War Riddles


Since September 11, the media have been lost in the fog of war. Lacking official answers, certain questions hang in the air, fostering conspiracy theories and eluding rational consensus. Weary of the search for objectivity, Press Clips kicks around 10 questions to which journalists either cannot or will not deliver straight answers. As the proverb goes, “Those who say, do not know. Those who know, do not say.”

Where is Osama bin Laden? After the attacks in September, President Bush said he wanted the top evildoer “dead or alive” and promised that “we will find those who did it, we will smoke them out of their holes. We’ll get them running, and we’ll bring them to justice.” But by December, officials admitted they had yet to capture any high-ranking Taliban or Al Qaeda leaders, and bin Laden was either dead or on the lam. Only Allah knows if and where that body is buried.

How many civilians did they kill in New York? The New York Times continues to run a daily body count under the headline “Dead and Missing.” On September 30, the Times reported 5960 missing and 306 confirmed dead in the World Trade Center attack. But on February 14, the number of WTC dead had dropped to 2838. The exact number fluctuates day by day, but survivors’ grief is incalculable.

How many civilians have we killed in Afghanistan? No one is officially keeping track. At first the U.S. claimed civilian deaths would be minimal, but The Guardian of London reported on February 12 that experts estimate total civilian deaths at between 2000 and 8000. An economist at the University of New Hampshire puts the death toll at roughly 3767; a UN official told The Guardian, “It is definitely in the four figures.” But the U.S. government writes the deaths off as collateral damage, so U.S. journalists have had to conduct their own investigations, many of which have been published in recent weeks. A New York Times reporting team estimated the number of deaths to be “certainly hundreds and perhaps thousands,” but a recent Times editorial reduced that to the conservative “hundreds.”

Is the air safe to breathe in Lower Manhattan? That’s a good one. Back in September, city officials saw no long-term risk, and the EPA declared there was no need for concern. But as Alyssa Katz reported recently in The American Prospect, local papers have seriously underplayed studies showing high concentrations of toxic particles inside buildings downtown. The Times has been “shy” on the subject, emphasizing the uncertainty of it all — and the Daily News has not published several columns by air quality skeptic Juan Gonzalez, according to Katz. But soon after the News reported that the EPA was investigating itself, media attention picked up. The Wall Street Journal now reports that in October, researchers found a high concentration of fine, sometimes toxic, particles downtown — higher than in the Kuwaiti oil fires during the Gulf War.

Who’s to blame for the kidnapping of Danny Pearl? If war is fog, the Pearl case is a virtual steam room. At first, officials suspected militant Islamic leaders who wanted Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf to stop kowtowing to the U.S. In ensuing weeks, various theories blamed Pearl’s disappearance on ransomers’ greed, on India, on The Wall Street Journal (for sharing info with the U.S. government), and on Pearl (for an unusual lack of caution). Finally, the investigation focused on Ahmad Omar Saeed Sheikh, a British citizen who was arrested in 1994 for kidnapping Western backpackers in Kashmir. Last week, Sheikh confessed and said Pearl was dead, but at press time, the body was still missing — and the blame game had just begun.

Would the U.S. kill a journalist during wartime? In a September Press Clips column on censorship, Harper’s publisher Rick MacArthur predicted that, in light of media censorship during the Gulf War, “this may be the first war where an American reporter is killed or garroted by a Green Beret for getting in the way.” Extreme at the time, MacArthur’s words ring truer now that U.S. newspapers are aggressively reporting on civilian casualties in Afghanistan. In early February, Washington Post reporter Doug Struck tried to enter a village where three civilian men had been killed. To his surprise, he was stopped by a U.S. commanding officer who trained a machine gun on him for about 20 minutes and said, “Don’t move or we’ll shoot.” Upon hearing about the incident, MacArthur quipped, “This is the ‘New Information Order.'”

Do the terrorists hate us because we’re gay? That’s what Reverend Jerry Falwell suggested back in September, when he blamed the WTC attacks on all things secular in America. He apologized, but maybe in a twisted way he was right. According to a January 12 story in The Times of London, the U.S. war on terror has restored gay rights in Kandahar, known as “the homosexual capital of South Asia.” Under the Taliban, sodomy was punishable by death, but now many Pashtun men are back to their favorite sport and pastime: the seduction of teenage boys, on whom they lavish presents ranging from jewelry to motorbikes to hashish. Score one for the secular state.

Who’s to blame for Al Qaeda drug profits? Teenage drug users, of course. At least that’s the message behind the administration’s new drug strategy. According to Bush’s logic, because Al Qaeda leaders sell opium to pay for their war chest, U.S. kids can help fight terror by not buying illegal drugs. In the March Vanity Fair, Maureen Orth draws a different conclusion. On location in Tajikistan, Orth reports that the best way to control the opium boom is to get dirty intelligence agencies out of the business and make drug control a condition of U.S. assistance to Pakistan and Afghanistan. Reason‘s Jacob Sullum has taken this a step further, arguing that if we want to impoverish Islamic terrorists, we should stop fighting the drug war altogether, because it artificially inflates profits in the black market.

Is Indonesia a terrorist state? Recent stories in The New York Times and The Washington Post have vilified that mystical archipelago as a loosely patrolled beachhead for Al Qaeda, where bearded clerics groom young boys for a life of violence. But according to a group of Indonesian journalists who spoke at the Asia Society on January 24, the international media has exaggerated the threat of terrorism in their country. According to one reporter, some Indonesians believe that the U.S. has redefined terrorism as any economic threat to U.S. multinationals that do business in their country.

Should the U.S. continue to support Israel? Post-September 11, that’s the $64,000 question. It’s also the subject of a February 21 Harper’s panel at the New School, during which Noam Chomsky will debate, among others, the Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Even with WNYC’s Brian Lehrer moderating, it will be a miracle if panelists agree on anything. Like September 11 itself, Middle East policy is the nut that can’t be cracked, the wound that never heals.

See also: Big John Ashcroft Wants Your Reading List by Nat Hentoff