The Media Is Tough On Terrorism But Not Tough On The Causes Of Terrorism

The great rallying cry of New Labour on entering office in 1997 was that they would be “tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime”. The liberal media were of one voice in applauding the logic – what could be more sensible than focusing, not merely on punishing criminals, but also on identifying the contributory social and political factors that cause crime?

Merely ratcheting up punishment of the criminals, everyone agreed, would do little to actually solve the problem.

Following the September 11 terrorist atrocities in New York and Washington – “a crime against humanity”, as journalist Robert Fisk and Mary Robinson, UN commissioner for human rights, among others, have rightly called it – the British Government and media remain determinedly tough on crime, but are less interested in being tough on the causes of crime.

The media has consistently denied the public access to authoritative voices that predicted, and could help explain, the causes of bitter opposition to Western policies in the Middle East. By suppressing these insights, the media is denying the public access to credible alternatives for ridding the world of terrorism that do not involve the slaughter of untold numbers of people in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In 1999, Denis Halliday, the former UN Assistant Secretary-General, issued a prophetic warning:

“We are likely to see the emergence of those who may well regard Saddam Hussein as too moderate and too willing to listen to the West. Such is the desperation of [Iraqi] people whose children are dying in their thousands and who are bombed almost every day by American and British planes.”

This warning came three years after U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s infamous reply to a question posed on a US TV programme in May 1996:

Questioner: “We have heard that a half a million children have died [because of sanctions against Iraq]. I mean that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And – you know, is the price worth it?”

Albright: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price – we think the price is worth it.”

In September 1998, Halliday resigned after 34 years with the UN, describing US and British policy towards Iraq “genocidal”. Halliday, who managed the UN ‘s ‘oil for food’ programme in Iraq, had first- hand knowledge and was unequivocal that Western-led sanctions truly were responsible for the deaths of fully 500,000 Iraqi children under five. In an interview last year, Halliday said:

“Washington, and to a lesser extent London, have deliberately played games through the Sanctions Committee with this programme for years – it’s a deliberate ploy… That’s why I’ve been using the word ‘genocide’, because this is a deliberate policy to destroy the people of Iraq. I’m afraid I have no other view at this late stage.”

Five months after Halliday resigned, his successor at the UN, Hans von Sponeck, also resigned, asking, “How long should the civilian population of Iraq be exposed to such punishment for something they have never done?” In December 1999, von Sponeck told a British audience:

“My friends, your country is trying to cage a wild tiger. But you are killing a rare and beautiful bird. In twenty years your fine universities will be using the sanctions on Iraq as an example of how not to pursue foreign policy.”

Two days after von Sponeck’s resignation, Jutta Burghardt, head of the World Food Programme in Iraq, also resigned, saying privately that what was being done to the people of Iraq was intolerable.

Despite the extraordinary gravity and urgency of what these senior UN diplomats had to say – not least for our own security – Halliday and von Sponeck were all but blanked by the British media, receiving a tiny number of mentions in the mainstream press. Since the atrocities in New York and Washington, Halliday’s views have been mentioned (as of 1.10.01) exactly once – by John Pilger in the Guardian. There have been no other mentions in the Guardian, zero mentions in the Independent, zero mentions in the Times and zero mentions in the New Statesman. Over the same period Hans von Sponeck has not been mentioned in any of these media.

In a September 19th appearance on the David Letterman show, ABC journalist John Miller stated that Osama bin Laden had told him in an interview several years ago that his top three issues were: the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia; U.S. support for Israel; and U.S. policy toward Iraq.” In a September 30 interview, Tony Blair declared that he had seen “powerful, incontrovertible evidence” that bin Laden was linked to the attacks. It seems likely, then, that these issues +are+ a source of the hatred that has been so successfully exploited by bin Laden – surely they should at least be debated. Unfortunately commentators have almost completely ignored the issue of Iraq.

Writing in the Guardian, Hugo Young suggested that a possible cause might be “the continuing air war against Iraq” (‘American values can defeat the terrorism of the mind’, 20.9.01). When asked if he was aware of Halliday and von Sponeck’s condemnations of sanctions, Young replied, “You can’t imagine I’m unaware of these key utterances about Iraq”, but failed to explain why he chose to ignore them while mentioning the comparatively trivial issue of bombing. In the same paper, Richard Dawkins wrote simplistically: “Religion is also of course, the underlying source of the divisiveness in the Middle East.” (‘Religion’s Misguided Missiles’, 15.9.01)

Also in the Guardian, Jon Snow focused on the devastating consequences of US foreign policy “ordained and executed in the highest interests of the US” (‘The war against hatred’, 19.9.01) in places as far-flung as Cambodia, Chile and Guatemala. But, strangely, of the Middle East, Snow wrote merely, “Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were befriended by America in the interests of estabilising ‘wrong-headed’ Iran and Russia respectively. Each stirred a vat of hatred that boiled over.” No mention was made of sanctions against Iraq, declared the West’s very own “genocide” by some of the UN’s most senior and respected diplomats, who predicted dire consequences as a result.

Some argue that to criticise Western policy is to rationalise, or justify, the attacks on the United States. We strongly disagree. Seeking to understand background conditions that enable terrorists to capitalise on hatred is simply a rational approach to ridding the world of the disease of terrorism and has nothing at all to do with justifying it. Media Lens condemns these monstrous attacks unreservedly, as it does all resort to violence. Writing in the Guardian, David Clark summarised the point well:

“A mature debate will depend on our ability to separate issues of cause and effect from questions of moral responsibility. Historians have correctly identified the punitive terms of the treaty of Versailles as a factor in the rise of Hitler. That does not turn them into Holocaust deniers… We will need to understand and address the deep-rooted alienation from which terrorists derive legitimacy and support in order to deny them their life-stream: tough on terrorism, tough on the causes of terrorism, if you like.”

Interestingly, the ‘rationalisation’ argument has generally not deterred commentators from seeking possible contributory causes, only causes that are most embarrassing to establishment interests.

We urge readers to ask journalists and editors to seek honestly the causes of hostility towards the West, so that that hostility might be understood, undermined and removed. It is in nobody’s interests to do otherwise.