This very well read special correspondent has provided some interesting cultural and societal analysis of why the world is now shocked by terrorism.
“Wasn’t it cool when the plane crashed into the building?” was a comment overhead in an inner urban supermarket this week.
It came from a child – perhaps six – and his father responded: “Yes. Cool”
Yet another comment heard by many: “I walked into the sitting room where the TV was on and thought there was a re-run of a disaster movie”.
All three comments illustrate something important about us – perhaps something more important than all the pages and hours of coverage of the events and the Islamic threat.
First, they illustrate that we in the developed West live in a world in which a significant number of people simply can’t tell the difference between reality and unreality.
TV kept on with the relentless but largely uninformative coverage purely to demonstrate that it recognised what was important, but many of the public soon tired of it and wanted to get on to the next version of Big Brother. After all, they had seen the disaster movie repeats a few times by then.
Second, it’s not entirely the public’s fault.
Perhaps the most staggering thing about the terrorist attacks on Washington and New York was the way the volume of media coverage was in almost inverse proportion to the quality of the coverage. On Wednesday Australian time you could have seen the same events time and time again on Australian TV without actually learning much in detail about how it happened and why. The actual events may have been tragic but the coverage was about spectacle and formulaic spectacle at that. The Net provided more facts faster and in Australia only the Australian Financial Review, particularly the Friday and weekend editions, looked beyond the spectacle to ask why.
All in all it was a week in which we could all mourn the death of the inimitable I.F.Stone who would have – however unpopular it made him – provided a principled and effective criticism of every second of coverage.
Fourth, even in tragedy we now resort to spin rather than raw emotion and authenticity. George W. Bush and his advisers were darting around the country in Air Force One in what looks distinctly like a funk. Nobody says so because the US and the “free world” need to unite behind the President. Of course, it may not have been a funk and the Air Force One team could have been spending their time thinking about what to say rather than what to do. Significantly, before Tuesday, Washington insiders were talking about the problems of the George W. Presidency and the urgent need to do something about his dreadful presentation skills.
They must still be worried because on the rare occasions when anybody got to hear or see George W. his words were pre-packaged grabs designed for 30 seconds on the TV. This was big, so the normal 15 second grab could be extended. The phrases were obviously carefully crafted; his close set eyes obviously struggled with the autocue; and, the body language was awful. But he was the President. The CNN team – who had hyped his first speech as one of the most important in history – were strangely silent when he finished. And it didn’t look like that silence induced by massive emotion after a heart-stopping performance.
In contrast even Howard was better. Howard who can usually be relied on to fail the test of oratory when it requires empathy and emotion (witness his hapless comments on Princess Di) was actually authentic. He confessed that words were inadequate and used an authentic phrase, “an act of bastardry”, which resonated with angry and confused people.
Similarly Hizzonner, Rudy Giuliani, was authentic. No oratory, no false emotion – just a flintlike honesty which contrasted starkly with the words someone had crafted for George W and which he had spent so much time unsuccessfully practising.
Tony Blair, who normally sounds like the worst kind of low church evangelical parson, conveyed genuine emotion at the TUC conference but was back to alliterative grabs in Number 10.
Bill Clinton, from outside a hotel in northern Australia and in the streets of New York, got it right so completely that it once again reminded us of why he was a brilliantly successful politician.
Fifth, the lack of authenticity throws new light on the concept of bearing witness. Interviews with people who witnessed the events, who saw desperate people jump from the top floors of the World Trade Centre, were really reality television. In contrast the footage of young school children depositing flowers at the US Consulate in Melbourne had a cute complicity in which they knew they were performing and in which we knew that they knew that the media reality was more real than their actual act.
Sixth, despite the public protestations of horror a significant number of people in the West actually secretly felt less sympathy than they expressed. Certainly they were horrified by the deaths and the horror but their ingrained anti-US feelings made the actions comprehensible to them.
The quickest way to recognise these individuals is to note how they stressed that the acts were “incomprehensible” leaving protestations of evil and assorted other words to others. After suitable foreplay, which established that they could say what they thought without being stoned, they pointed out that bin Laden was a US-creature, trained and funded when the evil empire was Russian rather than religious. If this didn’t provoke outrage they ventured the thought that the people of New York might now understand what the people of Baghdad had experienced.
At least, unlike a largely ahistorical US public who know nothing beyond instant, commoditised junk cultural factoids, they appreciated that there may be reasons – however unjustified – for the acts.
Seventh, the “West” reacted typically in stigmatising the entire one billion strong Muslim community around the world. In defence of most of the public the appalling coverage of the Islamic world – in all its diversity and difference – in western media means that the public simply doesn’t know. The clash of civilisations is a convenient catchphrase which hides much but fits headlines and 45 second expert grabs wonderfully. Almost 20 years ago Edward Said wrote a book, Covering Islam, which excoriated western coverage of events such as the Iran hostages and the Saudi Princess documentary. Today it sounds more like prophecy than history.
Eighth, the terrorists were totally calculating in a different way to which they have been accused. They wanted to cause massive damage but they wanted to make their point in ways that exploited both the symbolism and media techniques which underpin our culture. They may have been our enemies but, sadly, they seemed to understand us better than we do ourselves.
Ninth, they actually hoped for massive US retaliation because that fuels the continuous negative feedback loop in which western and Islamic relationships have become mired.
More terror, more reactions, more militants – more evidence that we are a materialistic society which has abandoned honesty and authenticity for artificiality, unreality, spin and spectacle – to become the personification of the Great Satan.
A bigger war in the Middle East. Uprisings against all those Muslim leaders – in Jordan, Egypt, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait – who are US client states. Fresh motivation for those in Turkey and the Russian Near East who demonstrate daily that many Islamic countries are actually friends of the West.
These were the corollaries they hoped were inevitable.
Tenth, the terrorists hope that all of this will fuel the massive sense of powerlessness, injustice and hatred which many in Islamic countries feel about the US.
There are a billion Muslims in the world today. The terrorists are a tiny, tiny minority among them.
Hypocrisy and hype about our horror will only add to the numbers.
Nobody deserves what the terrorists did but, looking into a mirror, it is possible to begin to comprehend why they think we do.
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