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October 26, 2001
Patriots and Scoundrels

It has been hard, these past few weeks, not to feel helpless, depressed, fearful and, most of all, erased. Ari Fleischer warned Americans to “watch what they say,” but in case some failed to obey this edict, many in the media ensured that views deviating even slightly from those of Donald Rumsfeld were censored, condemned or both. Who needs Fleischer when you have Thomas Friedman or Jonathan Alter—who would have rather circumscribed careers without the First Amendment—telling Americans, especially young Americans, to shut up and pledge allegiance?

From The Economist’s “Treason of the Intellectuals,” to Tim Russert’s show on CNBC where Friedman expressed his deep disappointment with college students who questioned administration policy, to Alter’s semi-hysterical smear “Blame America at Your Peril” in Newsweek (not to mention Michael Kelly’s already infamous assertions in the Washington Post that pacifists are “objectively pro-terrorist,” “evil” and “liars”), some journalists are taking up Fleischer’s banner and launching a nice little ideological jihad of their own. As Alter, a serial ’60s-basher put it, the left (of his imagination) is “unforgivably out to lunch” and “knee-deep in ignorant and dangerous appeasement.” What we need to do is shut up because “it’s kill or be killed.”

All of these attacks begin, as smears usually do, by utterly distorting what many on the left have been saying. Maybe I’m on the wrong listserves, but I have heard no one justifying the September 11 attacks or expressing sympathy for the Taliban, as The Economist and Alter suggest. And even though both articles condemn left-wing “appeasement” (so they can liken us to Nazi sympathizers), who on the left has been urging that we “appease” bin Laden?

Instead, many have argued that the attacks were a reprehensible criminal act, and that whoever was responsible should indeed be hunted down and brought to justice. We see this as a hideous crime, but we don’t see war as the solution. In fact, many of us fear that the current policy of bombing what little remains of Afghanistan and its benighted people (especially its women!) will, in addition to killing innocent civilians, do little to end international terrorism and, indeed, make matters much worse.

Why might those of us so “out to lunch” think that? Well, for starters, Bush the First’s jolly little war in the region made the material existence of millions of Iraqis, especially children, much worse without hurting Saddam Hussein one bit. Alter says that after the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, we “tried turning the other cheek” and it didn’t work. If U.S. policies in the Middle East have been “turning the other cheek,” I’d hate to see what belligerence is. Maybe Alter, patriot that he is, is perfectly happy to associate himself with government policies that have helped kill more than 500,000 Iraqi kids since 1990, but I, patriot that I am, am not. I think our country can and should do better, and I think that liberals and progressives have a right to say so.

The Economist says “there is a worrying confusion between (legitimate) explanations and (unwarranted) justification of last month’s terror.” Maybe at The Economist, but not in the pieces I’ve been reading. Many left-liberals question the sanctions in Iraq, our country’s ongoing support of the autocratic and repressive Saudi regime, and the use of American weapons to kill Palestinians. But it is a viscous slander to assert that “the left” feels the attacks were “deserved.” Andrew Sullivan went so far as to suggest that we are a pro-terrorist “Fifth Column.” I would think those who seek to silence other views, stifle dissent and condemn peace proposals are serving the forces behind this brand of terrorism much better than we ever could, especially since they actually have mass circulation media outlets as podiums.

Alter, Kelly and others might look to the example of CNN’s intrepid Christiane Amanpour. In addition to her gutsy reporting from the front, Amanpour hosted a CNN special on October 13 titled “An In-Depth Look at Islam.” She powerfully reminded viewers that the American and Arab media present almost diametrically opposed views of the region. Until recently, Americans barely saw anything at all except telegraphic coverage of the escalating conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. The Arab press and the Al-Jazeera network, however, repeatedly show their viewers the children in Iraq suffering from the sanctions, Israel’s use of American weapons and even critics of the Saudi regime.

Americans need to know how their government’s policies are being represented in the rest of the world, and they need informed public debate about those policies. The lesson is simple: We don’t need less information and commentary, we need more. You would think that journalists and commentators, of all people, would be the first to insist upon this principle.

Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communication studies at the University of Michigan whose new column will appear regularly. She is the author of Where the Girls Are: Growing up Female with the Mass Media and, most recently, Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination. Douglas is currently working on an examination of how motherhood has been portrayed in the mass media from the late ’60s to the present.


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