Hell in a Hand Basketby Jonas Salganik
Brooklyn is a long way from the ancient holy lands of the Bible, but Middle East politics impact our borough directly like nowhere else in the USA. In fact, we live at ground zero of the conflict.
Anyone looking to target Jews in the USA would immediately think of Wiliamsburg, a place where Hasidic Jews are more abundant and visible than anywhere on the planet outside of Israel. And anyone looking to target Arabs in the USA would probably think of Brooklyn first too, as evidenced by the presumably large number of Islamic detainees the Feds have on ice at the jail on Atlantic Avenue right now. So there is no escaping this conflict here.
On September 11th I was working as a video coordinator at one of New York City’s local television news operations. It fell upon me to edit out the goriest, most horrifying scenes from the raw tapes coming up from Ground Zero, so that less grisly versions could be broadcast. The deleted images haunt me to this day. At the same time I also cut a particularly haunting piece of video from abroad: Palestinian people in East Jerusalem celebrating the attacks. In that footage, which was shot by a Reuters cameraman and fed down the CNN NewSource Wire, Palestinian adults, children, and even police officers were shown literally dancing in the streets with joy over the fact that office workers, airline passengers, and rescuers were dying in lower Manhattan, at the Pentagon, and in a field in Pennsylvania. Some adults were shown handing out candy to the kids in the streets. People waved Palestinian flags, and fired automatic weapons in the air; it was like the whole Palestinian nation had won the lottery. Even battle-hardened Secretary of State Colin Powell called the footage “a searing image in [his] mind” in an interview on the Fox News Channel that day.
I was not particularly surprised to learn that many people in those towns hated the USA. After all, the USA had been the main benefactor and bodyguard of their sworn enemy Israel for the last 40 years. What struck me about this footage was the reaction it provoked from Palestinian political leaders. Realizing that such an open display of contempt for America was detrimental to their political goals, Yasir Arafat, the leader of the Palestinian Authority (P.A.), moved quickly to perform public relations damage control. First there was a “photo-op” of Yasir donating blood ear-marked for transfusions to American veins. Then there were angry denials and Arafat soon claimed that “It was less than 10 children in East Jerusalem” celebrating.
More significantly, the video footage in question was never shown again, while another tape showing thousands of celebrating Palestinians in Nablus chanting “God is Great,” and “Beloved Bin Laden, strike Tel Aviv” was buried after a campaign of treats and coercions was mounted by the P.A. In the days following 9/11 there were widespread reports of foreign photojournalists being held at gunpoint by P.A. police in a Nablus hotel during further celebrations; of tapes being confiscated and erased by the Palestinian Police; and of phone calls from high-ranking P.A. officials to heads of major news agencies (including the Associated Press) threatening the lives of their employees in the territories if they published or broadcast any more pictures of their celebrations. Tanzim militiamen even kidnapped a freelance cameraman who had shot video of celebrating P.A. police officers firing weapons in the air and held him overnight. Soon Arafat banned any further celebrations and staged rallies in support of America. The point of this retrospective is to show just how successful the Palestinians were in undermining legitimately negative media coverage.
I started thinking about these issues recently with the escalation of the terror bombings in Israel and the subsequent invasion of the Palestinian Territories by the Israeli Defense Forces. The fact is that up until recently I had always been firmly in the peace camp as regards Israel. I thought that the Palestinians had some legitimate historical claims to the occupied territories, that the Israelis had been provocative with their settlement building in these areas, and that in light of his campaign in Lebanon, Ariel Sharon was something of a Dr. Strangelove. What is more, I knew that a significant percentage of Israelis felt that way too. But the combination of the terror attacks on New York and the ruthless bombing campaign in Israel has changed my perspective. A life-long liberal, my skin has now worn very thin. I stopped reading The Nation when I literally could not stomach reading one more apologia for Arab rage and aggression. Then, when the incursions into the West Bank cities began, I found myself bristling at the “spin” coming from CNN, my long-time TV news mainstay. Somewhere along the line, all of CNN’s reporters had become uniformly foreign, that is European, and all seemed to bend over backward to give any Palestinian line the status of truth.
To my horror, I soon found myself increasingly turning to the Fox News Channel for Middle East updates and analysis that seemed of this world. By the time Fox, taking a cue from the Bush administration, began calling the terrorists “homicide bombers,” as opposed to CNN’s passive-aggressive tag “suicide bombers,” it had won me over almost completely. (Alas, not completely, as I still could not watch their talk shows or that dimwit anchor Shepard Smith.) Looking to regain my bearings, I even flipped over to the Christian Broadcasting Network, that monstrous hybrid of a national newscast and the 700 Club’s home-shopping-like television ministry. I had first begun watching CBN during the Gulf War and again during the Florida election debacle, when I needed a peek at the true face of mass media manipulation. The propaganda there was always so ham-handed that it was like peering through an open curtain at the ass of the Great and Powerful Oz. Yet to my dismay, I now found myself in complete agreement with the Rev. Robertson’s political analysis. I’m not joking—I was having an identity crisis.
What brought the Palestinian celebration footage back to my mind in particular were the charges by the Palestinians of an Israeli massacre in the Jenin refugee camp, charges that were given great credence on CNN and in the European press despite their implausibility. Certainly, if the Israeli Defense Forces had intended a wholesale slaughter of civilians they could have simply leveled the camp from the air, which is what American armed forces have done in recent wars before they sent in troops. Instead the Israelis went in door-to-door, losing 23 soldiers in the process. Evidence that the Palestinians willfully exaggerated their estimates of the civilian death toll and even fabricated evidence of atrocities got little press coverage; even amazing video footage that the Israelis released of Palestinian fighters jumping onto biers for fake funeral processions got almost no air-play.
Another dimension of the case involving the notorious CNN celebration video is also illustrative here. In a piece that ran in the New York Times last September 24th, Felicity Barringer traced how an incorrect report that the footage was fake had spread all over the world. On September 12th, a Brazilian grad student posted a message to an Internet mailing list dedicated to sociology in which he claimed the footage in question was actually shot in 1991 and had merely been recycled by CNN. This thread was picked up by David Farber, an Internet big shot and professor at Penn, and sent out in his newsletter.
Soon the same misinformed rant was speeding around the world, only now the original author’s name had mysteriously been replaced with that of Russell Grossman, the head of International Communications for the BBC. Also puzzling was the fact that whoever made the edit in the author’s name did not think to revise any of the non-grammatical passages of the letter as written by the Brazilian grad student. Der Stern, the German equivalent of Time, then ran a story claiming that the vieo was actually current but staged, that the people were celebrating the cameraman’s gift of candy. The fact that there is such a ready audience for these preposterous stories seems to indicate a widespread psychopathology, a common defense of the “righteousness” of people’s personal identifications with the Palestinians’ cause. That it was both CNN and Reuters cameraman Eli Berlzon that were defamed in these instances is merely a case of blaming the messenger. What is significant is the denial, the need to discredit upsetting information, and to direct blame upon the other. It is the common root of all terrorist actions. And from a military standpoint, it is doomed.
Jonas Salganik is a contributor to The Brooklyn Rail