punctilious about locating and punishing only Hitler and his top officers. We carpet-bombed German cities; we killed civilians. That's war. And this is war."
Syndicated columnist Ann Coulter (New York Daily News, 9/12/01)
Many media commentators appeared to blame the attacks on what they saw as America's unwillingness to act aggressively in recent years.
As conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer (Washington Post, 9/12/01) wrote: "One of the reasons there are enough terrorists out there capable and deadly enough to carry out the deadliest attack on the United States in its history is that, while they have declared war on us, we have in the past responded (with the exception of a few useless cruise missile attacks on empty tents in the desert) by issuing subpoenas."
The Washington Post's David Broder (9/13/01), considered a moderate, issued his own call for "new realism-- and steel-- in America's national security policy": "For far too long, we have been queasy about responding to terrorism. Two decades ago, when those with real or imagined grievances against the United States began picking off Americans overseas on military or diplomatic assignments or on business, singly or in groups, we delivered pinprick retaliations or none at all."
It's worth recalling the U.S. response to the bombing of a Berlin disco in April 1986, which resulted in the deaths of two U.S. service members: The U.S. immediately bombed Libya, which it blamed for the attack. According to Libya, 36 civilians were killed in the air assault, including the year-old daughter of Libyan leader Moamar Khadafy (Washington Post, 5/9/86). It is unlikely that Libyans considered this a "pinprick." Yet these deaths apparently had little deterrence value: In December 1988, less than 20 months later, Pan Am 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, in an even deadlier act of terrorism the U.S. blames on Libyan agents.
More recently, in 1998, Bill Clinton sent 60 cruise missiles, some equipped with cluster bombs, against bin Laden's Afghan base, in what was presented as retaliation for the bombing of U.S. embassies in Africa. One missile aimed at Afghan training camps landed hundreds of miles off course in Pakistan, while a simultaneous attack in Sudan leveled one of the country's few pharmaceutical factories. Media cheered the attacks (In These Times, 9/6/98), though careful investigation into the case revealed no credible evidence linking the plant to chemical weapons or Osama bin Laden, the two justifications offered for the attack (New York Times, 10/27/99, London Observer, 8/23/98).
Despite the dubious record of retributory violence in insuring security, many pundits insist that previous retaliation failed only because it was not severe enough. As the Chicago Tribune's John Kass declared (9/13/01), "For the past decade we've sat dumb and stupid as the U.S. military was transformed from a killing machine into a playpen for sociologists and political schemers." This "playpen" dropped 23,000 bombs on Yugoslavia in 1999, killing between 500 and 1,500 civilians, and may have killed as many as 1,200 Iraqis in 1998's Desert Fox attack (Agence France Presse, 12/23/98).
The Wall Street Journal (9/13/01) urged the U.S. to "get serious" about terrorism by, among other things, eliminating "the 1995 rule, imposed by former CIA Director John Deutsch under political pressure, limiting whom the U.S. can recruit for counter-terrorism. For fear of hiring rogues, the CIA decided it would only hire Boy Scouts." One non-Boy Scout the CIA worked with in the 1980s is none other than Osama bin Laden (MSNBC, 8/24/98; The Atlantic, 7-8/01)-- then considered a valuable asset in the fight against Communism, but now suspected of being the chief instigator of the World Trade Center attacks.
Who's to Blame?
In crisis situations, particularly those involving terrorism, media often report unsubstantiated information about suspects or those claiming responsibility-- an error that is especially dangerous in the midst of calls for military retaliation.
Early reports on the morning of the attack indicated that the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine had claimed responsibility on Abu Dhabi Television. Most outlets were careful with the information, though NBC's Tom Brokaw, while not confirming the story, added fuel to the fire: "This comes, ironically, on a day when the Israel Foreign Minister Shimon Peres is scheduled to meet with Yasser Arafat. Of course, we've had the meeting in South Africa for the past several days in which the Palestinians were accusing the Israelis of racism"-- as if making such an accusation were tantamount to blowing up the World Trade Center.
Hours after a spokesperson for the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine denied any responsibility for the attack, the Drudge Report website still had the headline "Palestinian Group Says Responsible" at the top of the page.
Though the threat from a Palestinian group proved unsubstantiated, that did not stop media from making gross generalizations about Arabs and Islam in general. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wondered (9/13/01): "Surely Islam, a grand religion that never perpetrated the sort of Holocaust against the Jews in its midst that Europe did, is being distorted when it is treated as a guidebook for suicide bombing. How is it that not a single Muslim leader will say that?"
Of course, many Muslims would-- and did-- say just that. Political and civil leaders throughout the Muslim world have condemned the attacks, and Muslim clerics throughout the Middle East have given sermons refuting the idea that targeting civilians is a tenet of Islam (BBC, 9/14/01; Washington Post 9/17/01).
Why They Hate Us
As the media investigation focused on Osama bin Laden, news outlets still provided little information about what fuels his fanaticism. Instead of a serious inquiry into anti-U.S. sentiment in the Middle East and elsewhere, many commentators media offered little more than self-congratulatory rhetoric:
"[The World Trade Center and the Pentagon] have drawn, like gathered lightning, the anger of the enemies of civilization. Those enemies are always out there.... Americans are slow to anger but mighty when angry, and their proper anger now should be alloyed with pride. They are targets because of their virtues--principally democracy, and loyalty to those nations which, like Israel, are embattled salients of our virtues in a still-dangerous world."
George Will (Washington Post, 9/12/01)
"This nation symbolizes freedom, strength, tolerance, and democratic principles dedicated to both liberty and peace. To the tyrants, the despots, the closed societies, there are no alterations to the policies, no gestures we can make, no words we can say that will convince those determined to continue their hate."
Charles G. Boyd (Washington Post, 9/12/01)
"Are Americans afraid to face the reality that there is a significant portion of this world's population that hates America, hates what freedom represents, hates the fact that we fight for freedom worldwide, hates our prosperity, hates our way of life? Have we been unwilling to face that very difficult reality?"
Sean Hannity (Fox News Channel, 9/13/01)
"Our principled defense of individual freedom and our reluctance to intervene in the affairs of states harboring terrorists makes us an easy target."
Robert McFarlane (Washington Post, 9/13/01)
One exception was ABC's Jim Wooten (World News Tonight, 9/12/01), who tried to shed some light on what might motivate some anti-U.S. sentiment in the Middle East, reporting that "Arabs see the U.S. as an accomplice of Israel, a partner in what they believe is the ruthless repression of Palestinian aspirations for land and independence." Wooten continued: "The most provocative issues: Israel's control over Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem; the stationing of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia near some of Islam's holiest sites; and economic sanctions against Iraq, which have been seen to deprive children there of medicine and food."
Stories like Wooten's, which examine the U.S.'s highly contentious role in the Middle East and illuminate some of the forces that can give rise to violent extremism, contribute far more to public security than do pundits calling for indiscriminate revenge.
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