August 15, 2005,
Whenever liberals remind us that not all Muslims are terrorists or anti-American rioters, I always think that not everyone in the pre-civil-rights south was a church bomber or member of the Ku Klux Klan. Even then, there was lots to like about the south. Southerners always have been known for charm and hospitality rather like Palestinians today, whom the foreign press finds much more appealing than brusque and bossy Israeli soldiers.
It's fair to say, however, that despite the existence of many decent people and even the occasional Atticus Finch type, southerners a generation or two ago were not exactly unsympathetic to ideas the Klan had about uppity blacks or busybody federal lawmakers trying to come in and destroy their way of life. But liberals then did not tsk-tsk about the observation that the segregated south was a toxic, racist culture that had to change nor did they explain to blacks impatient about local traditions like "colored" water fountains that really, this is a different culture after all, and we need to be sensitive and understanding.
Certainly I realize that there are differences between the pre-civil-rights south and Islamists today. The animosity of segregationists was focused on blacks; Islamists especially hate Jews, but also aren't fond of Americans, Christians, women, homosexuals, Buddhist statues, Hindus, irreverent Dutch filmmakers or the entire Western way of life. And even at its worst, the segregated south wasn't expansionist, at least not in the 20th century. When George Wallace stood in that schoolhouse door, he didn't mean that schools across the entire planet should conform to his notions of separate but equal or watch out for the suicide bombers.
A Different DocumentaryWhich brings me to Inside 9/11, a new four-hour documentary that premieres Aug. 21 on the National Geographic Channel. The producers have been promoting this two-night special, which the cable network considers so important that it's making the show available for free in areas that don't carry NGC, as strictly reportorial rather than political. And as far as possible, this is true: The documentary, which features over 60 original interviews and is partly based on newly declassified documents, is not only compelling but admirably meticulous and almost free of overt opinion. The first half examines the background of al Qaeda back to the '80s; the second is a chilling timeline of that terrible day "two sticks, a dash, a cake with a stick hanging down," to quote some of the strange pre-hijacking "chatter" described in the film: 9/11, if read right-to-left, as in Arabic (or with the day before the month, as in Europe.)
Yet how can any examination of such an enormous and terrible political act be completely free of political overtones? I doubt, for instance, that Osama bin Laden's friends will be happy to see Inside 9/11's brief interview with an American Muslim World Trade Center survivor, who'd tripped on a street in lower Manhattan while running from the smoke and was surprised to find himself helped up by an orthodox Jew in sidelocks and yarmulke, who briskly said, "Hey, brother, let's get out of here." There are plenty of people in the world who will find that scene quite politically incorrect.
And I, on the other hand, was irritated to hear a typical root-causes description early in the documentary, a passing reference to one terrorist whose "hometown" had been "occupied by Israeli forces after the Arabs' crushing defeat in the Six-Day War." Those brutal occupiers! Left unmentioned or explained, as usual, is the reason for that occupation that Arab plans to destroy Israel had once again been crushed. Such omissions are rarely noticed now, but are yet another reminder that crushing though the Arabs' defeat may have been in 1967, their subsequent propaganda campaign has been an enduring triumph.
Then there are the talking heads interviewed on-camera. Being human, they naturally have their own political take on things and it's to National Geographic's credit that this rarely comes through. Michael Scheuer, the former CIA senior intelligence analyst (and author of Imperial Hubris and Through Our Enemies' Eyes), infamously told Meet the Press last year that Osama bin Laden is "a tremendously formidable enemy... an admirable man. If he was on our side, he'd be dining in the White House." The only hint you get of this in Inside 9/11, though, is near the end, when Scheuer says that Osama's "message is a defense message he wants us out."
Give Bin Laden's Peace a Chance?He was more expansive at the Inside 9/11 press conference, held in Beverly Hills last month shortly after the London bombings. Scheuer had been talking in great detail about how the disaster could have been prevented. (On camera, Scheuer complains that a CIA plan to take out a vacationing bin Laden in 1998 was aborted, lest an Arab prince accompanying the terrorist on his desert falconing trip become collateral damage: "Well, the world is lousy with Arab princes," Scheuer remarks, and he has a point.) So I asked what he thinks should be done to prevent another 9/11-style attack in the U.S.
"We saw over the London thing the kind of Pavlovian response of [Tony] Blair and the president, that [the Islamic terrorists] hate our freedoms, they hate gender equity, they hate all that stuff and it's not true," Scheuer responded. "The beginning of winning this war is for the president to tell the American people that the motivation behind our enemy's actions has to do with our actions in the Islamic world, not who we are."
I asked: Such as what actions, specifically?
"Our unqualified support for Israel, our ability until recently to keep oil prices low, our occupation of the three holiest places in Islam (the Arabian peninsula, Iraq, and Jerusalem), our support for countries that oppress Muslims (China, India, Russia), our support of Arab police states over the last 30 years in Saudi Arabia, in Jordan, Algeria, Egypt," Scheurer said. "That's for starters. We've never had an enemy who's more clear about what's driving both him and the people who are supporting him."
There was a brief, slightly awkward silence at this, possibly as people wondered just what to make of Scheuer's Give Bin Laden's Peace a Chance Plan. This being a room full of media folk, I'm sure there were more than a small minority there who share his disapproval of Israel. But few people want to really seem like Jew baiters. Then there are the rather dizzying contradictions in Scheuer's root-causes explanation. We shouldn't support Israel or Arab police states but Arab police states like Saudi Arabia don't support Israel and do support terrorism. China, India and Russia may oppress Muslims, but not compared to Muslim countries like Iraq under Saddam Hussein, which for some reason al Qaeda never complained about. And is Scheurer actually arguing for higher oil prices?
"I can speak about the motivations of the individuals involved in the 9/11 attack," said Los Angeles Times reporter Terry McDermott, author of Perfect Soldiers: The Hijackers, Who They Were, Why They Did It and also a panelist at the Inside 9/11 press conference, "and I would completely agree with what Michael said."
Someone asked how many of the Inside 9/11 experts agreed with each other's points of view. Panelist Peter Lance, the former ABC correspondent and author of 1000 Years for Revenge: International Terrorism and the FBI (The Untold Story), decided to expand on that subject. "How many people think that the invasion of Iraq set us back in the war?" he suggested to the audience, raising his own hand.
At this, the National Geographic executives, who'd been looking slightly uncomfortable since Scheurer's what-Osama-wants speech, took action. "Peter, I'm not sure that's answering his question," said vice resident of production John Bowman.
"This is the biggest unsolved homicide in American history," Lance said a few minutes later. It is? I thought at this point it's not much of a whodunnit. But that take on the event, of course, illustrates the divide between those who consider 9/11 an act of war and those who think it should be prosecuted as a police matter. If Lance and those who agree with him are correct, though, then you have to wonder why it even matters what ordinary mass murderers would like. Were the political grievances of, say, Timothy McVeigh ever discussed seriously? Should we have considered meeting the demands of Charles Manson?