Hey kids: Trick or Treat? Our leaders in government and media have provided you, on this Happy Halloween, with a face upon which to blame all your fears. Hear that voice under your bed? It must be the bearded guy with the turban, the man we love to hate: Osama bin Laden.
Terrorism has gone postal as anthrax powder dusts the mail of our national leaders from the Capitol to Rockefeller Center. Have those terrorists no shame? They’ve even threatened the Holy Book – the glossy one at the supermarket checkout counter.
From Day One of the anthrax scare, virtually the entire commercial media agreed with your fine and honest public servants in Washington: It must be bin Laden and those evil foreigners who are powdering your noses with bio-terror.
But in Sunday’s Washington Post, the mask began to slip: a story titled "FBI, CIA Suspect U.S. Extremists in Anthrax Cases," by Bob Woodward and and Dan Eggen reports, "Top FBI and CIA officials believe that the anthrax attacks on Washington, New York and Florida are likely the work of one or more extremists in the United States who are probably not connected to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda."
The story was technically broken six hours prior to press time at the Post, by a respected British daily. Ed Vulliamy of The Observer of London, reporting from New York, informed, "Neo-Nazi extremist within the US are behind the deadly wave of anthrax attacks against America, according to latest briefings from the security services and Justice Department."
Whoa, you mean Willie Bennett didn’t do it? It was Charles Stuart all along?
I remember being at my workstation at the Boston Phoenix on April 19, 1995 when the news came in that the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma had been blown to smithereens. The initial "official" reports pointed to Arab terrorists as the culprits. FBI Special Agent Henry C. Gibbons filed a sworn affidavit that eyewitnesses "saw two individuals running from the area of the federal building toward a brown Chevrolet truck prior to the explosion… males, of possible Middle Eastern descent." The Feebs put out an "all points bulletin," obediently repeated on TV and radio, to hunt down the "Middle Eastern male subjects."
And then that blonde guy, Timothy McVeigh, the Gulf War vet, went and screwed up our ritual of scapegoating foreigners by getting his Aryan ass caught and convicted for the crime.
What amazes me – I have to laugh so I don’t cry – is how the U.S. media has failed to readjust its coverage of the anthrax attacks since Sunday’s reports. They continue to march in lockstep with presidential press secretary Ari "Watch-what-you-say" Fleischer, who on Monday worked very hard to keep the paranoia focused toward foreign lands: "Obviously," Fleischer spewed, "a group of alien terrorists got into our nation and attacked the Pentagon and World Trade Center."
AP’s John Lumpkin wrote, on Monday, that, "a wider war could come if U.S. intelligence linked another country or terror group to the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, or to the anthrax attacks."
The script didn’t change down at the Quadragon, er, Pentagon, either, after Sunday’s reports. On Monday, during a Dept. of Defense press briefing, a reporter asked the administration’s Prince of Neo-Darkness, Paul Wolfowitz, "Is it at least conceivable that Iraq could be the originator of this anthrax?"
Wolfowitz: "I don’t think you can rule out anybody… But right now our focus is on al Qaeda in Afghanistan. It’s very important to make sure that whatever we do retains that focus…"
On "This Week with Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts," the DC insider Roberts appeared not to have read the local morning paper. She genuflected before Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and asked, "And if, in fact, it turns out that it was Iraq that infiltrated the anthrax, what do we do?"
On the M2 Presswire, corporate America was doing its part to distract from the Woodward-et-al bombshell. On Monday, the Skygate company issued a warning on "cyber-terrorism." Company director Pete Chown, referring to "Osama bin Laden and his group," said that "each attack attributed to them so far has been different – like the embassy bombings, the USS Cole, the World Trade Center, and the anthrax letters. It is likely that they will venture online at some point."
Senator Joe Lieberman (D-Sikorsky), not to be outdone, penned a column for the Wall Street Journal, saying it didn't matter what the facts are: "Whether or not Saddam is implicated directly in the anthrax letters… he is, by any common definition, a terrorist who must be removed."
The WSJ’s Robert Bartley, also on Monday, chimed in: "Saddam Hussein has the motive, means and opportunity to mount terrorism, and the anthrax attacks fit his modus operandi. There is plenty of reason to presume he’s behind the current attacks, with bin Laden and his al Quaeda network as front or ally."
And in Barron’s business magazine, Jonathan Lang interviewed "intelligence expert" George Friedman of Stratfor: "Friedman is certain that bin Laden’s al Quaeda organization is behind the anthrax attacks. The timing so soon after the September 11 attacks is more than coincidental."
Here’s the dirty little secret of your press corps, kids: It doesn’t take a dark media conspiracy for the Scribes and Pharisees of the Fourth Estate to keep repeating a discredited speculation as fact: They WANT bin Laden to be the culprit behind the anthrax attacks.
The consequences to public opinion about the lousy job the media has done since September 11th are simply too great to fathom if it turns out that domestic extremists of Aryan tendencies hid behind the bin Laden Halloween mask to wreak their homegrown terror with the anthrax letters.
Whether intentionally or through subconscious impulses, still other reporters reporting on the anthrax scare are still using a phrase that ought to make penalty flags jump. On Monday, in the Los Angeles Times, Janet Hook recited the tale of the "anthrax-laden envelope." (Not anthrax-contaminated, or anthrax-dusted, or anthrax-filled, nor just plain "anthrax letters" – the U.S. mail has bin Ladened.) The Ladening of the rhetoric is epidemic: also on Monday, Howard Kurtz, the dean of media critics at the Washington Post, echoed with a reference to an "anthrax-laden letter." Brian Williams of Reuters and Alan Fram of AP flooded the newswires with the same phrase in the journalistic copycat crime of the week: "Anthrax-laden letters."
Not everybody in the press corps has acted so unthinkingly by disregarding the gumshoe work of Woodward, Eggen and Vulliany. On CNN’s Capital Gang, Al Hunt of the Wall Street Journal rethought his prior assumption that "there was a foreign source involved" in the anthrax threat: "When Bob Woodward, the famous Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, writes a story over the weekend saying that the FBI and the CIA now think it is much more likely it was a domestic hate group, that really made me sit back and take notice. I don't know which is right, but I'll tell you, the ramifications, whether it's foreign source or a domestic hate group, are really huge. It's a different story."
Yes, the ramifications are very severe. If the anthrax direct mail campaign turns out to have been the work of U.S. citizens hiding behind a bin Laden mask, and not of "foreign terrorists," our entire society must rethink everything about its rush to judgment of recent weeks.
Come to think of it, after so much bombing of the graveyard of empires that is Afghanistan, we have still not been offered hard evidence that bin Laden and Al Qaeda were responsible for the September 11th attacks either. I don’t know who was behind the savage attack on my hometown of New York. But I don’t believe the government and the media have proved that they really know the truth. All I see, from the presidency to the press, is opportunism masquerading as duty.
If the blaming of the anthrax attacks on monsters from foreign lands was wrong, will we have the strength of character to also reassess our assumptions about what happened on September 11th, before we drive ten million more Afghan civilians from their homes? If not, then we, too, have joined the monsters behind the masks.
Former Boston Phoenix political reporter Al Giordano is publisher of the Narco News Bulletin reporting on the "war on drugs" from Latin America. He is the author of "Never Shut Up, New York," published this week in The Nation. He receives e-mail at email@example.com.
Issue Date: October 31, 2001
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