Turn on the radio this week and a ghoulish voice from the bowels of theformer World Trade Center seeks to curdle your blood and chill your bones.It is yet another trailer evoking the horror of the twin towers and themonster of evil, Osama bin Laden. The BBC is desperate to outdo other mediaoutlets in commemorating the fifth anniversary of 9/11. They include moviesby Oliver Stone and Paul Greengrass. American and British channels havecommissioned 9/11 specials from Harvey Keitel and Kevin Kostner with suchtitles as 'The Millionaire Widows', 'The Miracle of Staircase B', 'OnNative Soil' and numerous variants on two towers. There are comic stripsand videos and where-was-I-then memoirs. The weekend is to be wall-to-wall9/11. Not glorifying terrorism? You must be joking.
The favourite line from the war on terror's military/industrial complex isthat in 2001 Osama bin Laden "changed the rules of the game". (Forgotten isthat he attacked the same target in 1993, his error being one of civilengineering.) George Bush repeated the change thesis again on Wednesday inconfirming his secret interrogation camps and the excuse for the five-yeardelay in bringing al-Qaeda suspects to justice. Tony Blair cites the changewith every curb on civil liberty. The "new" terrorism requires a newapproach to public safety. The security industry cries amen.
Most of this is self-serving drivel. Nervous rulers have colluded withsoldiers and businessmen throughout history to cite some ethnic orreligious menace when needing more power and higher taxes. Politicalviolence has become more promiscuous with suicide bombing and a consequentrise in kill rate per incident, but as Matthew Carr shows in his book onterror, 'Unknown Soldiers', the change is one of degree. Within two decadesof Alfred Nobel's invention of dynamite, Russian terrorists tried to pack aplane with the stuff and fly it into the Tsar's palace. In 1883Chicago-financed Fenians exploded bombs on the London Underground, leadingThe Times to wonder if the Tube could ever be safe. There has been littlechange in the preferred weapon of terror, the explosive device, or in thepsycho-pathology of the bomber. The causes remain the same, separatism andreligious nationalism dressed up as holy war.
What has changed, grotesquely, is the aftershock. Terrorism is ten per centbang and 90 per cent an echo-effect composed of media hysteria, politicaloverkill and knee-jerk executive action, usually retribution against somewider group treated as collectively responsible. This response has become a24-hour, seven-day-a-week amplification by the new "politico-mediacomplex", especially shrill where the dead are white people. It is thisthat puts global terror into the bang. While we take ever more extravagantsteps to ward off the bangs, we do the opposite with the terroristaftershock. We turn up its volume. We seem to wallow in fear.
Were I to take my life in my hands this weekend and visit Osama bin Laden'shideout in Wherever-istan, the interview would go something like this. Iwould ask how things have been for him since 9/11. His reply would be thathe had worried at first that America would capitalise on the globalrevulsion, even among muslims, and isolate him as a lone nutcase. He wasalready an "unwelcome guest" among the Afghans, and the Tajiks were out tokill him for the murder of their beloved leader, Massoud (which they mayyet do). A little western cunning and he would have been in big trouble.
In the event he need not have worried. Bin Laden would agree, as did theCIA's al-Qaeda analyst in Peter Taylor's recent BBC documentary, that theAmericans have done his job for him. They panicked. They drove the Talibanback into the mountains, restoring their credibility in the Arab street andturning al-Qaeda into heroes. They persecuted muslims across America. Theyoccupied Iraq and declared Iran a sworn enemy. They backed an Israeli waragainst Lebanon's shias. Soon every tinpot islamicist was citing al-Qaedaas his inspiration. Bin Laden's tiny organisation, which might have beenstarved of funds and friends in 2001, had become a worldwide jihadistphenomenon.
I would ask bin Laden whether he had something special up his sleeve forthe fifth anniversary. Why waste money, he would reply. The western mediawas obligingly re-enacting the destruction and the screaming, turning thebase metal of violence into the gold of terror. They would replay the tapesand rerun the footage ad nauseam, and thus remind the world of his awesomepower. Americans are more afraid of jihadists this year than last, up from72 per cent to 79 per cent (according to 'Transatlantic Trends') as are theBritish. As for European support for America's world leadership, that hasplummeted from 64 per cent in 2002 to 37 per cent.
Bin Laden might boast that he had achieved terrorism's equivalent of anatomic chain reaction: a self-regenerating cycle of outrage and foreignpolicy overkill, aided by anniversary journalism and fuelled by the grimscenarios of security lobbyists. He now had only to drop an occasional CDinto the offices of al-Jazeera, and Washington and London quaked with fear.The authorities could be reduced to million-dollar hysterics by a phial ofnail varnish, a copy of the Koran or a dark-skinned person displaying awatch and a mobile phone.
A feature of democracy is freedom of information and speech. News ofviolence cannot be concealed since concealment fuels the climate of fear.The state should not censor news of terrorist incidents. As Kunderaasserted, "the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memoryagainst forgetting." But there are ways of not forgetting. A feature ofdemocracy is also to deny arrest without trial, deny the use of torture anddeny retaliatory violence against people or groups. Democracy canapparently sacrifice these principles to guard against the 10 per cent ofterrorism that is bang. Why not restrain the publicity that fuels the other90 per cent, the aftershock? The boundary between news and scare-mongeringmay be hard to define. But so is any boundary between liberty and security.What is so sacred about publicity as against habeas corpus?
Conceding the jihadists the kudos of state censorship should be asunthinkable as conceding it arrest without trial. That does not excuse thepolitico-media complex from any responsibility for caution, a sense ofproportion and self-restraint. The gruelling re-enactment of the Londonbombings in July and this weekend's 9/11 horror-fest are not news. Theyexploit grief and horror and in doing so give gratuitous publicity to binLaden and al-Qaeda. Those personally affected by these outrages may havetheir own private memorials. But to hallow the events with repetitiouspublicity turns a squalid crime into a constantly re-vitalised politicalact. It grants the jihadists was they most crave, warrior status. It morethan validates terrorism as a weapon of war, it glorifies it.
The best way to commemorate 9/11 is with silence. Instead, bin Laden mustbe laughing.
Originally posted at guardian.co.uk