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
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 time.
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,
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
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 bodes ill.
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
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 fire extinguisher.
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.