|Fear and learning in America
By Robert Fisk
April 16, 2002
Source: The Independent, London
Osama bin Laden once told me that Americans did not understand the Middle East. Last
week, in a little shuttle bus shouldering its way through curtains of rain across
the Iowa prairies, I opened my copy of the Des Moines Register and realised that
he might be right. "BIG HOG LOTS CALLED GREATER THREAT THAN BIN LADEN,"
announced the headline. Iowa's 15 million massive pigs, it seems, produce so much
manure that the state waterways are polluted. "Large-scale hog producers are
a greater threat to the United States and US democracy than Osama bin Laden and his
terrorist network, says Robert F Kennedy Junior, president of... a New York environment
group... 'We've watched communities and American values shattered by these bullies,'
Kennedy said..." I took out my pocket calculator and did a little maths. Cedar
Rapids, I reckoned, was 7,000 miles from Afghanistan. Another planet, more like.
I've been travelling to the United States for years, lecturing at Princeton or Harvard
or Brown University, Rhode Island, or San Francisco, or Madison, Wisconsin. God knows
why. I refuse all payment and take just a business-class round trip from Beirut because
I can't take 14 hours of screaming babies in each direction. American college students
are tough as nails and bored as cabbages, and in some cities - Washington is top
of the list - I might as well talk in Amharic. If you don't use phrases like "peace
process", "back on track" or "Israel under siege", there's
a kind of computerised blackout on the faces of the audience. Total Disk Failure.
Why should my latest bout of Americana have been any different?
Sure, there were the usual oddballs. There was the old black guy whose first "question"
on the Middle East in a Chicago University lecture theatre was a long and proud announcement
that he hadn't paid taxes to the IRS since 1948 - a claim so wonderful that I forbore
the usual threat to close down on him. There were the World Trade Centre conspiracists
who insisted that the US government had planted explosives in the twin towers. There
was the silver-haired lady who wanted to know why God couldn't be made to resolve
the hatred between Israelis and Palestinians. And a Native American Indian in Los
Angeles who ranted on about a Jewish plot to deprive his people of their land. A
bespectacled man with long white hair in a ponytail shut him up before declaring
that the Israeli-Palestinian war was identical to the American-Mexican war that deprived
his own people of... well, of Los Angeles. I began to calculate the distance between
LA and Jenin. A galaxy perhaps.
And there were the little tell-tale stories that showed just how biased and gutless
the American press has become in the face of America's Israeli lobby groups. "I
wrote a report for a major paper about the Palestinian exodus of 1948," a Jewish
woman told me as we drove through the smog of downtown LA. "And of course, I
mentioned the massacre of Palestinians at Deir Yassin by the Stern Gang and other
Jewish groups - the massacre that prompted 750,000 Arabs to flee their homes. Then
I look for my story in the paper and what do I find? The word 'alleged' has been
inserted before the word 'massacre'. I called the paper's ombudsman and told him
the massacre at Deir Yassin was a historical fact. Can you guess his reply? He said
that the editor had written the word 'alleged' before 'massacre' because that way
he thought he'd avoid lots of critical letters."
By chance, this was the theme of my talks and lectures: the cowardly, idle, spineless
way in which American journalists are lobotomising their stories from the Middle
East, how the "occupied territories" have become "disputed territories"
in their reports, how Jewish "settlements" have been transformed into Jewish
"neighbourhoods", how Arab militants are "terrorists" but Israeli
militants only "fanatics" or "extremists", how Ariel Sharon -
the man held "personally responsible" by Israel's own commissioner's inquiry
for the 1982 Sabra and Chatila massacre of 1,700 Palestinians - could be described
in a report in The New York Times as having the instincts of "a warrior".
How the execution of surviving Palestinian fighters was so often called "mopping
up". How civilians killed by Israeli soldiers were always "caught in the
crossfire". I demanded to know of my audiences - and I expected the usual American
indignation when I did - how US citizens could accept the infantile "dead or
alive", "with us or against us", axis-of-evil policies of their President.
And for the first time in more than a decade of lecturing in the United States, I
was shocked. Not by the passivity of Americans - the all-accepting, patriotic notion
that the President knows best - nor by the dangerous self-absorption of the United
States since 11 September and the constant, all-consuming fear of criticising Israel.
What shocked me was the extraordinary new American refusal to go along with the official
line, the growing, angry awareness among Americans that they were being lied to and
deceived. At some of my talks, 60 per cent of the audiences were over 40. In some
cases, perhaps 80 per cent were Americans with no ethnic or religious roots in the
Middle East - "American Americans", as I cruelly referred to them on one
occasion, "white Americans", as a Palestinian student called them more
truculently. For the first time, it wasn't my lectures they objected to, but the
lectures they received from their President and the lectures they read in their press
about Israel's "war on terror" and the need always, uncritically, to support
everything that America's little Middle Eastern ally says and does.
There was, for example, the crinkly-faced, ex-naval officer who approached me after
a talk at a United Methodist church in the San Diego suburb of Encinitas. "Sir,
I was an officer on the aircraft carrier John F Kennedy during the 1973 Middle East
war," he began. (I checked him out later and he was, as my host remarked, "for
real".) "We were stationed off Gibraltar and our job was to refuel the
fighter jets we were sending to Israel after their air force was shot to bits by
the Arabs. Our planes would land with their USAF and Marine markings partly stripped
off and the Star of David already painted on the side. Does anyone know why we gave
all those planes to the Israelis just like that? When I see on television our planes
and our tanks used to attack Palestinians, I can understand why people hate Americans."
In the United States, I'm used to lecturing in half-empty lecture halls. Three years
ago, I managed to fill a Washington auditorium seating 600 with just 32 Americans.
But in Chicago and Iowa and Los Angeles this month, they came in their hundreds -
almost 900 at one venue at the University of Southern California - and they sat in
the aisles and corridors and outside the doors. It wasn't because Lord Fisk was in
town. Maybe the title of my talk - "September 11: ask who did it, but for heaven's
sake don't ask why" - was provocative. But for the most part they came, as the
question-and-answer sessions quickly revealed, because they were tired of being suckered
by the television news networks and the right-wing punditocracy.
Never before have I been asked by Americans: "How can we make our press report
the Middle East fairly?" or - much more disturbingly - "How can we make
our government reflect our views?" The questions are a trap, of course. Brits
have been shoving advice at the United States ever since we lost the War of Independence,
and I wasn't going to join their number. But the fact that these questions could
be asked - usually by middle-aged Americans with no family origins in the Middle
East - suggested a profound change in a hitherto docile population.
Towards the end of each talk, I apologised for the remarks I was about to make. I
told audiences that the world did not change on 11 September, that the Lebanese and
Palestinians had lost 17,500 dead during Israel's 1982 invasion - more than five
times the death toll of the international crimes against humanity of 11 September
- but the world did not change 20 yearsago. There were no candles lit then, no memorial
services. And each time I said this, there was a nodding of heads - grey-haired and
balding as well as young - across the room. The smallest irreverent joke about President
Bush was often met with hoots of laughter. I asked one of my hosts why this happened,
why the audience accepted this from a Briton. "Because we don't think Bush won
the election," she replied.
Of course, it's easy to be fooled. The first local radio shows illustrated all too
well how the Middle East discourse is handled in America. When Gayane Torosyan opened
WSUI/KSUI for questions in Iowa City, a caller named "Michael" - a leader
of the local Jewish community, I later learnt, though he did not say this on air
- insisted that after the Camp David talks in 2000, Yasser Arafat had turned to "terrorism"
despite being offered a Palestinian state with a capital in Jerusalem and 96 per
cent of the West Bank and Gaza. Slowly and deliberately, I had to deconstruct this
nonsense. Jerusalem was to have remained the "eternal and unified capital of
Israel", according to Camp David. Arafat would only have got what Madeleine
Albright called "a sort of sovereignty" over the Haram al-Sharif mosque
area and some Arab streets, while the Palestinian parliament would have been below
the city's eastern walls at Abu Dis. With the vastly extended and illegal Jerusalem
municipality boundaries deep into the West Bank, Jewish settlements like Maale Adumim
were not up for negotiation; nor were several other settlements. Nor was the 10-mile
Israeli military buffer zone around the West Bank, nor the settlers' roads, which
would razor through the Palestinian "state". Arafat was offered about 46
per cent of the 22 per cent of Palestine that was left. I could imagine the audience
of WSUI/KSUI falling slowly from their seats in boredom.
Yet back at my folksy, wooden-walled hotel, the proprietor and his wife - P Force
volunteers in the Kennedy era - had listened to every word. "We know what is
going on," he said. "I was a naval officer in the Gulf back in the Sixties
and we only had few ships there then. In those days, the Shah of Iran was our policeman.
Now we've got all those ships in there and our soldiers in the Arab countries and
we seem to dominate the place." Osama bin Laden, I said to myself, couldn't
put it better.
How odd, I reflected, that American newspapers can scarcely say even this. The Daily
Iowan - there are no fewer than four dailies in Iowa City, press freedom being represented
by the number of newspapers rather than their depth of coverage - had none of my
hotel landlord's forthrightness. "The situation in the Middle East is one that
many Americans do not adequately understand," it miserably lamented, "nor
can they be reasonably articulate about it." This rubbish - that Americans were
too dumb to comprehend the Middle East bloodbath and should therefore keep their
mouths shut - was a pervasive theme in editorials. Even more instructive were the
reports of my own lectures.
The headline, "Fisk: Who really are the terrorists?" in the Daily Iowan
last week at least caught the gist of my message, and included my own examples of
American press bias in the Middle East, although it failed on the facts, wrongly
reporting that it was the United Nations (rather than the far more persuasive Israeli
Kahan Commission) which concluded that Sharon was "personally responsible"
for the Sabra and Chatila massacre. The Des Moines Register's account of one of my
talks was intriguing. It concentrated on my interviews with Osama bin Laden - which
I had indeed mentioned in my lecture - and then referred to my account of how an
Afghan crowd beat me up last December. I had told the American audience that the
Afghans were outraged by US bombing raids that had just killed their relatives around
Kandahar and how important it had been to include this fact in my own report of the
fray - to give context and reason to the Afghan attack on me. The Register used my
words to describe the attack but then itself made no mention of the reasons. Long
live, I thought, the Iowa City Press-Citizen, whose own headline - "Middle East
reporter slams media" - got the point.
It's not that Iowans have any excuse to be unaware of the Middle East. In the small
town of Davenport, Israelis have been trained in the systems of the Apache AH-64
attack helicopters used to assassinate Palestinians on Israel's wanted list. According
to one local journalist, several Iowa companies, including the regional office of
Rockwell, have been involved in military contracts worth millions of dollars with
Israel. CemenTech of Indianola supplies equipment to the Israeli air force. The day
I arrived in Iowa City, John Ashcroft, the US Attorney General, was telling Iowans
that a hundred foreign nationals "from countries known as home to terrorists"
had been interrogated in the state. Another hundred were likely to be "interviewed"
soon. There was no editorial comment on this.
So Iowa University classes were absorbing. One young woman began by announcing that
she knew the American media were biased. When I asked why, she said that "it
has to do with America's support for Israel..." and then, red-faced, she dried
up. Not so the student in Rex Honey's global studies class. After I had outlined
the military trap into which the Americans had been lured in Afghanistan - the supposed
"victory" followed by further engagements with al-Qa'ida and then, inevitably,
daily battles with Afghan warlords and sniping attacks on Western troops - he put
his hand up. "So how do we beat them?" he asked. There was a gentle ripple
of laughter through the room. "Why do you want to 'beat' the Afghans,"
I asked? "Why not help them build a new land?" The student came up to me
afterwards, hand outstretched. "I want to thank you, sir, for all you told us,"
he said. I had a suspicion he was a military man. Are you planning to join the army,
I asked? "No, sir," he replied. "I'm going to join the Marines."
I advised him to stay clear of Afghanistan. In its own way, the American national
press was doing the same. Two days later, the Los Angeles Times, in a remarkable
dispatch from its correspondent David Zucchino, reported on the bitterness and anger
among Afghans whose families had been killed in United States B-52 bomber raids.
The recent American battle in Gardez, the report said, had left "bitterness
in its wake".
If only the same bluntness was applied to the Palestinian-Israeli war. Alas, no.
On the freeway past Long Beach on Friday, I opened the LA Times to be told that Israel
"mops up [sic] in the West Bank", while the syndicated columnist Mona Charen
was telling readers in other papers that "98 per cent of Palestinians have not
been living under occupation since Israel pulled out under the Oslo accords"
and that the Israeli Prime Minister at the time, Ehud Barak, had offered Arafat "97
per cent of the West Bank and Gaza". This was 1 per cent higher even than the
statistic from "Michael" on WSUI/KSUI radio. Arafat - "this murderer
with the deaths of thousands of Jews and Arabs on his hands" - was to blame.
The issue between Israel and her neighbours, Charen contended, "is not occupation,
it is not settlements and it certainly is not Israeli brutality and aggression. It
is the Arabs' inability to live peacefully with others".
Maybe California is organically different from the rest of the United States, but
its journalists as well as its students seemed a tad smarter than the Midwest of
America. The Orange County Register, a traditionally conservative newspaper in an
area that is now 50 per cent Latino, has been trying to tell the truth about the
Middle East and was carrying a tough feature by Holger Jensen, which warned that
if President Bush didn't rein in Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister "will succeed
where Osama bin Laden failed: forcing us into a war of civilisations against 1.2
billion Muslims". When I lunched with senior editorial staff, they invited three
members of the Orange County Muslim community to join them.
Cocktails with friends of the Methodist church revealed a sane grasp of the Middle
East - one of them was deeply disturbed by a recent remark by Israel's Internal Security
Minister, Uzi Landau, who had said that "we're not facing human beings, but
rather beasts". A black guest commended the UN secretary general Kofi Annan's
criticism of Israel. Yet when I flipped on Fox News, there was Benjamin Netanyahu
out-Sharoning Sharon, declaring that Palestinian suicide bombers would soon be prowling
America's streets, meeting Congressmen to enlist their help in Israel's "war
on terror", even while the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, was in Israel.
"Why Israel's Mission Must Continue," the New York Times's comment page
shouted on Friday. A long and tedious article on Israel's crusade against "terror"
by an Israeli army colonel, Nitsan Alon, included several of my favourite cop-out
phrases, including the stock reference to "a large number of civilians"
who were - yes - "caught in the crossfire".
By the time I was addressing the more bohemian denizens of an art club in Los Angeles,
the newspapers I was attacking were beginning to turn up. Mark Kellner arrived to
report for The Washington Times. "He's going to stitch up everything you say,"
a friend remarked. "The Washington Times is to the right of the Republican Party."
We shall see.
But if my audiences had been largely made up of Americans without any Middle East
roots, the same could not be said of Sunday's cocktails at the home of Stanley Sheinbaum,
the philanthropist, art collector and libertarian - we shall forget the period in
which he helped to run the Los Angeles Police Department - where my little speech
was to set off some verbal hand-grenades. Sheinbaum it was who met Syria's President
Hafez el-Assad at President Jimmy Carter's request, arranging Assad's extraordinary
summit with Carter in Geneva. "Tell me something good about yourself,"
he said to me. Have you heard nothing good from anyone else, I enquired? "Nope,"
But I liked Sheinbaum, a crusty, humorous man in his eighties who encourages every
liberal Jewish American to have his say about the Middle East. As the lunchtime fog
embraced the rose gardens and villas and swimming pools and hills of Brentwood, up
stepped Rabbi Haim dov Beliak to explain how he intends to close down the bingo and
gambling operations of one of America's greatest Jewish settlement builders. "Call
me when you get back to Beirut - by all means write about it." As we scoffed
Stanley Sheinbaum's strawberries and sipped his fine Californian red wine, another
rabbi approached. "You're gonna have some hostile people in your audience,"
he said. "Just let 'em hear the truth."
So I did. I talked about the cowardice of Secretary Powell, who dawdled his way around
the Mediterranean to give Sharon time to finish destroying the Jenin refugee camp.
I talked about the rotting bodies of Jenin and the growing evidence that back in
1982 Sharon's troops handed the survivors of the Sabra and Chatila massacre back
to their Phalangist tormentors to be killed. I said that Arafat was never offered
96 per cent of the West Bank at Camp David. I advised the 100 or so people in the
room to read the Israeli journalist Amira Haas' courageous reports in Haaretz. I
talked about the squalor of the Palestinian camp. I talked of suicide bombings as
"evil" but suggested that Israel would never have security until it abided
by UN Security Council Resolution 252; that Israel would never have peace until it
abandoned all of the West Bank, Gaza, Golan and East Jerusalem.
"I find it very difficult to ask you a question, because what you said made
me so angry," a woman began afterwards. Why did I not realise that the Palestinians
wanted to destroy all of Israel, that the right-of-return would destroy the state?
For an hour I explained the reality I saw in the Middle East; an all-powerful Israel
fighting an old-time colonial war. I talked about the 1954-62 Algerian war, its brutality
and cruelty, the French army's torture and killings, the Algerians' slaughter of
civilians, the frightening parallels with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. I talked
about the Palestinians who wanted, at the least, an admission of the injustice their
people had suffered in 1948, adding that there were Palestinians aplenty who realised
that financial compensation would have to suffice for most of those refugees whose
homes were in what is now Israel. I talked about Sharon and his bloody record in
Lebanon. And about the pressures of the Israeli lobby in America, the fear of being
labelled an anti-Semite, and the feeble reporting of the Middle East.
A rabbi was the first to tell me afterwards that the
Palestinians were victims, that they should be given a real state. An old lady asked
me for the name of the best book on the Algerian war. I gave it to her; Alastair
Horne's A Savage War of Peace . A card was pushed into my hand. "Insightful
talk!" the owner had written at the bottom and - hate though I do the word "insightful"
- I couldn't help noticing that the name on the card was Yigal Arens, the son of
one of Israel's most ruthless right-wing ministers, who had once informed me - in
Beirut, back in 1982 - that Israel would "fight forever" against Palestinian
On the freeway to LAX afterwards, the terminals and control tower looming through
the Californian haze, I looked over Saturday's LA Times. A report on page 12 revealed
that the BBC's award-winning film on Sharon's involvement in the Sabra and Chatila
massacres had been dropped from a Canadian film festival after protests from Jewish
groups. The organisers had explained that The Accused "could invite unwanted
attention from interest groups" - whatever that means. But a paragraph at the
end of the report caught my attention. "Sharon, who was the Israeli defence
minister at the time, allegedly facilitated the assault on the Sabra and Chatila
refugee camps..." There it was again. Allegedly? How many angry letters was
that little lie supposed to avoid? Allegedly indeed.
But on reflection, I didn't think the Americans I met would be fooled by this. I
didn't think my hotel proprietor would accept "allegedly". Nor the old
naval officer from the John F Kennedy. Nor the listeners to KSUI. Nor even Stanley
Sheinbaum. Yes, Osama bin Laden told me he thought Americans didn't understand the
Middle East. Maybe he was right then. But not any more.