Subject: HARD NEWS 14/9/01 - Making Sense of It
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GOOD DAY MEDIAPHILES ... It was as strange as if we had dreamed it. And, in a very modern sense, we have. We have seen
Armageddon, Deep Impact and Independence Day. We have seen New York laid waste in the movies.
As that great cloud of smoke, paper, masonry dust and human remains teemed down the from Trade Centre towers, then
stormed towards the cameras, it followed a visual syntax familiar to us all. But this time it was real and that was what
was so hard to grasp. This time, it wasn't Godzilla.
Yet even as we feel for America, we are fretting about America's response. The President's speeches reassure his people
- and unnerve the rest of us. What exactly is going on here?
As it happens, two of America's finest essayists, Lewis Lapham writing in last month's Harper's, and Gore Vidal, in
this month's Vanity Fair, have given us instructive and insightful works with which to untangle the horror.
The Lapham essay might have been written as a study guide to the utterances of George W. Bush on the day of the attack.
Bush's first words to his nation were: "Freedom itself was attacked this morning." America not only loves freedom - it
*owns* freedom. His big speech on the evening of the attack was littered with words like "justice", "peace" and
"freedom" - not once but repeatedly.
It served to support the dangerous fantasy that America has worn a white hat for the past five decades. The Americans
now calling for their country to get dirty have missed the fact that their country has played dirty for a very long
Television pictures of a few hundred celebrating Palestinians have already enraged Americans. But if I had spent 20 or
30 years rotting in a refugee camp in Lebanon, I think I, too, would celebrate a strike against the country that had,
year after year, used its veto to thwart the will of the United Nations over Palestine.
In 1988, a US missile cruiser shot down an Iranian airliner en route to Dubai, under the impression that it was a
warplane. 290 civilians died, their relatives later told to get lost by the US Supreme Court. America paid $2.9 million
in compensation - but only to the families of non-Iranian passengers.
When it happened, the father of the current American president was then campaigning for office. His statement was this:
"I will never apologise for the United States. I don't care what the facts are." Today's terrorists might be equally
callous, but surely not more so.
America has also, when it has suited, ignored acts of terrorism by foreign governments on its own soil. Take, say, the
1976 murder by car bomb of a Chilean opposition leader and his American assistant. It happened in downtown Washington DC
and the American government knew precisely who was responsible: the Pinochet regime it had helped install in Chile.
America didn't punish Pinochet: instead, it offered him FBI help in tracking down other dissidents, presumably so they
too could be assassinated in the Land of the Free.
Pinochet has been allowed to survive into the refuge of his dotage. Henry Kissinger, directly complicit in the deaths
of thousands of innocent people, will die comfortably in old age, no doubt accorded a state funeral.
It is rarely heads of state who pay the ultimate price for their actions, but ordinary people. And this week, thousands
of ordinary American people have been horribly snatched away. The awfulness here is almost impossible to grasp. Children
with no one to pick them up from school. Three hundred and fifty firefighters taken as they tried themselves to save
lives. About 5000 lives lost in all. And people in planes and buildings making cellphone calls to say goodbye, forever.
Even this far away, most of us have been shaken. I had to talk to my kids about it, especially my 10-year-old, who just
could not understand why someone would do this - he is a very moral boy. I eventually realised that the non-stop TV
coverage was really upsetting him. I turned the TV off,and he asked if he could be alone for a while. A 10 year old.
But this doesn't make it any better that thousands more people may soon die in a probably fruitless, low-risk attack on
the trappings of Osama Bin Laden - who was once himself helped and cultivated by the CIA, when it suited.
Or that Ariel Sharon, who oversaw the massacre of more than a thousand Palestinian civilians in a few days in 1982, is
now the Prime Minister of Israel, which receives billions of dollars from US taxpayers every year. Or that, by the
estimate of the United Nations, 600,000 Iraqi children have either starved to death or been poisoned in the years since
the Gulf War.
It is not a just world, and blind American anger will not make it so.
Bin Laden himself is a murderous, Islamist pig; a rich racist with an endless supply of cannon fodder. But he does not
inflict mindless, motiveless violence. He acts in a deeply political context. Which is where Gore Vidal can help us. He
writes about the last great slaughter of American innocents; the Oklahoma bombing.
Timothy McVeigh acted with a cold reason that he was able to explain in detail to anyone who asked; after Waco he felt
himself to be at war with a hostile government - his own. Yet, in public, writes Vidal: "There was to be only one story:
one man of incredible, innate evil wanted to destroy innocent lives for no reason other than a spontaneous joy in
The story was the same this week. In his evening address to the nation, Bush punctuated his words so that the phrase
"America was attacked by evil," stood on its own. Good was attacked by evil. It was that simple.
Yet, as Lapham relates, he visited France this year, shortly after an opinion poll in which people were asked about
images that came to mind when they thought of America. From a short list of words, two-thirds chose "violence" and
"power". Half chose "inequality" and "racism". Only 20 per cent chose "freedom", the image in which Bush chose to dress
America. And this in a Nato member country.
"Gradually it occurred to me," writes Lapham. "That the French didn't fully appreciate the doctrine of America
This tragedy has also drawn out the best in the American people. The deeply symbolic rush to give blood; the way little
people went to help, or turned over their websites to personal coverage of what was going on. These are positive and
poignant responses to trauma. But the American people's profound ignorance of their own government's foreign policy
A massive military response is being assembled even now. The cold fact that American military might isn't much use
against the kind of opponent America is fighting will be ignored. Bush will use this week as an excuse to spend billions
of dollars on missile defence - even though missile defence is now more absurd than ever.
The US intelligence agencies - outsmarted yet again - are already demanding that civil rights be rolled back in the
hope of catching the next group of criminals. There will be pressure as never before on privacy. John Perry Barlow has
depicted the attack as the burning of the Reichstag - the calamity that unleashed the Nazis. We can only hope he's
And already, it seems, American anger has been turned inwards on Arab Americans - or even anyone who looks like they
might be Arab.
The economic consequences here are yet unknowable. Only hours before the attack, there was very bad news on the global
economy, with concerns focused on Japan. It's not yet clear what the additional impact of destruction, interruption of
business, an insurance nightmare and a general loss of confidence will be.
On the other hand, money spend setting right disaster will boost American GDP; and it may be fear of economic
consequences that stays the hand of America's military might.
For us, Air New Zealand has fallen in a hole at precisely the wrong time; things may be tough for the air travel
industry for a while now. Still, there are worse places to be right now than a food basket in the South Pacific ocean.
The world has changed and it already seems a long, long time since last Friday night and the B-Net New Zealand Music
Awards and the late, late party after at the Bowler. Special big-ups to MonkeyBoy for storming the decks with his his
two new Subware remixes and to SirVere for his good grace and general niceness after that unfortunate incident with the
Anyway, when I finally did leave the party, about 4.30, I walked up the hill and along K Road, as you do, before
catching a cab. It was a grotty, battered little taxi, driven by a little man in Muslim garb.
We got talking. Turned out, he was an electrical engineer. He was finishing off his PhD part-time, feeding his family
by ferrying out-of-it twentysomething in an out of K Road. And he couldn't understand why there wasn't a real job for
him - or for most of his friends. They were from Pakistan; not refugees, but skilled migrants whose skills New Zealand
now didn't seemed to want.
He asked me about my work, said he
felt bad about being a drag on the country - surely the government didn't want this? I told him I was ashamed that he
didn't have a job worthy of his skills. And then stood on the footpath watching him drive away, kicking myself for not
just tipping him the last twenty in my wallet.
Now, with local mosques having to increase security, with Winston Peters standing up in Parliament to suggest that the
Afghan refugees still headed here might be terrorists, with, even here, bigotry in the air, I fear the little guy has
more problems than ever. I hope I'm wrong, I really do.