Turn on the radio this week and a ghoulish voice from the bowels of the
former World Trade Center seeks to curdle your blood and chill your bones.
It is yet another trailer evoking the horror of the twin towers and the
monster of evil, Osama bin Laden. The BBC is desperate to outdo other media
outlets in commemorating the fifth anniversary of 9/11. They include movies
by Oliver Stone and Paul Greengrass. American and British channels have
commissioned 9/11 specials from Harvey Keitel and Kevin Kostner with such
titles as 'The Millionaire Widows', 'The Miracle of Staircase B', 'On
Native Soil' and numerous variants on two towers. There are comic strips
and videos and where-was-I-then memoirs. The weekend is to be wall-to-wall
9/11. Not glorifying terrorism? You must be joking.
The favourite line from the war on terror's military/industrial complex is
that in 2001 Osama bin Laden "changed the rules of the game". (Forgotten is
that he attacked the same target in 1993, his error being one of civil
engineering.) George Bush repeated the change thesis again on Wednesday in
confirming his secret interrogation camps and the excuse for the five-year
delay in bringing al-Qaeda suspects to justice. Tony Blair cites the change
with every curb on civil liberty. The "new" terrorism requires a new
approach to public safety. The security industry cries amen.
Most of this is self-serving drivel. Nervous rulers have colluded with
soldiers and businessmen throughout history to cite some ethnic or
religious menace when needing more power and higher taxes. Political
violence has become more promiscuous with suicide bombing and a consequent
rise in kill rate per incident, but as Matthew Carr shows in his book on
terror, 'Unknown Soldiers', the change is one of degree. Within two decades
of Alfred Nobel's invention of dynamite, Russian terrorists tried to pack a
plane with the stuff and fly it into the Tsar's palace. In 1883
Chicago-financed Fenians exploded bombs on the London Underground, leading
The Times to wonder if the Tube could ever be safe. There has been little
change in the preferred weapon of terror, the explosive device, or in the
psycho-pathology of the bomber. The causes remain the same, separatism and
religious nationalism dressed up as holy war.
What has changed, grotesquely, is the aftershock. Terrorism is ten per cent
bang and 90 per cent an echo-effect composed of media hysteria, political
overkill and knee-jerk executive action, usually retribution against some
wider group treated as collectively responsible. This response has become a
24-hour, seven-day-a-week amplification by the new "politico-media
complex", especially shrill where the dead are white people. It is this
that puts global terror into the bang. While we take ever more extravagant
steps to ward off the bangs, we do the opposite with the terrorist
aftershock. We turn up its volume. We seem to wallow in fear.
Were I to take my life in my hands this weekend and visit Osama bin Laden's
hideout in Wherever-istan, the interview would go something like this. I
would ask how things have been for him since 9/11. His reply would be that
he had worried at first that America would capitalise on the global
revulsion, even among muslims, and isolate him as a lone nutcase. He was
already an "unwelcome guest" among the Afghans, and the Tajiks were out to
kill him for the murder of their beloved leader, Massoud (which they may
yet do). A little western cunning and he would have been in big trouble.
In the event he need not have worried. Bin Laden would agree, as did the
CIA's al-Qaeda analyst in Peter Taylor's recent BBC documentary, that the
Americans have done his job for him. They panicked. They drove the Taliban
back into the mountains, restoring their credibility in the Arab street and
turning al-Qaeda into heroes. They persecuted muslims across America. They
occupied Iraq and declared Iran a sworn enemy. They backed an Israeli war
against Lebanon's shias. Soon every tinpot islamicist was citing al-Qaeda
as his inspiration. Bin Laden's tiny organisation, which might have been
starved of funds and friends in 2001, had become a worldwide jihadist
I would ask bin Laden whether he had something special up his sleeve for
the fifth anniversary. Why waste money, he would reply. The western media
was obligingly re-enacting the destruction and the screaming, turning the
base metal of violence into the gold of terror. They would replay the tapes
and rerun the footage ad nauseam, and thus remind the world of his awesome
power. Americans are more afraid of jihadists this year than last, up from
72 per cent to 79 per cent (according to 'Transatlantic Trends') as are the
British. As for European support for America's world leadership, that has
plummeted from 64 per cent in 2002 to 37 per cent.
Bin Laden might boast that he had achieved terrorism's equivalent of an
atomic chain reaction: a self-regenerating cycle of outrage and foreign
policy overkill, aided by anniversary journalism and fuelled by the grim
scenarios of security lobbyists. He now had only to drop an occasional CD
into the offices of al-Jazeera, and Washington and London quaked with fear.
The authorities could be reduced to million-dollar hysterics by a phial of
nail varnish, a copy of the Koran or a dark-skinned person displaying a
watch and a mobile phone.
A feature of democracy is freedom of information and speech. News of
violence cannot be concealed since concealment fuels the climate of fear.
The state should not censor news of terrorist incidents. As Kundera
asserted, "the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory
against forgetting." But there are ways of not forgetting. A feature of
democracy is also to deny arrest without trial, deny the use of torture and
deny retaliatory violence against people or groups. Democracy can
apparently sacrifice these principles to guard against the 10 per cent of
terrorism that is bang. Why not restrain the publicity that fuels the other
90 per cent, the aftershock? The boundary between news and scare-mongering
may be hard to define. But so is any boundary between liberty and security.
What is so sacred about publicity as against habeas corpus?
Conceding the jihadists the kudos of state censorship should be as
unthinkable as conceding it arrest without trial. That does not excuse the
politico-media complex from any responsibility for caution, a sense of
proportion and self-restraint. The gruelling re-enactment of the London
bombings in July and this weekend's 9/11 horror-fest are not news. They
exploit grief and horror and in doing so give gratuitous publicity to bin
Laden and al-Qaeda. Those personally affected by these outrages may have
their own private memorials. But to hallow the events with repetitious
publicity turns a squalid crime into a constantly re-vitalised political
act. It grants the jihadists was they most crave, warrior status. It more
than validates terrorism as a weapon of war, it glorifies it.
The best way to commemorate 9/11 is with silence. Instead, bin Laden must
Originally posted at guardian.co.uk