How not to understand the enemy

A joint Discovery Channel-BBC documentary on terrorism fails to provide the insight Americans so desperately need.

By Eric Boehlert

Published September 20, 2001 4:52PM (EDT)

Since television in the United States often doubles as public education, many Americans have been glued to their TV sets in search of answers to the myriad of questions posed by last week's terrorist attacks. On Wednesday night, the Discovery Channel, trumpeting a prime-time special with full-page newspaper ads nationwide, pledged to furnish some much-needed explanations.

"Behind the Terror: Understanding the Enemy," a two-hour commercial-free joint production with the BBC hosted by Forrest Sawyer, promised to "provide an in-depth profile of terrorism and the people behind it." But the show did not deliver.

Instead, by stitching together some previous BBC documentaries, "Behind the Terror" spent its first hour providing a working history of targeted terrorist Osama bin Laden that offered little that had not already been broadcast.

The show detailed the Saudi heir's rise during the armed Muslim resistance to the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan during the 1980s, recounted how the U.S. abandoned the ravaged Afghanistan once the rebels turned back Soviet troops and explained how the United States' military occupation of Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War hardened bin Laden's conviction that Western forces were corrupting the Islamic way of life. The documentary then turned to the now familiar details of how bin Laden's reclusive forces, eventually expelled from Sudan and returning to Afghanistan, oversaw deadly bombing attacks throughout the '90s in Kenya, Tanzania, New York's World Trade Center and on the USS Cole warship.

Experts explained how terrorist groups in the past always had a list of demands and used their violent attacks to improve their bargaining position, but that bin Laden's roaming hit men were simply waging war against mostly civilian targets.

It is useful to understand bin Laden's history and motivations. But in order to really "understand the enemy," as the Discovery Channel puts it, Americans need to know much more about the historical, religious and social context against which this drama is unfolding. And on that level, like most major TV outlets over the past week, the cable channel came up short.

"Behind the Terror" offered just a cursory look at Islam and its history. While going out of its way to stress that violence, let alone terrorism, is strictly prohibited by Islam's holy book, the Koran, the documentary simply sidestepped the growing reservoir of ill will festering toward America in the Middle East and other Muslim countries.

It's not just the question of the bloody struggle for Palestine, which "Behind the Terror" addressed only in passing. There is also a widespread perception that over the years the American government has routinely helped local regimes suppress freedoms for Muslims in Iran, Algeria, Turkey and scores of other countries.

How is it that a leader like bin Laden, who twists the Koran's passages like a pretzel in order to justify his murderous ways, has been able to tap into the imagination of so many Allah-fearing Muslims? That's the question Americans need to grapple with.

But following the documentary's first bin Laden-dominated hour, the program degenerated into a hodgepodge of disparate stories, including a look at how civil liberties in America might be eroded in the wake of the attack, a bit about how experts can intercept fax transmissions, a report on the non-bin Laden-related shooting outside CIA headquarters in 1993 and a preview of possible military strategies for the upcoming war on terrorism.

Amazingly, "Behind the Terror" never detailed the rise of Afghanistan's Islamic fundamentalist Taliban government, or the country's civil war following the Soviet Union's 10-year occupation. Given the Taliban's current prominence as the leading edge of radical Islamic fundamentalism, the failure to explore that issue was inexcusable.

As part of his closing remarks, Sawyer said, "It's important for Americans to understand their enemy," suggesting that only then "will the country prevail through this crisis to protect their values and way of life."

His words were followed by a quick cut to a singing boy's choir, and the now painfully familiar pictures of America mourning.

But is that news gathering or hand-holding? There's a place for both during these trying times. But the Discovery Channel, leaning heavily on its BBC connections, advertised this special as much more than another recap on the week we'd all like to forget. We're still waiting for some real enlightenment.

Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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