Amir Butler: Fighting failure with fear
How the US government controls its people through fear.
FIGHTING FAILURE WITH FEAR
Published Thursday June 06, 2002
By Amir Butler
In his dystopian classic, "1984", George Orwell describes a society
where a perpetual war against vague enemies is used to suppress the
population through fear. An elaborate system of misinformation was
constructed to ensure the population remains constantly under threat
from the "enemy".
The response of the US government to concerns over its handling of
pre-9/11 intelligence data provides an instructive example as to how
close some of the US's post-September 11 domestic policies come to
resembling those described in the book.
THE SPELL IS BROKEN
In the aftermath of September 11, a blanket of intimidation was spread
over the American media, smothering out public discourse and debate.
In an article in The Guardian on May 18th, veteran journalist Dan
Rather described the climate in which journalists suddenly found
"It is an obscene comparison - you know I am not sure I like it - but
you know there was a time in South Africa that people would put
flaming tires around people's necks if they dissented. And in some
ways the fear is that you will be necklaced here, you will have a
flaming tire of lack of patriotism put around your neck. Now it is
that fear that keeps journalists from asking the toughest of the tough
That climate of fear came to an abrupt end on May 17th. It was on this
day that CBS News broke the story that the US government had received
advance warning of the September 11 attacks. Howard summarized the
effect that this revelation had on the American media Kurtz of the
Washington Post, when he said that on this single day, "the capital's
media climate has been transformed".
Kurtz describes the reaction:
"Reporters pounded White House spokesman Ari Fleischer and national
security adviser Condoleezza Rice at briefings yesterday, skepticism
and even indignation in their voices, as they demanded detailed
explanations. It was, in short, far different from the tone of
flag-bedecked networks after the Sept. 11 attacks, when President
Bush, riding a wave of popularity and patriotism, was treated with
deference by the media. Indeed, the administration likely never faced
a more hostile press corps than yesterday."
The floodgates opened, and a flurry of "revelations" began appearing
in the world's media. The media had awoken from the stupor of false
patriotism. The rotting edifice of public discourse was showing its
first signs of life after September 11. The result was a series of
revelations - each worse than the previous one - indicting the US
government for having some knowledge, pre -September 11, that attacks
of this nature were to take place.
ABC News reported on May 15th that Bush had been warned several weeks
prior to September 11 of an al-Qaeda led hijacking. The Washington
Post reported on May 18th that a memo had been sent to Bush on August
6 with the headline, "Bin Laden determined to strike US". The same
article reported that the FBI office in Phoenix had issued a memo
warning that Bin Laden operatives may be training in local flight
It was then unearthed by the media that the Bush administration had
received a report in 1999 that described in detail the specific threat
of Bin Laden operatives hijacking planes and flying them into the
Pentagon and other prominent buildings.
The International Herald Tribune reported on May 21st that even the
Arab allies had warned that such an attack was imminent. Likewise, The
Guardian reported that the British had also warned the US of the
threat. Reports from the week after September 11 that the Philippine
government also warned the US were recirculated and given new life.
In an airing of dirty FBI laundry, Agent Coleen Rowley published a
13-page letter to FBI Director Robert Mueller in Time magazine. Dated
May 21, 2002, the letter charges the FBI with a "subtle
shading/skewing of facts" by FBI director Mueller and others at "the
highest levels of FBI management". Rowley then listed eight facts
which she alleges "have, up to now, been omitted, downplayed, glossed
over and/or mis-characterized in an effort to avoid or minimize
personal and/or institutional embarrassment on the part of the FBI
and/or perhaps even for improper political reasons". The letter is a
bombshell and, as Rowley herself states, "are fundamentally ones of
INTEGRITY and go to the heart of the FBI's law enforcement mission and
Every day, new revelations are coming to light as to what the Bush
administration and other arms of government knew before September 11.
It is probable that what we are hearing now is merely the tip of the
When the media awoke, it stirred the public from their stupor as well.
In fact, the public reaction to the revelations made the media
response look muted.
The families of those who died in the terrorist attacks of September
11 were justifiably outraged. Fox News reported on May 16, 2002 the
statements of some of the victim's families. Bill Doyle, who lost his
son in the attack on the WTC, summarized the general mood of the
victims when he said, "I believe our whole government let people down.
It's shocking, every time you turn on the TV, to see what's coming out
in the wash. If our president was told in August, someone had to drop
the ball at the airports. Were they alerted by the FBI or the CIA?"
For the first time since September 11, the opposition acted like an
opposition. The Democrats led the charge in Congress for a complete
investigation of September 11 and the handling of intelligence data.
Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, in a public statement dated May 16,
2002, charged the Bush administration with attempting to cover up its
failings by refusing to hold a congressional hearing. She said, "It
now becomes clear why the Bush Administration has been vigorously
opposing congressional hearings. The Bush Administration has been
engaged in a conspiracy of silence. If committed and patriotic people
had not been pushing for disclosure today's revelations would have
been hidden by the White House."
Senator Richard J. Durbin (Democrat - Illinois and member of senate
intelligence committee) after viewing the seven-page FBI memo sent in
July 2001, said the similarities with September 11 were so close that
"as you read it, it just takes your breath away".
Indeed. The revelations also took the breath away of traditional
allies, like neo-conservative pundit, Bill Kristol of the Weekly
Standard. Kristol questioned the Bush Administration's secrecy. In the
latest issue, he asks:
"Isn't it possible that some people should be reprimanded or even lose
their jobs, when 3000 Americans are killed in a terrorist attack? ... For
the past eight months the Bush administration has essentially been
saying that everything and everyone worked just fine. That is absurd
A CBS poll captured the public sentiment when it found that 65 per
cent of respondents believed the US Government was "hiding something".
The US government responded by launching a campaign reminiscent of the
Hate Week described in Orwell's book.
During Hate Week, the common people were whipped up into war frenzy
through processions, military parades, television programs, the
building of effigies, songs, faked photographs and rumors. The Fiction
Department of the Ministry of Truth would rush out a series of
"atrocity pamphlets" detailing fictional atrocities committed by the
enemy. Others would sort through back files of the newspapers,
altering and embellishing news items for inclusion in Hate Week
speeches. The Hate Song, a song composed especially for the week, was
played endlessly - it's savage, barking rhythm resembling the beating
of the war drum. The Hate Week poster was placed all over the society
- the image of a monstrous figure of a Eurasian soldier, fo,ur meters
high, with an expressionless Mongolian face and a sub-machine gun
pointed from his hip. The poster was designed so that the muzzle of
the gun would face you no matter where you stood. Plastered all over
the cities, it ensured that no matter where you went you were reminded
that you are still under threat from the "enemy". You could never fall
into a sense of security - you are always under threat.
The response of the Bush administration to the sudden sea change was
atypical and in keeping with the manner that the US government had
handled similar issues in the past. Replace the Eurasian soldier of
Orwell's Hate Week with a bearded, turban-wearing Muslim and you have
Hate Week 2002. There was no need for posters, because they had the
latest Bin Laden video - the chilling confirmation that this man who
has now, in the mind of the average American, come to represent
nothing less than pure evil, was alive and well.
On December 6, 2001, Attorney-General John Ashcroft charged critics of
the Bush administration's draconian anti-terrorism legislation as
"aiders and abetters" of terrorism. He said, "To those who scare peace
loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this:
Your tactics aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and
diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America's enemies, and
pause to America's friends." In other words if you are going to
question your government's policies then you may as well be a
So, in a statement reminiscent of Orwell's famous "ignorance is
strength" doublespeak, Vice-President Dick Cheney responded to those
demanding the facts, terming them "thoroughly irresponsible and
totally unworthy of national leaders in a time of war". It never
occurred to Cheney that it is exactly because America is in a "time of
war", that there is a critical need to understand the failings that
led to September 11. Yet in Cheney's Orwellian world: ignorance of the
facts equals strength against terror.
Just as The Party in Orwell's "1984" controlled their people through
fear generated by a state of endless war, likewise the Bush
Administration responded to public concerns with a tsunami of terror
warnings. The message was clear: an attack by al-Qaeda was not just
likely, it is imminent and this time they may use nuclear weapons. The
primary message to the American people was one of fear.
The Washington Post (May 19th, 2002) reported a sudden "surge in
al-Qaeda messages" being intercepted by US intelligence agencies.
Describing them as "vague but menacing", unnamed US administration
officials pointed to them as evidence that al-Qaeda could be planning
another strike. The "senior US official" said that the messages
matched the same pattern as that detected prior to September 11 and
that it has been "indicative of impending action".
The Boston Globe then reported on 19th May that al-Qaeda operatives
were renting apartments and planting explosives in them. Warnings went
out to "apartment owners" to be aware for anything "suspicious".
Reuters reported on May 20th, that the FBI had alerted law enforcement
in Orlando to an Al-Qaeda threat to poison the water.
On May 24th, the Transportation Department issued warned terrorists
would possibly attack transit and other railroad systems. An
Associated Press report the same day noted the FBI was no publicly
warning against, of all things, scuba divers who they claimed posed a
possible terrorist threat. An FBI bulletin raised the alarm that
"various terrorist elements have sought to develop an offensive scuba
Vice-President Dick Cheney told Fox News Sunday (May 20, 2001): "I
think that the prospects of a future attack on the U.S. are almost a
certainty. It could happen tomorrow, it could happen next week, it
could happen next year, but they will keep trying. And we have to be
Robert Mueller, Director of the FBI chimed in, announcing that soon
America wou,ld be flooded with "walk-in suicide bombers". "I think we
will see that in the future, I think it's inevitable", he told
Associated Press on May 20th. "There will be another terrorist attack.
We will not be able to stop it. It's something we all live with."
On May 21st, Associated Press reported US Defense Secretary Donald
Rumsfeld has saying that the terrorists would definitely soon acquire
nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. He described it was
"inevitable", declaring that now "that's the world we live in."
Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge declared on May 21 that
additional terrorist attacks are "not a question of if, but a question
of when."(Washington Post May 22). President George Bush joined in,
and in his trademark eloquence said, "Al Qaeda is active, plotting,
planning, you know, trying to hit us".
JUST TO KEEP THE PEOPLE FRIGHTENED
In "1984", Orwell wrote describing the bombs that were falling on
London during the "endless war":
The rocket bombs, which fell daily on London, were probably fired by
the Government of Oceania itself, 'just to keep the people
When people are scared for their lives and the lives of their loved
ones, then suddenly issues such as past government failings seem
trivial. They become anxious for their safety and for their survival.
They being easily malleable and accepting of whatever policy or law
their government might bring if it is needed for "their protection".
Clearly, the purpose of this tsunami of fear was to distract critics
of the Bush administration's handling of September 11. A perusal of
past reports shows surges in terror alerts at interesting intervals.
They peaked in the midst of controversy of anti-terrorism legislation.
They peaked amid controversy over military budgets. They are peaking
now when tough questions are being posed to the government.
In a rare moment of candor, Ari Fleischer, Press Secretary for the
President, admitted the link between the current controversy and the
increased alerts. The Washington Times (May 22, 2002) report:
The latest alerts were issued "as a result of all the controversy that
took place last week," said Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer, referring to
reports that the president received a CIA briefing in August about
terror threats, including plans by Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network
to hijack U.S. commercial airliners.
It's not surprising after a campaign of fear; a CBS poll found that 33
per cent of Americans believed an attack in the United States was now
"very likely". A week ago it was 25 per cent.
In order to give the public a sense of the current threat, the US
introduced a system of terror gradings in March, 2002. At the bottom
end of the scale is green which represents no threat, then blue which
means a general threat, then yellow which means an elevated threat,
then orange which means a significant threat and finally red which
means a severe threat. Despite the mass of terror alerts for
everything from apartment bombings to suicidal scuba divers, the US
did not upgrade its official state of alert. It remains yellow.
Yellow seems a particularly poignant state for the United States to be
in. As the color traditionally associated with cowardice, it reflects
aptly the government's refusals to answer the hard questions over what
really happened before September 11, and it reflects accurately the
manner in which they have attempted to manipulate their constituents
Amir Butler is Executive Director of the Australian Muslim Public Affairs Committee (AMPAC), a member of the shura of IISNA (a national Australian da'wah organization), and maintains www.amirbutler.com, a popular weblog of political and social comment.
Australian Muslim Public Affairs Committee (AMPAC)
PO Box 180
PASCOE VALE SOUTH VIC 3044
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