bin Laden and Seymour Hersh

I was away from the major cities of North America, with no internet access, though not quite out of news range. I used some of the time to read Seymour Hersh’s book, “Chain of Command”, though of course bin Laden’s pro-Bush campaigning took over yesterday’s media space. Some thoughts on each.

bin Laden for Bush

bin Laden’s speech surprised me. I took seriously Fisk’s account of his meeting with bin Laden in a cave in Afghanistan, when bin Laden was totally excited about seeing an old newspaper and slinked off into the corner to read it all: perhaps a spiritual figure to terrorist organizations, but not an operational leader. I thought that calling him the ‘mastermind’ of the 9/11 attacks was quite a stretch. And yet in his taped press conference, he says that he specifically got the idea for attacking the US after seeing the carnage Israel wreaked on Lebanon in the 1982 invasion (“Peace for Galilee”, I think it was called. The book to read on that invasion is, of course, Chomsky’s “Fateful Triangle”, though Fisk’s book “Pity the Nation” has lots in it, and there is a book by Israeli historian Ze’ev Schiff and someone else I can’t remember that is pretty good too). bin Laden says:

I say to you Allah knows that it had never occurred to us to strike towers.

But after it became unbearable and we witnessed the oppression and tyranny of the America/Israeli coalition against our people in Palestine and Lebanon, it came to my mind.

The events that affected my soul in a difficult way started in 1982 when America permitted the Israelis to invade Lebanon and the American 6th fleet helped them in that.

And the whole world saw and heard but did not respond.

In those difficult moments many hard to describe ideas bubbled in my soul but in the end they produced intense feelings of rejection of tyranny and gave birth to a strong resolve to punish the oppressors.

And as I looked at those demolished towers in Lebanon it entered my mind that we should punish the oppressors in kind and that we destroy towers in America in order that they taste some of what we tasted and so that they be deterred from killing our women and children.

This all probably sounds like evil incarnate to Americans. But to most of the world it probably sounds more like rhetoric, justification for killing innocents, vengeful and cruel talk, something all too familiar from American politicians and spokespeople are are justifying slaughtering some population or another in some part of the world.

The surprising thing for me though is that he says that the idea came from him, and that he discussed it with Mohammad Atta. I had always assumed that bin Laden himself was largely a creation of the US media, which needs personifications of evil, villains with names, to present the “war against terrorism” in simple dramatic “good vs. evil” terms. I certainly think of the current villain, Zarqawi, this way. But it seems that bin Laden really did mastermind the 9/11 attacks, and now he’s doing his best to see Bush re-elected. bin Laden and his people, and the Bush people, really do coordinate their work remarkably well together. A side effect of religious fundamentalism is a near total lack of self-awareness. If the results of this coordinated effort by “Bush” and “bin Laden” weren’t so gruesome, there would be a lot of opportunity for irony and ridicule.

Chain of Command

Seymour Hersh. It’s hard to say something bad about the person who broke the My Lai story and the Abu Ghraib story and did a great deal of important work in between. Hersh’s work is a civilizing influence on American political culture and journalism. He offers an example of a serious journalist, with tremendous mainstream access, who actually finds relevant things to say, is well informed, provides a sense of the big picture, and repeatedly presents facts and information that are very important for the public to know.

The book, “Chain of Command”, has a lot of important information: about the war in Afghanistan, about the war in Iraq, about the Bush Administration, about Abu Ghraib and how it happened, about the details of how the US makes foreign policy and military policy, and more.

And yet the tradeoffs Hersh makes (unconsciously I think) to be able to put this information in the New Yorker and maintain his level of access to government sources and insiders are also plain to see. His Epilogue, for example, has the following passage: “There is so much about this presidency that we don’t know, and may never learn. Some of the most important questions are not even being asked… How did eight or nine neoconservatives who believed that a war in Iraq was the answer to international terrorism get their way? How did they redirect the government and rearrange long-standing American priorities and policies with so much ease? How did they overcome the bureaucracy, intimidate the press, mislead the Congress, and dominate the military? Is our democracy that fragile?”

The assumptions behind these questions. What are these “long-standing American priorities” that the Iraq war “rearranged”? I don’t believe Iraq war planners were just thinking about the “answer to international terrorism”, but about answers to control of the planet’s resources (Hersh does discuss this a little, talking about China, etc., elsewhere in the book, though also from an American power perspective). Is the press really that hard to “intimidate”, or Congress to “mislead”, or is it possible that the press and Congress actually agreed with the Administration on the “long-standing priorities” that the Iraq war was meant to help further? One would think that Hersh, the reporter who broke the story of the My Lai massacre and a political analyst in his own right, would know more about the political priorities of US governments than that. But he adopts the framework, and so his criticism of Bush, like Kerry’s, is that the Bush people aren’t doing a good job of working on the real “long-standing priorities” of maintaining and extending American power.

Of course, if Hersh did not adopt that framework, he would not be an insider. The insiders would not talk to him, he would not have the many remarkable sources that he has, and he would not be able to get the information out, and no one, including radicals and “outsiders” (ie., ordinary citizens) would have access to the information and would be left speculating about things Hersh provides facts about. But this is a tradeoff, and it’s impossible not to notice. So is Hersh’s use of anonymous sources, something that has eroded journalism tremendously. In his acknowledgements, he says “Those most responsible for this book — the past and present government, intelligence, and military officials who have provided me with an alternative history since September 11th — cannot be named, for obvious reasons. There is honor in their anonymity.”

In fact there is no honor in their anonymity. There is actually shame in their anonymity. The US political system and culture is sliding away from notions of liberalism and democracy that reporters like Hersh treasure because those who really hate freedom — those who try to block the franchise for voters, who attack secularism and science, who oppose women’s rights, who oppose freedom to organize and associate (are you starting to figure out who I’m talking about?) — fight hard and seriously, while the liberal types do not. In two days, if the election is at all close, the Republicans will cheat, and it will be up to the Democrats to decide whether they will allow the cheating or not. If the Democrats do not take the cheating, it will be up to the media and to the Republicans to decide whether they will back off. If the Republicans cheat and then don’t back down, I can virtually guarantee that the Democrats will back down. They will not walk out of Congress or the Senate, they will not encourage civil disobedience, they will not try to mobilize political power, even if the Republicans have blatantly broken the law and shredded the legitimacy of the system. If they were willing to do that sort of thing, there would be a lot more reason to hope for this country and for the world.

The anonymous ‘dissidents’ who provide Hersh with his facts are similar. Obviously, journalists have to be responsible about publishing names of people whose safety could be at risk. But Hersh’s sources are almost never people like the unionists or peasants in Colombia who could be disappeared or killed with their families for speaking out about the dirty war. These are men of power in the US government and corporate system, and they refuse to put their names on their statements because they will suffer career consequences. But there is very little accountability in anonymous sources. Anonymous sources do not catalyze action. And if people did speak openly, there would be more protection for everyone to do so. The reverse is also true: the culture of anonymous sources, even for the best journalists like Hersh, is so pervasive that the consequences for someone who does speak out publicly are so much more devastating.

If the elite decision makers who provide Hersh with facts are, worse than scared to provide their names, finding ‘honor’ in their anonymity, the state of the ‘free speech’ and ‘democracy’ that Kerry (and Hersh) and Bush disagree on how best to protect from ‘terrorists’ and ‘barbarians’ is pretty shabby indeed. If they (and I’m not talking about the Bush people here, but those liberal dissenters from Bush) won’t even put their names on the line to protect those freedoms, but are willing to kill thousands and hundreds of thousands of other people’s children, supposedly to do the same thing, isn’t that, well, cowardly?

Justin Podur

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.