Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Right to Ask Questions

There is a lot to be said for Malise Ruthven's recent New York Review article, "The Rise of the Muslim Terrorists," which provides an excellent "guided tour" of nine books, each of which provides a different perspective on the problem that underlies the frustrations of our military presence in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Most important for me, however, is the final portion of this review, which turns to the "reality check" provided by How We Missed the Story, by Roy Gutman. Here is, for me, the key paragraph from that portion:

Gutman provides many details of bin Laden's growing ascendancy over the Taliban and their leader Mullah Omar, and of various ways in which the "Arab-Afghans" humiliated their Taliban hosts and subjected them to a Wahhabite religious agenda. The destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, giant sandstone statues that had stood for more than 1,500 years, was the most egregious of the iconoclastic acts carried out under pressure from the Arabs and Pakistani mullahs.

Note that, at the time these statues were destroyed, the media presented this as an act of the Taliban; so what is particularly interesting is that Gutman is trying to shift the blame from the Taliban, as a "grass-roots" Afghan organization, to the more global agenda of Osama bin Laden.

I found myself thinking about this paragraph when I encountered the following article summary on the BBC NEWS Web site:

Baitullah Mehsud, who heads the loose grouping of militants known as the Pakistan Taleban, has given a rare press conference to invited journalists. They included the BBC's Syed Shoaib Hasan.

Here is the crux of Hasan's account of this press conference:

We are part of a group of journalists invited by Mr Mehsud to his stronghold to see for ourselves "the atrocities committed by the Pakistan army in its recent campaign in the area".

Pakistan's army and pro-Taleban militants led by Baitullah Mehsud have recently agreed to a ceasefire after being locked in battle for most of 2007.

The ceasefire is part of attempts to secure a lasting peace in the area.

Earlier this month the army brought in journalists to show their successes against the militants in January.

Now it's the militants' turn to have their say.

The rest of Hasan's account is based on the examples that Mehsud presented to make his case. If I am to take this article as a complete account, then it would appear that none of the journalists had much (if any) opportunity to ask Mehsud any questions. I find this unfortunate, because, if there were serious grounds for detaching Mehsud's organization from that ghastly destruction of a Buddhist monument, this would have been an excellent opportunity for Mehsud to establish those grounds; and the right question from the right reporter could have set the ball in motion.

By considering such a wide variety of books, Ruthven reminded us that those who continue to pursue a "Global War on Terror" are no better than those proverbial blind men grabbing different parts of an elephant. We are thus as ignorant of the nature of terrorist threats than we were on 9/11, not to mention the many years prior to the attacks on that day. I would suggest that some (if not all) of that ignorance stems from a desire to promote hypotheses that impedes the ability to ask potentially penetrating questions. For approximately seven years we have been content to fob those hypotheses off on an Administration fixated on a faith-based ideology; but that Administration will be changing soon. Will the next Administration do any better at bringing those potentially penetrating questions to light, or will it succumb to the sort of simplistic thinking that seems to play so well for the media? The paradox is that, since the media are not interested in whether or not the next Administration will ask such questions, they will not ask the candidates about those matters; and we, as voters, will remain in the dark over whether or not we shall continue to live under the cloud of fear that was so deftly constructed and manipulated by the current Administration.

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