Robert Fisk: Railing against the facile acceptance of authority
by Thomas P. Healy
West Lafayette, Indiana — “Ladies and gentlemen, September 11, 2001 did not change the world.”
With these words, award-winning British journalist Robert Fisk began his two-hour lecture to an overflow crowd in excess of 500 at Purdue University on Nov. 20.
Fisk, Middle East correspondent for the Independent in London, pulled no punches in his talk entitled, “September 11th: Ask Who Did It, But for Heaven’s Sake Don’t Ask Why.”
Citing headlines around the world that have propagated the “changed world” theme, Fisk said he continues to ask colleagues not to write “the biggest lie our profession propagates.” Such “vapid, hapless and gutless journalism,” he said, “obscured realities and dishonored the dead” of 9/11 — an event he characterized repeatedly as a horrific tragedy.
Fisk railed against “the facile acceptance of authority” by most journalists in the post-9/11 era who rely heavily on anonymous official sources, and worse, who don war clothing. “Journalists have no business obeying orders that make them look like combatants. ... Is it any wonder journalists become targets for attacks?” he asked rhetorically, himself a victim of a near-fatal attack by Afghan refugees in December 2001.
The Bush Administration was also the object of his ire. Fisk said the tragic events of 9/11 “gave an excuse for George Bush to manipulate the American public’s grief and fear.” Listening to the president speak to the United Nations this past September, Fisk said it was apparent that “Bush is starting an attempt to reshape the Middle East” to suit his own and Israeli objectives.
“Iraq has nothing to do with the events of 9/11/,” Fisk opined. “This war is against American enemies and also Israel’s enemies.” He pointed to the post-9/11 “slippage” of focus on Osama bin Laden as the object of American military action in Afghanistan to current interest by the Bush Administration in Saddam Hussein. The media failed to point out the shift, he said. Instead, “Our journalists were silent. Far from doing our jobs, we went along with it.” He wondered aloud if the same reaction could be expected if the target changes to Damascus, Beirut or Riyadh. “Very few reporters have tried to ferret out facts,” he said.
Fisk lives in Beirut and travels extensively in the region. He observed that the result of the American bombing of Afghanistan, “the poorest country in the world,” allegedly to remove the “remnants of al Qaeda,” is devastation. “Afghanistan is descending deeper into anarchy. Drug lords rule the roads after dark.”
He related how he had narrowly escaped death at the hands of Afghani refugees last December. “Rescue came from a religious man who escorted me to a Pakistani van.”
Fisk wrote sympathetically about the situation, for which he received ridicule in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal and an incredible amount of hate mail, including Christmas cards that expressed sorrow that the refugees “hadn’t finished the job.”
“I hate the ‘what’ and ‘where’ stories that leave out the ‘why,’ ” he said. “Had I merely reported the attack by an Afghani mob, I would have fit the role,” he said. Instead he expressed understanding for the refugees’ hatred, writing that if he had been one of them, he too would have taken out his anger on a Westerner.
Fisk’s own report on 9/11, delivered that day via satellite phone from a U.S.-bound airliner forced to return to Britain when America closed its airports, was greeted with derision and hostility. “Not only was it wicked to think Osama bin Laden had a reason” [to commit the atrocities of 9/11], “it was even more appalling to consider as a topic for discussion that U.S. support for Israel and murderous Arab dictators might lay behind it.”
He decried the lack of search for a motive and took exception with the notion that the terrorists hated democracy. “Most wouldn’t know democracy if it got into bed with them.”
Fisk has interviewed Osama bin Laden several times. At his last meeting with bin Laden, in a camp originally built by the CIA deep in the Afghan mountains, bin Laden wore cheap plastic sandals on his bare feet and avidly read the Arabic newspapers Fisk had in his satchel. “Osama bin Laden seemed isolated but when he spoke it was with a chilling determination. ‘Mr. Robert,’ ” Fisk said, quoting bin Laden, “ ‘We fought and beat the Russians in Afghanistan and that battle destroyed the Soviet Union. Mr. Robert, I pray to God we can turn the U.S. into a shadow of itself.’ ”
Fisk thought of these “deeply disturbing” words while watching footage of the Twin Towers collapsing. “New York was a shadow of itself,” he said.
Osama bin Laden’s influence in the Arab world comes from the power of his words, Fisk said, and not from giving orders over a cell phone. “To many Arabs in the Middle East who were appalled by 9/11, Osama bin Laden does not sound insane.”
“The language of Middle East journalism has become incomprehensible,” Fisk said. Perhaps because “we journalists wish to enjoy an easy life unencumbered by hate mail or letters to the editor.
“Almost invariably, investigative reporting in the Mideast generates hate mail,” Fisk said. “The easiest way out of this problem for most journalists is to change the story.”
He cited several troubling changes in the “journalistic lexicon,” such as the notion of “remnants” of al Qaeda and the “mopping up” activities of U.S. armed forces. “Blood has become an increasing amount of our discourse.”
The horrible actions in New York City and Washington, D.C., were a “massacre” in the press, he said. But he pointed out that Sabra and Shatilla massacre in 1982 has never been called an act of terror even though thousands of civilians were murdered by Christian Phalangists under the watchful eye of the Israeli Army. And although an official Israeli review held Ariel Sharon responsible, he’s never been called a mass-murderer, Fisk notes.
Using a Newsweek magazine cover as illustration, Fisk spoke about the media’s disingenuousness. “Journalists have decontextualized Israel’s role in the occupied territories.” In fact, he pointed out, most journalists have been forced to delete the term “occupied” and replace it with “disputed,” thus “erasing Israeli checkpoints and illegal settlements.” Fisk said now they are called “war-won” territories. In this new lexicon, Fisk said, “the word obscures the reality.”
He quoted from an official CNN memo which informed reporters that henceforth they should refer to Gilo as a Jewish neighborhood on the outskirts of Jerusalem — not as “occupied territory” — despite the fact that the settlement was constructed in violation of international law. When Fisk confronted a CNN editor about the memo, he was told, “We really don’t want to talk about this.”
“In this lie about a ‘neighborhood,’ the viewer is spared the [historical] details,” he said. Similarly, Palestinians mysteriously die in “clashes” or are “caught in the crossfire,” but no other context is given.
Asked if he felt any pressure from editors to change the facts in his own coverage, he said, “The great thing about the Independent is that its foundation and the basis of its readers’ loyalty is that they know that what we write is what will appear in print. The moment we stop doing that they’re not going to buy us. They’ll go elsewhere. If someone comes along and says, ‘You will lose advertising if I continue to read this revolting piece about environmentalism,’ we’ll have to do without the advertising, otherwise we’ll lose the readers.”
He did acknowledge some good reporters. “Despite grotesque and misleading journalism, there are courageous Israeli journalists like Gideon Levy and Amira Haas from Ha’aretz,” he said.
One time he and Haas discussed their job as journalists. Fisk said he waffled and told his colleague it was something like “trying to write the first page of history.” Haas countered, “No. Our job is to monitor the centers of power.”
Fisk presented two video clips from “Beirut to Bosnia,” a three-hour documentary made in 1993 for the Discovery Channel, which looked at some aspects of the roots of Arab anger.
The first clip documented the destruction of a Palestinian family’s home by Israeli troops in the Occupied Territories. Included in the clip was footage of bulldozers surrounding the man’s house, which had been in his family for generations. The man even tried to buy the land back, but instead the area was converted into a middle-class neighborhood for Jews. Fisk interviewed one of the lucky homeowners, a French woman who paid $130,000 for her condominium with two balconies and “felt no fear” of living there.
The other clip showed raw footage of the victims of the Sabra and Shatilla massacre. It was painful to watch. Fisk, who had been at the site shortly after the ordeal, related how he sought out his camera crew during the shooting and climbed atop a dirt mound that he thought was solid. In fact it was a crude mass grave, soft and spongy with various body parts poking out of the dirt. In the clip he retraced his steps and showed where the Israeli command post had kept watch on the events. “I wondered if they saw what was happening, and when I looked I saw the sun glinting off their binoculars. So then I knew they were watching.”
In closing, he remembered the 17,500 killed in 1987 in the Lebanon Civil War, most of whom were civilians. “No one lit candles for them,” he said. “Without in any way belittling that one day, American’s obsession with 9/11 is taking on the character of a dangerous self-absorption.
“May I make an appeal?” he asked. “Let’s stop saying 9/11 changed the world! Let’s not go to the U.N. for human rights when 19 years ago President Reagan sent an envoy to Saddam Hussein to reopen diplomatic relations during the height of the gas attacks on the Kurds. You might know that the envoy was Donald Rumsfeld.
“Please, let’s always ask the ‘why’ questions,” Fisk concluded. “Let’s do what American journalists used to do — tell it like it is!”
In the question-and-answer period that followed the lecture, Fisk was asked what Americans can do to ask ‘why’ questions and get elected officials to respond. “I’m fascinated by the question,” he replied, “because I’ve gotten that same question at every lecture I’ve given in the U.S. for the past two years! It isn’t for me to preach to you as a Brit. I’ve been looking for supporters of President Bush. I start loud conversations in planes but I’m still looking for supporters. Over and over again I hear about the problem that elected representatives don’t represent your views. I wonder if there isn’t a class thing in America.”
Asked about the American Left, Fisk said, “Look, the problem with the progressive, Left activists is that all they do is talk to each other. I went to this seminar at an East Coast college and all these middle-class women were sitting around talking about ‘bridge-building between progressives and activists and socialists’ and they want to ‘build a bridge to the mainstream press.’ And I said, it’s irredeemable. Don’t waste your time. First of all, stop calling it mainstream. Start calling your press mainstream and theirs alternative. I said, “You are a very privileged little elite in this room. And I’m not giving you advice for what you ought to do; I’m a journalist. But if you want to reach out to people, stop talking to each other in your privileged little room. Talk to ordinary Americans: the truck drivers and the rail crews and the bellhops whose brothers and fathers are going to be sent to Iraq.”