Casualties of 9/11: Part Four
By Greg Guma
As the US entered World War I in 1917, Hiram Johnson, a US senator from California, issued a warning that went to the heart of the country’s predicament. "The first casualty when war comes is truth," he explained. Although he didn't mention it, the second casualty is just as obvious: freedom. After 9/11, both were offered up eagerly as the national media stoked primal fears, setting the stage for the most dangerous rollback in basic rights since the 1950s.
Consider what followed in the first few months of this "new kind of war": massive secret detentions, curbs on privacy and dissent, media outlets self-censoring their coverage. More than 1100 people were held without criminal charges, often on the basis of weak evidence. Under the hastily-passed USA Patriot Act, investigators were empowered to monitor talks between detainees -- whose names and alleged crimes were classified -- and their lawyers. Wire-tapping, e-mail surveillance, and secret searches all became easier. Solitary confinement and restrictions on visitors could now be imposed for a year, rather than the previous 120 days.
In Arkansas, an Uzbekistani woman was jailed for 40 days for being in a car with someone whose name was similar to someone on the FBI watch list. A young Egyptian who supposedly had a radio transmitter in his hotel room across from the World Trade Center was held for weeks. He turned out to be innocent, but before his release, he was "persuaded" to confess. Had he been tortured? It was a non-issue, news-wise. Meanwhile, the FBI publicly considered using a "truth serum" to crack recalcitrant suspects, and threatened to deport detained foreigners to countries that used torture.
Tom Ridge, the new Homeland Security Director, talked tough, calling all this "a permanent condition to which Americans must adjust." Equally disquieting, many of the ideas came from ultraconservative groups like the Federalist Society, which seized the chance to turn old wish lists into policy. Basically, the limits placed on the FBI and CIA 25 years earlier were being reversed. Beyond that, the wall between the two agencies was being broken down. Henceforth, the CIA would have an official role in deciding who was targeted inside the US and what information was collected. Other law enforcement agencies were obliged to give the Agency access to their information. Basically, the Bureau and the Agency could now work together on operations, including some against domestic political groups and individuals.
What groups? Officially, they were supposed to have connections to terrorists of foreign intelligence agencies. But Attorney General John Ashcroft clarified that. In December 2001, he explained: "To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists. They give ammunition to America's enemies." It was clearly a warning: this new security regime could easily be turned against almost any critic of the government.
Despite the signs, debate over how much freedom to sacrifice was little more than a sidebar to the war in Afghanistan, one small part of round the clock disaster coverage. TV shows telegraphed the main message: The War Room, America at War, Region in Conflict. Polls meanwhile reinforced the argument that most people accepted the situation, and trusted government to handle things. There was also the usual excuse: we'd better be safe -- that is, just accept the creeping implementation of police state tactics -- than sorry.
Many of these developments were mentioned by the press corps. But at the same time, they were explained away as part of a minimal and absolutely necessary response to the new terrorist threat. More to the point, major news outlets openly debated whether the public was being told too much.
Taking the cue, CNN Chair Walter Isaacson ordered his staff to "balance images of civilian devastation in Afghan cities with reminders that the Taliban harbors murderous terrorists," saying it "seems perverse to focus too much on the casualties or hardship in Afghanistan." In a memo, he admonished reporters covering civilian deaths not to "forget it is that country's leaders who are responsible for the situation Afghanistan is now in," suggesting that journalists lay responsibility at the Taliban's door, not the US military's.
As Fairness and Accuracy in Media put it, if anything was perverse, "it's that one of the world's most powerful news outlets has instructed its journalists not to report Afghan civilian casualties without attempting to justify those deaths." CNN had essentially mandated that pro-US propaganda be included in the news, while rationalizing its decision to ignore excesses. The story was the same at Fox News, where news anchor Brit Hume wondered why journalists bothered covering civilian deaths. "The question I have," he said, "is civilian casualties are historically, by definition, a part of war, really. Should they be as big news as they've been?"
NPR's Mara Liasson and US News & World Report's Michael Barone went further, arguing that civilian deaths weren't news at all. What was? Apparently, rampant speculation on every imaginable catastrophe, keeping viewers in a permanent state of anxiety -- and hopefully, glued to the tube for the next live disaster.
An epidemic of self-censorship and convenient reality distortion spread across the country. In Panama City, Florida, a News Herald memo warned editors: "DO NOT USE photos on Page 1A showing civilian casualties from the US war on Afghanistan. Our sister paper in Fort Walton Beach has done so and received hundreds and hundreds of threatening e-mails and the like. DO NOT USE wire stories which lead with civilian casualties from the US war on Afghanistan. They should be mentioned further down in the story. If the story needs rewriting to play down the civilian casualties, DO IT. The only exception is if the US hits an orphanage, school or similar facility and kills scores or hundreds of children."
The fact that truth had taken a back seat was not even disguised. As Hume told the New York Times, "Look, neutrality as a general principle is an appropriate concept for journalists who are covering institutions of some comparable quality." But, he added, "This is a conflict between the United States and murdering barbarians."
Hollywood also jumped on the bandwagon. Stars and heads of production companies conferred with government officials on how best to spread the official line. At the Institute for Creative Studies at the University of Southern California, Hollywood talent consulted with military brass to speculate about future attack scenarios.
At the same time, "inappropriate" comments brought a reprimand or worse. When Bill Maher, then host of TV's Politically Incorrect, said the World Trade Center terrorists might be more brave than the US military, several affiliates dropped the show and ABC boss Michael Eisner threatened to fire him. Eight months later, his show was abruptly canceled. As Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer warned, in times like these, "people have to watch what they say and watch what they do."
A new McCarthyism – call it fascism-lite – was on the rise. Following several incidents in which academics were reprimanded for expressing allegedly unpatriotic views, the American Association of University Professors pleaded for an end to an atmosphere where thinking out loud was considered subversive. But who was even listening? Well, clearly the government, which invoked the "national emergency" to violate even one of the most basic legal rights – attorney-client confidentiality. "If we can't speak with a client confidentially," warned Irwin Schwartz, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, "we might not speak with him at all."
The new anti-terrorism law gave the government sweeping new powers to conduct searches and tap phones with only a suspicion of crime, rather than the old standard, probable cause. Government agents could now seize medical and student records, or track credit-card purchases and large cash transactions. Military tribunals could be used to try and sentence suspects without a jury or public access to the process. Any US attorney could get the FBI to launch its Carnivore Internet surveillance system to monitor a suspect's Internet surfing. "It's a very serious shift in policy and in American culture," noted Ken Gude, an analyst with the Center for National Security Studies. "We're getting to the point where it's guilt by association."
"If we give up our freedom, the terrorists have already won." That became the cliché of the moment. But the reality was much more unsettling: People were surrendering much of their freedom without seriously taking note -- and, as usual, the early winners were the US national security elite and their media enablers.
This is the conclusion of an essay adapted from Greg Guma’s 2003 book, Uneasy Empire: Repression, Globalization and What We Can Do.