And Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep
What thread runs through today's top world headlines? (This selection was obtained by running the search URL "http://news.google.com/news?ned=us&topic=w" at July 23, 2005 03:00 Zulu)
Of the several possible answers, the subtlest is that there is no skein running through these stories. In January, 2005 the BBC ran a series of television programs called the Power of Nightmares, which argued that horrifying headlines like these, if connected at all, were linked in entirely imaginary ways.
In the past our politicians offered us dreams of a better world. Now they promise to protect us from nightmares. The most frightening of these is the threat of an international terror network. But just as the dreams were not true, neither are these nightmares. In a new series, the Power of Nightmares explores how the idea that we are threatened by a hidden and organised terrorist network is an illusion. It is a myth that has spread unquestioned through politics, the security services and the international media. At the heart of the story are two groups: the American neo-conservatives and the radical Islamists. ... Together they created today's nightmare vision of an organised terror network. ...
(from the description of the second part of the series) ... both failed in their revolutions. In response, the neo-conservatives invented a new fantasy enemy, Bill Clinton, focusing on the scandal surrounding him and Monica Lewinsky. Meanwhile, the Islamists descend into a desperate cycle of violence and terror to try to persuade the people to follow them. ...
(the third part concludes) ... There are dangerous and fanatical individuals and groups around the world who have been inspired by extreme Islamist ideas, and who will use the techniques of mass terror - the attacks on America and Madrid make this only too clear. But the nightmare vision of a uniquely powerful hidden organisation waiting to strike our societies is an illusion. Wherever one looks for this al-Qaeda organisation, from the mountains of Afghanistan to the "sleeper cells" in America, the British and Americans are chasing a phantom enemy. But the reason that no-one questions the illusion is because this nightmare enemy gives so many groups new power and influence in a cynical age - and not just politicians.
Although the proposition that organized international terrorism does not exist may seem funny, many writers on the Left seriously believe that terrorism is a derivative phenomenon with no independent existence of its own. It is simply a reaction to Western, and particularly American oppression. It is the shadow, as it were, of the USA, which would cease to exist once the solid being that gave rise to it vanished. According to this point of view, it is entirely correct to refer to terrorists as 'insurgents', 'resistants', 'militants' or even 'freedom fighters', because they have no actual violent goals arising from their consciousness except as are suggested to them by their oppressor; entirely correct refer to them as 'phantoms' because they do not exist of themselves, except as emergent phenomenon in relation to the United States.
Thomas Joscelyn spends two whole pages in the Weekly Standard article The Four-Day War reminding us that after President Clinton launched Operation Desert Fox in 1999 to prevent Saddam Hussein from acquiring Weapons of Mass Destruction the press widely reported that Hussein had turned to Osama Bin Laden to exact revenge on the United States.
Just days after Operation Desert Fox concluded one of Saddam's most loyal and trusted intelligence operatives, Faruq Hijazi, was dispatched to Afghanistan. He met with senior leaders from the Taliban and then with bin Laden and his cohorts on December 21.
While we cannot be sure what transpired at this meeting, we can be sure that it was not some benign event. In fact, within days of the meeting bin Laden loudly declared his opposition to the U.S.-led missile strikes on Iraq and called on all Muslims to strike U.S. and British targets, including civilians, around the world. According to press accounts at the time, bin Laden explained, "The British and the American people loudly declared their support for their leaders' decision to attack Iraq." He added that the citizens' support for their governments made it "the duty of Muslims to confront, fight, and kill" them.
Bin Laden's words sounded alarm bells around the world. Countless media outlets scurried to uncover the details of the relationship between Saddam's regime and al Qaeda. Dozens of news outlets--foreign and domestic--reported on the growing relationship and its ominous implications. When assessing any news account the reader must take all of the information with a grain of salt. But the sheer weight of the evidence reported from so many different sources paints a disturbing picture.
Joscelyn's extraordinary efforts at recollection are important today because it has since become an article of faith that neither the WMDs nor the Hussein-Bin Laden connection ever existed. Recalling the recent past inconveniently undermines the thesis that an "organised terrorist network is an illusion". It is data that would be swept out of sight without the vigilance of writers like Joscelyn. (And it didn't used to be hard, at least in the days before the Internet. One Soviet historian working in the days of Stalin complained of the difficulty of his task because "You never know what's going to happen yesterday".) It would then be harder to deny the existence to an international terrorist network with actual goals of its own, with a will to power of its own, acting in the world today. Then we might have to conclude that the skein running through today's headlines is terrorism; that it is warring on us and that we might have to return the favor.
Yet on one limited point the BBC's producers may be right. There probably isn't a single controlling terrorist network in the world today; but multiple ones each with their own specific goals who may maintain links with each other, just as the multiple totalitarian movements in the 1930s formed an axis whenever it suited them. But the multiplicity of diseases does not invalidate the notion of disease. Terrorism does not exist simply because the Google search engine lets us pull together disparate threads to conceive it. The mind assisted by instruments can discover terrifying phenomena invisible to the eye. Then horror may take on the aspect of nightmare, except that it is all too real.