Helen Thomas deviates from the terrorism script

One can smell the fear as government officials refuse to address the question of motive

By Glenn Greenwald
Published January 9, 2010 9:10AM (EST)

(updated below)

Following up on Thursday's post concerning our collective refusal to discuss how American actions and policies fuel Terrorism:   at a White House press conference yesterday with Janet Napolitano and John Brennan, Helen Thomas shows -- yet again -- that she's one of the very few White House reporters willing to deviate from approved orthodoxy scripts.  She asks the prohibited question about the motives of Terrorists, and keeps asking as she receives complete non-responses, until they all just decide to ignore her:

Brennan's answer -- they do this because they're Evil and murderous -- is on the same condescending cartoon level as the "They-Hate-us-For-Our-Freedom" tripe we endured for the last eight years.  Apparently, if Brennan is to be believed, Islamic radicals, in their motive-free quest to slaughter, write down the names of all the countries in the world and put them in a hat and then stick their hand in and select the one they will attack, and the U.S. just keeps getting unlucky and having its name randomly chosen.  Countries like China, Brazil, Japan, Chile, Greece, South Africa, France and a whole slew of others must have really good luck.  That Al Qaeda is evil and murderous and perverts Islam is a judgment about what they do, not an answer as to what motivates them.

The evidence of what motivates Terrorism when directed at the U.S. is so overwhelming and undeniable that it takes an extreme propagandist to pretend it doesn't exist.  What is Brennan so afraid of?  It's true that religious fanaticism is a part of their collective motivation, but why can't he just say what's so obviously true:  "they claim that the U.S. is interfering in, occupying and bringing violence to their part of the world, they cite things like civilian deaths and our support for Israel and Guantanamo and torture, and claim that their terrorism is in retaliation"?  Indeed, Brennan's boss, the President, has often claimed that things like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib help Al Qaeda recruitment (and it seems clear it was part of Abdulmutallab's hatred for the U.S.), so clearly U.S. actions are part of the motivation.  Yet Brennan is afraid to acknowledge that not just past actions, but current ones, fuel the desire to target the U.S. for attacks.  Speaking of fear of acknowledging reality, note how Charles Krauthammer in yesterday's column -- when mocking Obama's (obviously correct) view that Guantanamo helps fuel Al Qaeda recruitment -- describes the first two grievances cited in Osama bin Laden's 1998 fatwa against the U.S. (troops in Saudi Arabia and death to extremely high numbers of Iraqi children through sanctions) while completely omitting the third (U.S. support for Israel). 

As I said on Thursday, to acknowledge motive is not remotely to imply legitimacy or justification.  In fact, the opposite is true:  pretending motive doesn't exist legitimizes it more than acknowledging (and refuting) it would, since that fantasyland behavior creates the impression that one is afraid of its being aired and heard.  That's certainly the impression that one gets watching John Brennan feed cartoon idiocy to the public in response to Helen Thomas' questions and then having everyone just move on when she tries to get an answer.  It's just amazing, given how much endless chatter there is over Terrorism, how rare it is for this question to be raised.


UPDATE:  As I did on Thursday, Juan Cole examines all of the evidence regarding what motivated Humam al-Balawi, the Jordanian physician who killed 7 CIA agents in Afghanistan last week, to convert from a CIA asset into an Al Qaeda suicide weapon, and he notes the "way al-Balawi's grievances tie together the Iraq War, the ongoing Gaza atrocity, and the Western military presence in the Pushtun regions."  Cole notes that his suicide video specifically decreed the attack to be in retaliation for a U.S. airstrike that killed the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, and Cole explains why it's so vital to address these issues forthrightly:

Morally speaking, al-Qaeda is twisted and evil, and has committed mass murder. . . . But from a social science, explanatory point of view, what we have to remember is that there can be a handful of al-Balawis, or there can be thousands or hundreds of thousands. It depends on how many Abu Ghraibs, Fallujahs, Lebanons and Gazas the United States initiates or supports to the hilt. Unjust wars and occupations radicalize people. The American Right wing secretly knows this, but likes the vicious circle it produces. Wars make profits for the military-industrial complex, and the resulting terrorism terrifies the clueless US public and helps hawks win elections, allowing them to pursue further wars. And so it goes, until the Republic is bankrupted and in ruins and its unemployed have to live in tent cities.

At least theoretically, "The American Right wing" is not in charge of any parts of the government, so to the extent these policies continue, they're not a legitimate scapegoat.  Whatever else is true, having discussions about how our policies motivate and fuel Terrorism is crucial to having any sort of minimally rational public debate about what we should be doing.  But as long as the patronizing, propaganda cartoons that we heard from John Brennan prevail, it's simply impossible for any of these considerations to be examined.  That, to me, seems to be the whole point of why those comic book narratives predominate and why the taboo persists:  to preclude any awareness of the true costs of our actions and therefore to preclude any meaningful public questioning of them.

Glenn Greenwald

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