Last week brought the scariest news since September 11: Westerners lie dead from Bali to the Beltway, and the killers are on the loose. D.C. residents are understandably freaked out and can’t wait for the culprits to be brought to justice. But in the rush to cover a sensational story, some media outlets have been broadcasting speculation and uncorroborated evidence in a way that can only heighten the fear. The worst case of hysteria was the story making the rounds last week linking the sniper attacks to Al Qaeda.
New York Times columnist William Safire fired the first shot on October 14, when he speculated that the Beltway sniper “may be a terrorist affiliated with Al Qaeda or otherwise inspired by Osama bin Laden.” Never mind that there wasn’t any evidence to support the theory. The next day when Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge was asked about the possibility of a Beltway terrorist, he told reporters, “I don’t think we can foreclose that.”
On October 16, The Washington Post published a story under the headline “Experts Look for Link to Al Qaeda Attacks: Officials Say Sniper Probably Is Unaffiliated.” After noting that there is no evidence of an Al Qaeda link, the story batted around arguments pro and con. For instance, the sniper seems to be a sophisticated planner—but neither the venue nor the victims are symbolic in ways that suggest a political motive.
On October 17, the Times published a news story headlined, “Hints, but No Evidence of Terrorism.” It was basically a repeat of the Post story: In other words, while there’s nothing to suggest the Beltway killer is a terrorist, you certainly can’t rule it out! On the same day the Post published an op-ed by novelist and military historian Caleb Carr, who explained why in his opinion the killer probably is a terrorist.
If there is one paper that can take a titillating story over the top, it’s the New York Post. On October 17, Post editors slapped a map of the D.C. area on the cover, revealing the collected locations of the Beltway killings and their proximity to . . . the White House. What more evidence could you ask for? The accompanying story reported that the FBI plans to interrogate Guantánamo Bay prisoners for leads on the Beltway sniper. And that day, Steve Dunleavy explained in his column why the sniper must be a terrorist, saving the best argument for last. In closing, Dunleavy promised that “when the shooter is caught, if he is not a foreigner, I will bare my derriere in Macy’s window.”
The attempt to paint the sniper as an angry Muslim did not end with Dunleavy’s butt. That night on CNN, Aaron Brown relied on the familiar formula, “There’s no reason to believe it’s Al Qaeda, but no reason not to.” A report by CNN’s Kelli Arena juxtaposed speculation about whether Al Qaeda is involved in the Beltway shootings with footage of Al Qaeda training camps, and Connie Chung found experts to call the odds of an inside-the-Beltway Al Qaeda plot.
It’s not the first time authorities have tried to pin the blame on an ephemeral scapegoat without disclosing the evidence. For example, on September 26, The Washington Post quoted President Bush in one of his attempts to link Saddam Hussein with Al Qaeda. “They’re both risks. They’re both dangerous,” said Bush idiotically. “The war on terror, you can’t distinguish between al Qaeda and Saddam when you talk about the war on terror. They’re both equally as bad, and equally as evil, and equally as destructive.” The White House spokesman explained, “In the shadowy world of terrorism, sometimes there is no precise way to have definitive information until it is too late.”
There’s a downside to leaving the public in a permanent state of terror. The more the media whips up the fear factor, the more Americans are likely to support extreme measures by the government. In response to the recent killings, the U.S. dispatched a military plane to hunt for the sniper, and Indonesia passed an emergency decree allowing for prolonged detention of suspected terrorists. In the meantime, as the Times reported in a quiet sidebar last week, Al Qaeda is so splintered that experts have trouble defining it.
The rush to hang someone was also evident in last week’s parallel coverage of the Bali bombings and the arrest of Islamic fundamentalist Abu Bakkar Bashir in Indonesia. Before they nabbed him, Bashir ran a religious boarding school, praised bin Laden, and was said to be a spiritual leader of the radical Islamic group Jemaah Islamiyah. According to alleged Al Qaeda operative Omar al Faruq, Bashir provided money, explosives, and operatives for terrorist attacks, which seems like a fair enough reason to want to interrogate him. But based on the daily drumbeat of stories preceding Bashir’s arrest last week, a casual reader might get the impression the authorities had evidence linking him to the Bali bombings. Apparently they do not.
As the heat came down, Bashir condemned the Bali bombings and denied any involvement in terrorism. He echoed a common Indonesian conspiracy theory when he said, “I suspect that the bombing was engineered by the United States and its allies to justify allegations that Indonesia is a base for terrorists.” He cited no evidence to support his theory.
On October 14, Indonesian defense minister Matori Abdul Djalil said, “We are sure Al Qaeda is here,” but offered no evidence. Later that day, Bush said, “I think we have to assume it’s Al Qaeda.” The same day, the New York Post quoted a U.S. intelligence expert who theorized that the Bali bombings had all the earmarks of Al Qaeda: “There were near simultaneous explosions designed to inflict the greatest amount of casualties on innocent people. It’s clearly the work of a sophisticated terrorist organization.”
The Times ran scary photos of Bashir almost every day last week. But there were no photos of Hambali, the man allegedly in charge of operations for Jemaah Islamiyah, who remains at large. You wouldn’t know it from reading the Times, but some analysts have dismissed the arrest of Bashir as easy pickings and purely symbolic.
At the end of the week the Indonesian government passed an emergency decree to step up the prosecution of terrorists. According to The Washington Post, the decree mandates that all terrorists will receive a life sentence or death by firing squad, and allows suspects to be held for up to six months for questioning, without being charged. Yes, Indonesia has finally come around to fighting terror, American-style.
The best alternative take appeared in an October 16 New York Times op-ed by Sidney Jones, the director of the Indonesian project of the International Crisis Group. According to Jones, post-Suharto Indonesia needs better governance, not increased security. “To give the army and police more powers in a country widely castigated for its corrupt legal system and weak political institutions,” she wrote, “is to invite abuse.”
At press time, the cable networks were still broadcasting round the clock coverage of the hunt for the Beltway sniper, speculating wildly about the mystery note from the Ponderosa steakhouse. Evidence of an Al Qaeda link had yet to materialize.