The Government That Cries Wolf

by Stephen Gowans

January 1, 2002


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You're either with us, or you're with our enemies. George W. Bush wasn't the first to utter this bit of nonsense, a favourite of bullies. Nor will he be the last. Absurd as the line is, it's good propaganda and one thing the Bush government knows is propaganda. And bullying. Propaganda doesn't have to be original. You use what's worked before. Keep it simple. Manichean, black and white, good vs. evil, the good old U.S of A against terrorists, the good old U.S of A against evildoers, the good old U.S of A against Hitler incarnates who develop weapons of mass destruction. An enemy of my enemy is my friend. "We're" under attack from within and without. Who buys into this lock, stock, and barrel, and who recognizes it for the nonsense it is but sees its implicit meaning, is unclear. Sometimes I like to say that but for the yahoos to whom this kind of off-on, yes-no, thinking appeals (if you can call it thinking), most people see through its vacuity, but glom to the implicit message that lurks behind it. In the case of Bush's charge that if you're not with us, you're with the terrorists, there's a mailed fist concealed none too inconspicuously behind the words. "You might not like our methods, you might not like what we're about to do, but keep your reservations to yourself, or we'll do to you what we do to our enemies."

Of course, it's plain to anyone whose mental faculties haven't be dulled by a steady diet of CNN, state of the nation addresses, and Meet the Nation bafflegab that Bush's equating of dissent with support for the enemy is fatuous in the extreme. You can be against the use of pesticides in city parks, but that doesn't mean you're for dandelions, chinch bugs and crab grass, any more than being against the use of leeches as a cure for fever means you're for illness. If you were against Bush in the election does that mean you were for the Green Party, since Bush was against the Green's? You'd think so, if you followed Bush's "with us or with the terrorist" line.

But even moron reasoning can command respect among the "educated classes." Take the case of questioning whether Washington had any evidence against bin Laden. There were good reasons to question Washington -- still are. But questioning the inviolable truth of bin Laden's culpability, especially now that a videotape has been produced that's said to show the Saudi exile confessing, is dismissed as the disordered thought of those in denial.

"Bin Laden's the culprit, no doubt about it," we're assured, by pundits, even dissidents, who are as sure as all the investment advisors were sure who said, "You'd be crazy to dump those Nortel shares." Absolutely sure. "Why, everyone says it's so."

Hmm. I wonder. Washington has a notorious and well-deserved reputation for crying wolf when it suits its purposes. And this, when it comes to domestic affairs, Americans implicitly recognize. But when it comes to foreign affairs, the popular image of Americans being fiercely independent, thinking for themselves, and making up their own minds, becomes farce, replaced by:

When my commander in chief says "line up!" I line up.

Let's rally behind Old Glory.

My country right or wrong!

My country right or wrong? What a noxious bit of empty-headed Chauvinism. What's really meant is, "My government right or wrong," an aphorism any government would love to grind into the heads of every citizen, and, which American governments have succeeded quite admirably at doing.

"Here, fit yourself with these chains."

"Thank-you, don't mind if I do. I like the pattern. Red, white and blue. Very patriotic. All my friends will know I'm a pillar of the community when they see me in these. Good fit, too."

So when notorious and inveterate liars told Americans, still in shock at the enormity of what they had witnessed with disbelieving eyes on Sept. 11, that they knew who did the crime, but wouldn't say how they knew, (that's classified, ma'am!), and, when pressed, replied with a mind boggling arrogance that no evidence was needed, was it not criminally irresponsible, to say nothing of immensely naive, and downright gullible to have said, "My president said it's so; therefore, it must be so"? It's no accident that P.T. Barnum grew rich in America.

But it gets worse. Not only did well-known liars make an allegation without even deigning to adduce a scrap of evidence to back up their claim, they used the charge to justify a war against one of the world's poorest countries, on grounds that the country's rulers wouldn't give up the guy they had no evidence on in the first place. But there was a hole in the story, a gaping one. On three occasions the Taliban offered to extradite bin Laden, if Washington presented its evidence. On all three occasions the offer was rejected. "We don't bargain," said Bush. To anyone who didn't have their head up Uncle Sam's ass, it was apparent Bush had no evidence at all.

So, look. We have a renowned fabulist, hiding an apparent absence of evidence behind bluster about not bargaining, who could resolve the matter of bringing bin Laden to justice quickly and peacefully, and yet refuses to. America the peace-loving country? America the country that wants justice? Huh?

Seeing that perhaps it couldn't get by entirely on bluster, Washington directed its toady, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, to present evidence of bin Laden's culpability to the world. This was preceded by a pre-announcement period in which the media ran story after story about the forthcoming "damning evidence" that "proves definitively" the Saudi exile planned the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Demonstrating bin Laden's guilt became a fait accompli before even a shred of evidence was produced. As it turns out, the only person the evidence damned was Blair. He didn't have any evidence. And his 80-point brief proved nothing other than Washington and London were about to wage war on country on whose soil lived a man they didn't have the goods on.

Still, the run up period to the release of Blair's brief allowed the media to cement in the public's mind the deception that the case was solid, without having to prove it was. This is known as the innuendo effect. Make an allegation, no matter how absurd or unlikely, and the media's penchant for dissolving into a paroxysm of delight over a blockbuster story takes over. Blair has overwhelming evidence of Bin Laden's guilt, screamed the headlines. By the time the allegation was shown to be a lie, the damage was done. All that was remembered was the headline, and its mendacity settled comfortably into the received wisdom, to be endlessly repeated, and accepted as beyond dispute. There are thousands of lies, endlessly recycled, that have become received truths in precisely the same way. Anyone who questions them is said to be suffering from a personality disorder. "Gosh, everyone knows this to be true. You're just trying to be different to get attention, right?"

What Blair's brief contained was a lengthy history of bin Laden's organization, al-Qaeda (1) and a leap of logic: bin Laden had carried out terrorist operations against US targets in the past, said Blair, therefore, he must be responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks. This would get you flunked out of a first year logic class, but Blair called it overwhelming and incontrovertible, only to have to admit later, when pressed, that it wouldn't stand up in court, or in a third grade debate. But it didn't matter. In the world of public opinion management, this was sheer genius. For a few days, Blair's cipher was turned into overwhelming and damning evidence by a compliant media, which, even when Blair finally released his deceptive little oeuvre, continued to be called damning and overwhelming.

This should have put the nail in the coffin of the White House's claim that it had the goods on bin Laden, and, in some parts of the world, it did, redundantly. People in the Middle East greeted each White House pronouncement with deserved scepticism. It's easier to detect the whoppers other governments tell, when there's no fervent desire to believe. It's easier when patriotism doesn't compel you to put your brain on standby while the sheer absurdity of what you're being told safely oozes in. But in the Anglo-American parts of the world, "we've got to rally around the president" and "we've got to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Americans" and other mental chains proved too powerful to be broken. Refuse to present your evidence to your own people, refuse to disclose evidence to extradite the alleged culprit, have your associates lie about having evidence, and still you get the benefit of the doubt. Why? Because you're the president. Oh sure, presidents have lied before, about the Bay of Pigs, about Vietnam, about bombing Cambodia and Laos, about whether Indonesian dictator Suharto was given the go ahead to invade East Timor, about the CIA engineering the coup that toppled Chilean president Salvador Allende. And then there was Watergate, and the Iran-Contra scandal, and the list goes on for pages, to say nothing of the hundreds of lies, whoppers, fibs and evasions uttered by a US-directed NATO during the 78-day bombing of Yugoslavia. But this time it's different, right?

Just to be sure, Tony Blair fired back with more evidence. Now, the press announced, Blair had secured a smoking gun: Osama bin Laden on videotape confessing to the Sept. 11 attacks. Blair's tactic of pre-announcing evidence was pressed into service again. "The video will be released shortly, but just so you know, it shows bin Laden confessing to the crime." Circulate that story for a few days until it worms its way into the public's synapses, and finds a comfortable nook in which it can live for decades.

So conditioned was everyone to believe a smoking gun was at last secured, that when there was nothing like a confession in the transcript, the media pinned the tag "confession" on the most prosaic bin Laden utterances. So it was that Osama's expressing pleasure over the attacks was thrust forward by inveterate straw clutchers as being tantamount to a confession. A slight problem. Were this true then hundreds of thousands, if not millions, would have to be rounded up and tried for the Sept. 11 attacks, because bin Laden's reaction was no different than that of countless other residents of the Third World, some of whom harbored a gnawing antipathy to a country whose bombs and sanctions had carried off friends and family, and made their own lives miserable. As one Serb said, "The Americans bombed me and I had nothing to do with Milosevic's policies. Do you think I shed any tears when the World Trade Center was attacked?" But the operating assumption was that bin Laden did it, so if evidence was consistent with his guilt, it was elevated to the status of definitive proof. The flawed syllogism went this way: "If he did, he'd probably cheer about it. Bin Laden cheered about it, therefore he did it." Right. Using this logic, you can make the case that Tony Blair is American. Most Americans speak English. Tony Blair speaks English. Therefore he must be American. The object was to build a case against bin Laden, the conclusion having already been written. Logic wasn't going to get in the way.

As for what glee at the devastation the United States suffered on Sept. 11 means, this story from The (Toronto) Globe and Mail, dated Dec. 17, challenges some well-worn assumptions.

"Also, five of the Israelis came to the FBI's attention after they were seen by New Jersey residents on Sept. 11 making fun of the World Trade Center ruins and going to extreme lengths to photograph themselves in front of the wreckage. The FBI seized and developed their photos, one of which shows Sivan Kurzberg flicking a cigarette lighter in front of the smouldering ruins in an apparently celebratory gesture."

Israelis cheering the destruction of the World Trade Center! Could Israel have plotted the atrocity? Is Ariel Sharon to blame? Charges like these are ridiculed, but if we followed the kind of reasoning that had bin Laden convicted soon after Sept. 11, how are these allegations any more ridiculous?

Some 60 Israelis are being held under anti-terrorism legislation, a point that seems to creep up every once in a while, though news that over 1,000 Muslims are in custody is circulated quite widely. What happened to the five Israelis who seem to regard the deaths of over 3,000 as reason to celebrate? According to The Globe and Mail, "the five have since been deported."

It was bad enough that just about anything bin Laden said was being thrust forward as a confession, but when, after a few days of telling the public that a confession was in hand, reporters asked to see the videotape, Blair announced that he didn't have it. Well, where was it? He didn't know. Had he ever seen it? Well, no, not really. Had anyone seen it? Well, no, not really. But no matter, Blair, the genius at managing public opinion, was silently crowing. The number of people that ever read the tiny articles pointing out the tape was a phantom was only a tiny fraction of the number who read the headlines and heard the lead stories about Blair having laid hands on a smoking gun. It's the first message that counts.

So for Bush and Blair and their bevy of bullshitters, all was going well. There was one glaring, inconvenient fact that threw a spanner into the works of the whole carefully crafted case, but no one was paying any attention to it: Osama bin Laden had never admitted to the attacks, and had, on the contrary, denied having been involved in their planning, a seemingly critical point, but one mostly unremarked on. Drawing attention away from certain facts is as much an important part of propaganda as directing attention to others, and the Washington-London axis hadn't fumbled the ball. Inconvenient fact number two, also largely unnoticed: It makes no sense for a terrorist to deny responsibility for his actions and to remain silent about his reasons for carrying out an attack.

Take a run at this again. If bin Laden is indeed behind the attacks, he is the first terrorist in history who's playing contrary to the rules of the game. Terrorism is supposed to be an act directed at civilians for the purpose of putting pressure on a government. This, the US and British governments know well, because they practice it themselves. US Air Force General Michael Short explained NATO's 1999 bombing campaign against Yugoslavia this way:

"If you wake up in the morning and you have no power to your house and no gas to your stove and the bridge you take to work is down and will be lying in the Danube for the next 20 years, I think you begin to ask, 'Hey, Slobo, what's this all about? How much more of this do we have to withstand?'"

That's terrorism.

According to Britain's Chief of Defense Staff, Admiral Michael Boyce, the war on Afghanistan was aimed at ratcheting up civilian misery in hopes that Afghans would oust the Taliban. "The squeeze will carry on until the people of the country themselves recognize that this is going to go on until they get the leadership changed," Admiral Boyce told reporters.

That too is terrorism: attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure to pressure civilians to change their government or its politics.

But terrorism only works if the civilian population knows who's doing the terrorizing and what the terrorists are trying to achieve. Serbs knew who was dropping bombs on their homes, their schools, their hospitals and their factories, and they knew why, and they knew what they had to do to stop it. NATO didn't secretly bomb, deny responsibility, and stay mum on the reasons for the bombing. That would completely undermine the whole exercise.

So how can a man said to be a mastermind carry out the bloodiest terrorist attack in history but be so monumentally obtuse as to deny responsibility and say nothing about why he did what he did and what he wanted to achieve? Why didn't he say, "I planned the Sept. 11 attacks, and I planned them because America is occupying Saudi Arabia, because America has killed over one million Iraqis with sanctions, and because America is allowing Israel to oppress the Palestinians and block redress of the injustices they've been burdened with for over 50 years. When America pulls out of Saudi Arabia, when it removes sanctions on Iraq, when it forces Israel to live up to its obligations under international law, then, and only then, will the terrorism stop"? Could it be that he didn't say any of these things because he didn't do it?

Only on Dec. 9, the eve of the release of The Tape, when all these objections were about to be swept away, did The Washington Post feel free to admit that the White House had never had much of a case to begin with.

"Secretary of State Colin L. Powell promised on Sept. 23 that the United States would produce a document containing compelling evidence bin Laden and his network were responsible for the attacks.

"He later said the material was classified and could not be released.

"Bin Laden, himself, has denied a role in the attacks.

"On Sept. 12, the day after the attacks, a bin Laden aide told an interviewer from al Jazeera television over a satellite phone that the al Qaeda leader 'thanked Almighty Allah and bowed before him when he heard this news,' but that 'he had no information or knowledge about the attack.'

"On Sept. 17, a bin Laden aide gave the Afghan Islamic Press a statement in which bin Laden said: 'I have taken an oath of allegiance to [Mullah Omar, head of Afghanistan] which does not allow me to do such things from Afghanistan. We have been blamed in the past, but we were not involved.'

"In a tape prepared for release over al-Jazeera television after the first U.S. missiles fell on Afghanistan on Oct. 7, bin Laden again praised the 'groups of Islam, vanguards of Islam . . . [who] destroyed America,' adding, 'I pray to God to elevate their status and bless them.'

"But he again did not accept responsibility for the attack."

This was an extraordinary admission, for up that point, the media had almost uniformly cleaved to the view that Washington had a strong case. The headlines said: "Blair has overwhelming evidence," and "Blair has a tape showing bin Laden confessing." Now, a leading newspaper was pointing out the case's weaknesses, secure in assuming the latest videotape would show Washington had been right all along. Weaknesses in the case? That was all water under the bridge now.

Or was it?

What had been established, ready to see for anyone who wanted to see it, was that Washington's closest ally, Tony Blair, had lied on two occasions about the alliance having definitive proof. Either that or Blair was too stupid to distinguish very weak circumstantial evidence from a compelling case. Since Blair is a highly intelligent, well-educated man, the conclusion is inescapable - he lied.

What had also been established is that bin Laden had denied responsibility.

The new videotape would show, it was said, bin Laden accepting responsibility for Sept. 11, but if he was accepting responsibility, why would he do so on a videotape he had every reason to believe would be held in close quarters, while denying responsibility on videotapes he knew would be broadcast widely? Again, were any of this true, it would mean bin Laden was rewriting the rules of terrorism to undermine the efficacy of terror attacks by obscuring the identity of the terrorist and the purpose of the attacks.

One view is that bin Laden was luring the US government into a trap. He wanted an attack on Islamic countries to foment uprisings among Muslim populations against governments that had almost uniformly allied themselves with US interests. And he needed the attack to be seen as unjust; hence, his denial of responsibility. This view, it should be noted, is not inconsistent with the claim that Washington has no evidence. Bin Laden may very well have instigated the attacks with these very ends in mind, knowing Washington's suspicions would fall on him. And it may be true that Washington can't pin bin Laden down; hence its interest in military tribunals to secure a conviction, or simply bin Laden's death to avoid the issue entirely. This view is much more congenial to Washington's claims, since it accepts bin Laden's guilt as a given. But it's no less a conspiracy theory than any other conspiracy theory. And it's simply a view, without proof.

But doesn't the latest videotape furnish that proof?

No. To this point it may seem I've been arguing that bin Laden didn't do it, because Washington had refused to present evidence, because Tony Blair had lied about having evidence, because Bin Laden denied having done it. But that's not what I'm saying. What I'm saying is that prior to the release of the new tape there hasn't been much of a case made against bin Laden in public. Absence of proof (about bin Laden's culpability) does not equal proof of absence (of bin Laden's guilt.) In other words, just because you can't prove bin Laden did it, doesn't mean he didn't do it. So, just as we don't know whether bin Laden did or didn't do it, we don't know whether the tape is trustworthy or doctored.

Some have argued that Washington was looking for a pretext to cement its presence in Central Asia, an oil rich, geopolitically strategic region, and bin Laden handed the U.S. the pretext it sought. The Saudi terrorist happened to be headquartered in the very region Washington had designs on. If the administration was going to blame anyone, why not blame bin Laden and his Taliban hosts, since a war on Afghanistan provided the perfect cover to advance US oil and geostrategic interests? Moreover, with al-Qaeda having tentacles throughout the region, the pursuit of Washington's interests through military means could be extended beyond Afghanistan.

It could also be argued that whether bin Laden was involved or not, was of no great moment to the White House. What is, is bin Laden's utility as a tool for propaganda, another cipher for Washington to use to focus the public's attention on thoroughgoing evil, while drawing attention away from the troubling aspects of US military operations, to wit, their own thoroughgoing evil. Bin Laden has simply become another in a long line of bogeymen, whose death or capture is used to elevate the base motives that lie behind American use of force to a humanitarian mission.

There was Ghaddafi, terrorist; drug lord Noriega; Saddam, the Hitler who gasses his own people and develops weapons of mass destruction. Milosevic, the ethnic cleanser, the murderer, the genocidist. Some of these labels fit, some don't, but what matters is that they stand as a single point on which Americans, with the encouragement of their government and assistance of the media, can focus all their high moral indignation and feel secure in knowing a noble mission is being carried out in their name - exorcism. It's not ordinary Libyans we have trouble with, Washington says, as thousands of ordinary Libyans are torn apart by US missiles; it's the devil Ghaddafi. And nor is it ordinary Panamanians, Iraqis, Serbs and Afghans we're attacking, notwithstanding the deaths of countless numbers of them; it's Noriega and Saddam and Milosevic and that latest addition to the pantheon of official demons, bin Laden. They're all cartoon characters, the Penguin, the Riddler, the Joker, Mr. Freeze, against Washington's Batman and London's Robin, the Boy Wonder.

Which brings us back to The Tape. As was true of Blair's brief (the first bit of not so definitive "definitive proof") and the phantom tape (the second bit of "definitive proof," also a bust), the release of this third bit of "definitive proof" was pre-announced. Washington declared it had a smoking gun, and let the public mull over the claim, while "translation details were ironed out." And, at last, the coup de grace on bin Laden's claims of innocence was thrust forward with much fanfare, as had all the others.

The sceptics had a field day. The audio portion was of inferior quality. It was difficult to hear what bin Laden was saying. Bin Laden had produced a number of perfectly good videotapes before. Why was this one so poor? Did he really say what Washington said he said? You couldn't tell. And was that really bin Laden?

And there was no direct confession. There were utterances that pointed to foreknowledge. But foreknowledge, as some pointed out, doesn't mean bin Laden masterminded the attacks.

Still, neither of these things was a knock out blow to the possibility The Tape was real and bin Laden was our man. But there were problems. Perhaps the biggest was this: The videotape came from a government whose credibility was stretched so thin by crying wolf repeatedly you'd need a micrometer, in much of the world, to measure it. And then the White House had made a big show of enlisting the services of Hollywood to produce propaganda in connection with the war on terrorism. Wasn't this exactly the kind of thing Hollywood was capable of producing - a doctored videotape? And Bush's lame defense of the tape didn't help. "What," sputtered the president in indignation. "To say this is faked is preposterous." That's a defense?

As it is, the presumed ends to which The Tape was released, were never achieved. The media said the administration sought to convince the Islamic world. It didn't. To assume it would, would be to assume that we'd believe that this time Lucy wasn't going to pull the football away at the moment Charlie Brown was at his most vulnerable. The American people may be a bunch of Charlie Browns, said Muslims in the Third World, but we know better. How many times have we seen the ball pulled away before? And how many more times will we see it pulled away again?

Psst. Charlie Brown. Lucy's waiting.



1.  While Blair's brief seems to be an exhaustive history of al-Qaeda, there was one notable exception: the Balkans. In 1998, the US State Department described the KLA, the Kosovo Liberation Army, as a terrorist organization funded by Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda fighters were involved in the war in Bosnia and in Kosovo, and one of bin Laden's top lieutenants is believed to be one of the chief backers of the NLA, the KLA offshoot carrying out terrorist attacks in Macedonia. Blair's brief says nothing of this.  (back)



       Stephen Gowans is a writer and political activist who lives in Ottawa, Canada.

       Please, DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work without the expressed written authorization of Swans, which will seek permission from the author. This material is copyrighted, © Stephen Gowans 2002. All rights reserved.

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Published January 1, 2002
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