Here we go again -- the madness merry-go-round never stops, and its only
victims are us, the poor audience.
by Tarek Atia
(cairolive.com, December 14, 2001) "For those who see this tape, they'll realize not only is he
guilty of incredible murder, he has no conscience and no soul." George
W Bush describing Osama bin Laden
"This event made people think (about true Islam) which benefited
Islam greatly,'' Osama bin Laden, describing September 11
much-ballyhooed "smoking gun" Osama bin Laden tape has been
released. And now I have a headache. Why? Because, again, a can of worms
has been opened, and the entire world gets to slither and slide in the
muck for a while. On one side, there's George W Bush, who has taken it
upon himself to decide who does or doesn't have a soul. On the other,
there's Osama bin Laden, who's taken it upon himself to claim that the
destruction he supposedly wreaked on September 11 was actually good for
To tell you the truth, I don't believe either of these guys. I am not a
conspiracy theorist, but I am someone with just a little independent
mind-power. And as a seasoned journalist who has worked and lived both
in the Western and Islamic worlds, I know just a bit about how media is
made. Sure, sometimes it reflects the truth and nothing but the truth,
but most of the time it's just someone's version of the truth. And the
easiest thing in the world to do is to sell a story.
The buyers this time are basically the whole world. We are both willing
and unwilling customers of this dubious merchandise. I certainly had no
interest in watching the Osama bin Laden tape. I had better things to
do, like play with my kids for the mere hour or two that -- like many
parents -- I can allot to them in the midst of a busy schedule. But at
the same time, I had no intention of being out in the cold when it came
to being a witness to such a world media exclusive.
And so there I sat, remote control in hand, flipping between CNN,
Al-Jazeera, Fox News, Egyptian TV, trying somehow to get a complete
picture of both the event itself and how different parts of the world
were reacting to it, while my two kids climbed all over me and did their
best to grab my attention away from the bad bearded guys on the screen.
And this is what I saw:
A few men in a room. One of them certainly looked like bin Laden,
although his face was mostly hidden in the shadows. A very poor picture.
Even worse sound. Rolling subtitles like this was some kind of foreign
film. I tried to catch both the Arabic words themselves and the rough
translation rolling up the screen. Both made me nauseous. Here was bin
Laden saying that he hadn't expected the destruction to be on such a
grand scale, and laughing about it with his friends.
Next came the commentary. It was endless, and equally nauseating. The
word "chilling" was being used with chilling frequency. On
Fox, the speaker of the US House of Representatives Newt Gingrich was
saying that the bin Laden tape meant that countries like Saudi Arabia
and Egypt had to watch out because the US's war on terror might head to
them next. How he made that leap of logic I'll never know -- mainly, it
seemed because bin Laden was originally Saudi and Mohamed Atta Egyptian.
So two entire countries would be punished because of one citizen each?
On Al-Jazeera, an Arab commentator was arguing that this was a tape from
four years ago, doctored to look more recent.
Who to believe? Did it really matter? Of course it does. Seeing is
believing, after all, and this tape was certainly an exercise in
convincing the world that bin Laden was guilty of the World Trade Center
destruction. In the modern world, images have become the most important
determinant of people's feelings, emotions, and beliefs -- and that is
not necessarily a good thing. After all, images can be just as close to
or far from reality as films can. They can be doctored, changed, framed,
and most of all, manipulated, even if they are real. And what is real
anyway? In Cairo, Mohamed Atta's father told a reporter that the tape
was a forgery, claiming "America is the land of aberration and
forgery." I wonder what Ivan Amato, who wrote a much-discussed
article called Lying with Pixels for an MIT technology magazine last
summer, thinks of the bin Laden tape. "Seeing is no longer
believing," Amato wrote. "The image you see on the evening
news could well be a fake—a fabrication of fast new video-manipulation
Now Amato is no right-wing extremist like Carol Valentine, the
self-proclaimed curator of the Waco Holocaust Electronic Museum, who
called the first bin Laden videos released by Al-Jazeera a forgery.
Valentine's justification was that the real bin Laden would not wear a
US army jacket, and hold a microphone in his right hand, since the FBI
website itself says he is left handed.
Valentine may be working on both anti-government rage and gut instinct,
but in Lying with Pixels, Amato interviews seasoned experts like James
Currie, professor of political science at the National Defense
University at Fort McNair in Washington, to support his theories on the
possibilities of image distortion. Currie is "convinced that
real-time video manipulation will be, or already is, in the hands of the
military and intelligence communities," Amato writes.
"And while he has no evidence yet that any government or
nongovernment organization has deployed video manipulation techniques,
real-time or not, for political or military purposes, he has no problem
conjuring up disinformation scenarios. For example, he says, consider
the impact of a fabricated video that seemed to show Saddam Hussein
"pouring himself a Scotch and taking a big drink of it. You could
run it on Middle Eastern television and it would totally undermine his
credibility with Islamic audiences."
In this case, the stakes are even higher. They are directly related to
the credibility of Islam in a world that is increasingly dependent on
images for its reasoning power. And, as we have read in different media
reports in recent weeks, "instead of turning people off, the Sept.
11 tragedies have drawn people to Islam, with some clerics claiming
conversions have quadrupled."
That seeming dichotomy is a result of the clear distinction made by
Muslims around the world -- as well as political leaders like Bush and
Blair -- that Islam has nothing to do with terrorism, despite those who
use the religion to justify their terror. It was quite interesting,
then, to hear bin Laden echoing a similar sentiment on the "smoking
gun" tape. The terror mastermind claims "the number of people
who accepted Islam during the days that followed the operations were
more than the people who accepted Islam in the last eleven years."
Since when was bin Laden's primary justification for his actions a call
for conversion? And if, as many Muslims around the world suspect, the
trade center terror is being unjustly blamed on Muslims, wouldn't one
expect the opposite to have occurred? Is bin Laden now taking credit for
a reaction no one really expected? Or is this -- again -- a vast
scenario meant to place the world in a virtual Christian-Muslim crusade?
Perhaps -- but then again, the power of images is not the whole story.
There is also the unknown. And no matter how much man tries to control
his fellow man, a greater power controls the greater shifts in world
opinion. And that is what all this should teach us, once and for all.
Watch images, sure, but look within yourself and to reality for
guidance. Follow your instincts and your heart. That's what I hope to do
from now on -- for my kids' sake, if not for the sake of my own sanity.
Browse previous Dardasha columns here.
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