Networks of terror

As television hypes the coming war, the nation watches passively. Stunned by grief, we've shut ourselves up.

By John Leonard

Published September 21, 2001 11:45PM (EDT)

After a couple of days of doing what they do best, which is grief therapy, the television networks and cable channels reverted to what they do worst, which is to represent the normal respiration of democratic intelligence.

Never mind the apocalyptic branding every producer of continuing coverage felt he had to inflict over, under and around the multiple reruns, the endless nightmare feedback loop of jumbo jet, firebomb and towers falling down. Soon enough, "America Under Dastardly Attack" would be succeeded by "The Empire Strikes Back." Nothing less can be expected of a commercial culture with a logo, a patent, a copyright or a trademark on everything from pro athletes and childhood fairy tales to the human genome. (And if there hadn't been a brand, we might have mistaken the video package for just another cheesy TV movie, one of a thousand techno-thrillers and disaster flicks in which New York has been destroyed by asteroids, aliens and apes; androids, insects and plagues; hydrogen bombs, tidal waves, toxic waste and "The Turner Diaries." Something in Hollywood has always hated Manhattan. Something in the pulp unconscious has always wanted to smash our crystal palace. Until now, at least.) What does surprise is that nobody thought of "Infinite Justice" until the Pentagon rolled it out. What a brainstorm.

Still, television was our surrogate: a stunned witness, a black box and also a storybook we needed. This is what it looked like, the Big Pixel, and the mangled steel and broken stone; the brilliant blue, unbearable sorrow, heroes in uniform, stalwart mayor -- and an unmooring and a creepiness, as if a CAT scan had suddenly disclosed anomalies as unreadable as Rorschachs. So not even a girdle of oceans was enough to preserve our innocence. Nor could we flee in our Air Jordan running shoes. And what good were laser-beam defense shields against the guided missiles of our own passenger planes?

We gathered as we usually do in a parenthetical frame of mind, somewhere between the trauma and the stress syndrome. We have been there when we were merely curious: an Oscar or a Super Bowl. And when we have felt compelled: the Watergate hearings or the Berlin Wall. On exalted moments, like a moon shot. On dreadful occasions, like an assassination. It's a fix, and I'm not here to pick and choose among the performance arts of a Rather and a Brokaw and a Jennings. Bad news grays their skin beneath the powder, glooms their eyes staring at the Prompter, slows and thickens their aspect whether they're wearing a jacket or not -- although it often seems that we also see through them, to the pentimento of every other terrible thing that ever happened while they had to sit there like an Easter Island emperor penguin.

I will say that Aaron Brown on CNN was the man I wanted standing on my roof, from whom I'd even buy insurance, while Bill O'Reilly factoring on Fox was a guy I wouldn't let in to check the Con Ed meter. But then CNN also still has foreign bureaus in those inconvenient places where the strangest people behave as though they have a purchase on history, too -- like Kabul, from which only Nic Robertson was seen to be reporting, as only Peter Arnett had reported before him from Baghdad during the Gulf War. On the other hand, there was Larry King, who has never met a ninny who couldn't wow him. Fruit bats fly into one of his ears and out the other as though there's nothing there but ether.

But we needed the rapture of the feed. We needed the shadow on the scan. And then the reversion. Before you could say Holy War, the screen filled with the usual pols, and their hierophants and sycophants. Bad enough that we had to listen on every channel to the same spin doctors explaining the same behaviors of a Flying Dutchman president. But we also had to listen to the pols we had booted out of office in previous elections, like the disgraced former dictators in García Márquez's "Autumn of the Patriarch" waving at the sea as it sails by their retirement home: one last photo op for James Baker, Madeleine Albright, Richard Holbrooke and Dr. Kissinger himself. What we didn't see -- or at least I didn't, and I have more eyes than most flies -- was any meaningful dissent from the tom-toms. End of dialogue.

We are apparently supposed to shut up and eat our spinach. Asking questions, proposing alternatives, making distinctions, arguing analogies, remembering history or criticizing our stand-tall president is for the moment unpatriotic and maybe even unmanly. Wave that flag, stuff that qualm. The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that even such "peacenik" leftovers from the Vietnam era as Lee Weiner, one of the Chicago 7, and Stew Alpert, an original Yippie, were all of a sudden in favor of retaliatory violence and "surgical" military strikes. Grace Paley, on the other wonderful hand, suggests in the same article that we bomb Afghanistan with three tons of wheat, rye and rice, since they are starving: "If we do it with a vicious attitude, maybe that will be enough for some people."

I want to say something about Afghanistan, but in a minute. First this incantation: There can be no grievance that excuses the killing of innocents, either by terrorism or state violence, its Siamese twin. Any cause that does so is corrupt. The murder of children in Belfast, Sarajevo, Rwanda, Beirut or anywhere else is beyond extenuation. Some of the West's best writers, from Dostoevsky and Conrad and Malraux to Mary McCarthy, Heinrich Boll, Doris Lessing, Alberto Moravia, Nadine Gordimer and Gabriel García Márquez, have tried to read the minds of what Don DeLillo in "Mao II" called "men in small rooms." All they've done is make those minds seem almost as interesting as their own, which of course they aren't. The kamikazes of Kingdom Come -- the skyjackers, land-miners, thumbscrewers, militia-men, death squads and ethnic cleansers; the bombers of department stores, greengrocers and abortion clinics; the Pol Pots, Shining Paths and Talibans -- have stupefied themselves.

That said, our intellectual responsibility is to read our own minds. We are, we are told, at war. In wartime in America, civil liberties go out the window. Abe Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War. During World War I, Woodrow Wilson's attorney general pushed an Espionage Act through Congress that kicked socialists out of state legislatures and sent Eugene V. Debs to prison. During World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt wasn't at all troubled by the internment of thousands of Americans guilty of nothing else but Japanese descent. Even the Cold War was hard on radical schoolteachers and those government workers who could be blackmailed because they were homosexuals. And the war on drugs has long since undermined constitutional protections against searches and seizures and a dozen other niceties of due process.

Let's hope a war on Osama bin Laden and his cancer cells is more successful than the war on coke and smack, although the difficulties seem at least as onerous and the prosecution is likely to last even longer. ("Infinite Justice," indeed. Well, to "rid the world of evil" takes a while. And perhaps one should be grateful we stopped calling it a Crusade.) But already 115 individuals are being held by federal authorities under the notoriously permissive gunslinger bylaws of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, without charges, bail or even lawyers. (When in recent history have we seen so few lawyers, fetishizing an antiquated Bill of Rights?)

Already Congress is falling all over itself to give Attorney General John Ashcroft most of what he wants in roving wiretap legislation (cellphones having complicated the warrant-getting process), e-mail and other Internet peeping rights, detention and deportation of aliens based on secret evidence, and a gutting of statutes of limitation, not to mention the unleashing of the CIA to hire its own gang of thugs and to resume assassinating foreign leaders we don't like.

And already the cry goes up for a technological deliverance from our grief and insecurity by the "biometrics" of fingerprinting, voice recognition, retinal scans and racial profiling, not only at airports, but at train stations, sports stadiums, parks, schools and reservoirs. Plus of course a national electronic ID "smart" card, capable of tracking our criminal history, our bodily motions, our financial transactions, and our driving speed. Previous "wartime" abridgements of freedom have been temporary, but will Infinite Justice mean Permanent Surveillance? Somebody besides Congresswoman Barbara Lee must ask these questions. And why haven't I see her on network or cable television?

Now about Afghanistan: Readers of Salon, in particular, and surfers of the Web, in general, know a lot more about the subject than watchers of television, unless the TV watchers happened to catch a sympathetic segment on "CBS News Sunday Morning." But on Friday, Sept. 14, Tamim Ansary, an Afghan writer of delightful children's books who happens to live in Berkeley, Calif., posted a cri de coeur that has since been published in Salon and forwarded to tens of thousands of e-mail sites. He hates bin Laden and the Taliban equally. But he argues that a bombing attack will only kill women and children, including 500,000 orphans from all the previous wars. How then to snuff the mastermind? Ground troops, obviously. But these would have to advance from Pakistan, where bin Laden's sort of fundamentalists are perhaps stronger than the government. Which in turn could mean a fight to the death between Islam and the West, exactly what bin Laden lusts for.

Imagine Tamim Ansary talking to Larry King.

There are indications that Secretary of State Colin Powell, if not any of the talking heads on television, may share these apprehensions. But even as I type, two dozen heavy bombers are circling what we think of as the crime scene and the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, with 70 attack planes, has left Virginia for an undisclosed location. I wish each pilot could read not only Ansary's anguished essay but also a Sept. 15 Internet communiqué from RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, the underground feminist organization that has braved the wrath of the Taliban by teaching its own children and by smuggling out videotapes of executions to Western news outlets. RAWA asks us, please, to differentiate between the people of Afghanistan (70 percent women and children) and "a handful of fundamentalist terrorists."

But that's impossible, from an aircraft carrier or a bomber or the little blue fox full of Bill O'Reilly. It's especially impossible if nobody talks straight to us in the mainstream media. It's almost as though we don't need any legislation to curtail our dangerous civil liberties. Stunned by grief, we've shut ourselves up. If the ultimate contemptuous purpose of terrorism is to dominate and humiliate -- to turn citizens into lab rats and cities into mazes -- then bin Laden may have already won this round, because we seem to have acquiesced into playing his favorite game: bloodbath.

John Leonard

John Leonard is the Culture Watch columnist for the Nation, media critic for "CBS Sunday Morning" and television critic for New York magazine.

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