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War on Terrorism: World Views

Interviewee: Alexander Stille
March 27, 2002

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The latest issue of the Council on Foreign Relations’ semiannual publication, Correspondence: An International Review of Culture and Society, reports on what the U.S. media may have missed in coverage of the war on terrorism since Sept. 11. The issue publishes reports from Haiti, Mexico, Brazil, Indonesia, Russia, and all the regions of Europe, with related stories on Europe’s battles over immigration and minorities.

Alexander Stille, editor of Correspondence, will be online Wednesday, March 27 at Noon EST, to discuss how the U.S. media has covered the war on terrorism and views from the rest of the world.

Submit your questions either before or during the discussion.

Editor’s Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Indianapolis, Ind.: what do you think about the criticism about reporters in general and how it has effected the media’s reporting on the war and the public’s confidence in their reporting?

Example: One day I was listening to Limbaugh as he played clips of a press conference with Secretary Rumsfeld. Limbaugh made several editorial comments about the reporters. He said the reporters were asking “silly” questions and they didn’t understand anything. That night I saw the entire interview on C-SPAN. Some of the reporters I recognized (I’m a military buff) as reporters who have convered the Pentagon and military issues for many years. So I don’t appreciate comments implying they’re all ignorant and ask silly questions, etc.

Alexander Stille: Good afternoon. Thanks for your question. I think there is nothing wrong with people criticizing the media as they would any institution that plays a role in public affairs. But one would hope that any criticism would be carefully grounded in fact rather than simply reflect a dislike for the media itself or be an occasion to execute the messenger bringing bad news.

In this specific case, I didn’t see this press conference, but I’ve certainly found myself from time to time irritated at the level of questions at press conferences. What concerns me about the episode you’re describing is that in a climate of war questioning the Secretary of Defense can seem to some people to be inpertinent by its very nature and to be disrespectful and unpatriotic. In general I think the press has been very deferential to the government in this current crisis. Whereas good sharp questions about what we’re doing in Afghanistan are completely reasonable. But in this specific case I can’t judge it. I worry that the asking of the question itself is seen as inappropriate.


Vienna, Va.: Hi and thank you for answering our questions: Over the past seven or eight months, two related terms have been used in so many different ways that I am finding it somewhat confusing—and those terms are “terrorist” and “terrorism.”

Prior to Sept. 11, the Israelis rarely used the terms terrorists for the Palestinians. In fact, depending on what press one reads to get a balanced story, the Palestinians have been called everything from “terrorists” to “freedom fighters,” with a whole range in between.

Are “terrorism” and “terrorist” relative terms that everyone uses against something with which they disagree (that may or may not include physical violence)? OR is there a standard definition that has been adopted by organizations like the United Nations, Congress, or academia that is objective and easy to understand? When a term is twisted and contorted to fit any cause or individual with which one disagrees, the term loses its significance and impact.

Please help! I would like to simply be able to read and listen to the news, understanding context and assumptions, knowing what is fact and what is politics (hahaha... interesting dichotomy, eh?)

Thanks!

Alexander Stille: Terrorism is generally understood to involve violence against non-combatants, and as the name terrorism suggests, its objective is to spread terror rather than to simply eliminate an adversary. Vladimir Lenin was quoted as saying, “Strike one in order to educate one hundred.”

The World Trade Center attack is a perfect example of terrorism because its objective was clearly not simply to eliminate the 3,000 or so people who were killed but had a host of other symbolic objectives—to paralyze the U.S. economy by making people afraid to fly, visit New York—as well as to make a symbolic statement to people in the Islamic world about the vulnerability of the world’s major power. Terrorism in its classic definition has this symbolic dimension to it. Applying it to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is very tricky because there are elements of military confrontation as well as a war of symbols. Clearly, however, the strategy of many Palestinian fighters has changed in this recent intifada in which civilians have clearly been the principal target and in which terrifying and wearing down the general population in Israel is an objective. Therefore, it would seem to fit some of the classic definitions of terrorism, but one could also argue that the demolition of houses and other recent actions of the Israeli military, which have harmed civilians, have also been attempts to intimidate that population and are open to some of the same criticisms.


Arlington, Va.: In this era of the “global community” is what what we get from the U.S. media really going to be very different from, say, European media?

Alexander Stille: Yes, and to a surprising degree. I spent a lot of time reading the foreign press this Fall in the wake of September 11 and was struck by the variety in the coverage I read. For example, the European press—especially that with a leftward leaning bent—very early on began giving a great deal of attention to civilian casualties caused by our intervention in Afghanistan. Similarly the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay received front page coverage in many European papers and lead to considerable diplomatic pressure from our European allies, which then in fact forced the U.S. to make a number of public statements and adjust its policy toward the prisoners. There was much less coverage of that here.

Editorial articles show an even greater distance. I was particularly struck, for example, by an editorial in a prominent Italian newspaper from one of the country’s most respected journalists—and one without a particular anti-American bias—who wrote that the tape that showed Osama bin Laden and his associates discussing the World Trade Center attacks was probably a CIA fabrication.

The difference is even greater when you leave Europe and look at the press in countries that are politically more distant from us where conspiracy theories are routinely aired. However, it’s also important to realize that in some cases that because the perspectives and interests differ greatly from ours they simply see these events very differently. It is impossible, for example, for Indian journalists to write about Afghanistan without thinking of problems with Muslim separatists in Kashmir and their own recent problems with terrorism. If you look at some of the articles in the current issue of Correspondence, I think you’ll find it striking how differently countries like Poland, Russia, Brazil, Germany, France and Haiti look at events that to us might seem black and white.


Alexandria, Va.: How common are “yes-but” rationales for the 9-11 attack in the foreign press—e.g., yes, of course terrorism is wrong but what about...?

Alexander Stille: Those types of “yes, but” pieces were extremely common after September 11. In Latin America, for example, many people noted that September 14 was the date on which the Socialist President of Chile Salvator Allende was deposed in a violent military coup with the backing of the U.S. government. The President of Haiti Jean Bertrand Aristide, while expressing condolences for the Trade Center victims reminded his fellow Haitians how often Haiti has been the object of terrorist violence and took this all the way back to the founding of the country at the time of the African slave trade.

There are different “yes, but” stories for almost every country you want to look at. The common denominator among them is ambivalence about, or negative feelings about the role the U.S. has played in world affairs since World War II.


Park Point: Alexander Stille: If terrorism is defined as “violence against non-combatants”—then is the indiscriminate killing of women, children; innocent villagers in Afghanistan a form of more subtle terrorism, or merely the ‘collateral damage’ of war? And since war has not officially been declared by Congress, does it make it a bit more difficult to qualify the bloodshed that comes every day to villages within Afghanistan? What are our long term goals that can justify such terrorism, or institutionalized terrorism? When have we killed enough to reassure our own safety; or are we but escalating hate around the world by our actions, whatever their assumed goal?

Alexander Stille: I don’t think it is fair or accurate to describe the civilian casualties we have caused in Afghanistan as terrorism. I honestly believe that the U.S. government could it have would have limited civilian casualties to zero. This doesn’t mean that we are exonerated from responsibility for those deaths, and in many instances in our history we have certainly cared less about civilian casualties than about the lives of our own soldiers and citizens. I think if you look back at history you could say that the fire bombings of Dresden or Tokyo during World War II were meant to create terror and break the will of Germany and Japan and force them to surrender. That does have certain elements of terrorism, although one may well decide, under those circumstances was justified. But I don’t think there was any such intention in Afghanistan where killing civilians would only weaken our position with the Afghan people and make reconstruction of the country more difficult.


Harrisburg, Pa.: As if true with most stories, reporters discover inside and side stories of most events years afterwards. Obviously, there is much to September 11 we haven’t yet learned. Do you believe our government has been straightforward in releasing news on the terrorist attacks? Other than declining to release sensitive material on defense and homeland security, do have you any sense there is anything that might be embarassing to the government is being kept from the public?

Alexander Stille: I suspect that we will learn a lot in the next few years about aspects of September 11 and its aftermath that we don’t currently know. Take for example the recent report that the U.S. government had warning of a nuclear device possibly being detonated in New York at some time this Fall. The goverment decided that the warning was not reliable enough to risk panicking New York, and therefore the report was supressed for a few months. There may be many other things of this kind that we don’t know. As a citizen I hope that we don’t have too many very big surprises, but so far everything that has happened starting with September 11 has contained a lot of surprises. I really don’t believe that the government has lied about anything fundamental because the political cost would be so enormous.


Washington, D.C.: How can you explain some of the immigrations priorities both here and abroad, especially post-Sept. 11? The administration is pushing for “amnesty” for illegal immigrants with the proposed extension of 245(i). I also recall hearing reports of a change in Germany’s immigration laws. Is there a global consensus emerging that immigration laws should be loosened?

Alexander Stille: There is no global consensus on immigration, and it remains a hotly debated topic, particularly in Western Europe which has become a major destination for a new generation of immigrants. Some countries like France are accepting that they have become a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic society and are trying to adjust their laws to reflect that reality at the same time as there is an anti-immigrant backlash. But it’s taking the form of tough new anti-crime laws, French zero tolerance, rather than anti-immigration policies. Other countries like Denmark and Holland, which have been known for their tolerance toward immigrants, have either passed or are contemplating anti-immigration measures. Anti-immigration legislation is being drafted in Italy even as the country looks at a major labor shortage now and in the future.


Alexander Stille: Thank you Alexander Stille—your perspective, as always, has been most illuminating.

© Copyright 2002 The Washington Post Company

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