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An Interview With Journalist J.M. Berger

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J.M. Berger is a freelance journalist. Over the last six months, he has worked for the Boston Globe, National Public Radio, and the National Geographic Channel. He also covers terrorism at IntelWire. You can also visit his website.

I recently interviewed Berger via email, asking him five questions about terrorism and the media.

With all the conspiracy theories out there regarding 9/11, have you arrived at any conclusions regarding the event? We often read about people describing the terrorism problem as the 'so-called war on terror.' Professor of Political Science at Ohio State University John Mueller contemplated recently in Foreign Affairs about the possible exaggeration of a terrorist threat within the United States in an essay titled 'Is there Still a Terrorist Threat?' Is the threat not real? In what form does it exist and to what degree?

I think the official story is essentially correct. The alternative accounts of that day proffered by some are a) far more complicated and unlikely than the official account, and b) predicated on some highly questionable leaps of "logic." I've seen too much "investigative" reporting that is predicated on "logic." Logic is the opposite of investigation even when the logic is sound, which is almost never the case in 9/11 conspiracy theories.

Have U.S. authorities exaggerated the threat of terrorism? The answer to this is both yes and no. I don't think they understand the threat of terrorism. They're happy enough to use fear as a political tool, and they have taken draconian measures that encroach on basic American values while often ignoring basic, common-sense steps that would actually make us safer. But to say there is no real threat from al Qaeda and groups inspired by al Queda is foolish. An attempt at nuclear terrorism is virtually inevitable. The question is whether it will happen sooner or later; and whether it will come in the U.S., or abroad; whether it can be prevented and whether it will be prevented.

The line between what is fact and what is fiction has blurred. A marvelous example of this is the Da Vinci Code and Michael Moore phenomena. My questions are twofold: Does this concern you? How would you suggest readers begin to separate fact from fiction?

It's completely specious to group The DaVinci Code with Michael Moore. One is fiction – pure and simple- and the other is documentary with a political agenda. Neither of these things are new phenomena.

The uniquely modern problem is that people are flooded with information, and they either don't know how to make discriminating judgments about the credibility of that information, or they simply don't want to be bothered. There's another level of problem that stems from the intense complexity of modern society. For instance, anyone who claims to be able to predict stock market activity is lying — often to themselves as much as to others.

Cause and effect is so complex in our globally connected world that it is literally impossible for the human mind to grasp more than a tiny fraction of the whole. The process of simplifying things so that we can understand them leaves people vulnerable to manipulation because the "explainers" in our society are almost always colored by a political, religious or cultural viewpoint.

Even if it were possible to fully understand the complexities of, for instance, privatizing social security, it's impractical for people to educate themselves about every important issue to the extent that they can make an informed opinion. So they trust others to tell them what to do.

Unfortunately, those others almost always have a vested interest in a viewpoint, rather than a commitment to simply understand the issue at hand. So facts become fuzzy – or nonexistent – and the world becomes rudderless, with the important decisions being driven by a fickle electorate's obsession with trivia, personality or who has the best campaign ads.

Bernard Goldberg has brought up the subject and I will here too. Is there a liberal bias in the media?

The "liberal bias" of the media is the greatest achievement of conservative politics. It's a lie so successful that the media has begun censoring itself in order to "refute" it. This leads to situations like the New York Times allowing itself to be manipulated into propagating outright lies about Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction which politically favor a conservative president's agenda, while a Democratic president can be dragged into impeachment for sexual misdemeanors with an intern.

If there is any bias in the media, it's a conservative bias because cowardly journalists now feel the need to constantly re-examine and revisit simple facts when those facts displease conservatives. Liberals get no such consideration.

Regarding Iraq — in my opinion, the 'cut and run' or 'pull out our troops' theory espoused by some political leaders strikes me as a tad premature or misguided. Is this a fair outlook? Do you believe Iraq will succeed?

Iraq is a disaster of unparalleled proportions for the United States. It's difficult to see the best way out. Simply pulling out without any resolution of the situation on the ground would be a mistake, in my opinion, but I have trouble conceiving of any exit from Iraq that will not constitute a strategic loss for the United States. People have tried to compare Iraq to Vietnam, and that's a mistake. The radical Islamists are trying to make Iraq into Afghanistan for us – they have said so explicitly. They want us to stay and stay, like the Soviets did in Afghanistan, until we are finally "bled to bankruptcy." So simply staying would be a huge mistake. We need to figure out the best face-saving way to withdraw.

Strategically, we need to figure out the least damaging way to withdraw. But no matter how it happens, there is no question that the U.S. is going to come out of this war in a far worse strategic position than it entered.

In terms of Canadian/American relations — Canadian officials have sent mixed signals to their own people and the Americans as to how they want to participate in and contribute to the war on terror. We have soldiers in Afghanistan but none in Iraq. From your own experiences, is Canada doing enough (or at the very least does it appreciate America's security concerns)? What hard questions should Canadians be asking themselves regarding Mid-East policies?

As the previous answer indicates, I myself have no issue with Canada's desire to stay out of Iraq. Prior to the U.S. invasion, Iraq was not an especially meaningful player in global terrorism (relative to Pakistan, Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and probably half a dozen other countries).

Canada does need to evaluate how well Muslim communities within its own borders are integrated, and it needs to review its borders, immigration and visa policies. It's fairly easy for radicals to move in and out of the country right now, which presents an obvious security concern for the U.S. I'm actually not endorsing any specific change; it's an issue for Canadians to decide based on the balance they want to strike between ideals and security. But the issues I mentioned are relevant to this question.

Al-Qaeda and Egyptian Islamic Jihad have maintained a significant presence in Canada since the early 1990s (at the latest). The Toronto cell was disrupted before it could mount an attack, the next operation may not be pre-empted. I don't know how the Canadian psyche would respond to a successful event on the scale of 9/11 or worse. That is the questions that authorities must consider as they sit down to draw their lines in the sand.

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About Alessandro Nicolo

  • This guy is worth listening to….These are some of the most cogent comments I’ve read recently about terrorism, media and related issues. Thanks for the article.

  • That he is. Glad you liked it.

  • S.T.M

    Good stuff Alessandro … really interesting and the questions were the right ones. Well done mate

  • Appreciate that, STM. As you know, it’s tough to stay disciplined with such a massive topic. We were just scratching the surface.

  • The Haze

    I read your interview with Mr. Berger and it is very interesting. I agree and disagree to some extent with his answers. As for your first question,I agree that the authorities have slightly exaggerated the terrorism threat but in circumstances such as these I would like to lean towards the more than the less.(better safe than sorry,you know) I think a conservative view understands the threat better than a liberal view only from the standpoint that a liberal would try to understand why they hate us(remember my Churchill quote) as compared to shoot now ask questions later attitude.(which do you think fits this present situation?)Considering that mostly all options(sanctions,embargoes) were actually used first,what were our options later?I also believe that it would be better to fight in their backyard as opposed to ours. The line between fact and fiction is definitely blurred and we are flooded with info but I think the reason americans don’t know how to disseminate the info “is” because they don’t want to be bothered. The dependency of us on our government plays a major role in this type of behavior. Cause and effect can be complex in todays world but only because we allow it to be.I have found that people don’t want to dig far enough for the answers they need to make a qualified decision or opinion(laziness?). Remember the old saying,”if it was easy everyone would be doing it?” I kinda believe that applies here.In regards to the so-called non-liberal bias in the media,Mr. Berger addresses the point that and I quote,”the process of simplifying things so that we can understand them leaves people vulnerable to manipulation because the “explainers” in our society are almost always colored by a political,religious or cultural viewpoint. Isn’t our media those “explainers” and maybe it’s just me but I don’t think they have affection or respect for our commander in chief or his political party and prove it everyday with their negative reporting. It is a fact that our news media and education system is rife with liberalism. Just look at the reporters and educators political leanings in this country. Around eighty per cent of the professors in our colleges are democrats and I’m sure that the numbers are similar for high school as well. These are the people who leave an “indelible stamp” on our youth. One needs to look no further than the local newstand to see that there is far more left leaning papers than right. Aren’t these some of the”explainers” Mr. Berger talked about? Just as marriage is fifty-fifty so is the political spectrum too and both sides have heavy crosses to bear but as you Mr. Nicolo stated to me in your sports and society blog they(liberals) have a tendacy to dismiss anyone who doesn’t agree with their “enlightened progressive view” as being a quack. Now regarding Iraq – Mr. Bergers statement of a disaster of unparalleled proportions is a perfect example of that “enlightened progressive view”. Where does he get his information? Has he talked to any of the service men and women that have been there? I have and I haven’t heard it put quite like that from them. As a matter of fact, that statement sounds exactly like something you would find in the New York Times doesn’t it? Now they’re real objective aren’t they? But anyway,back to Iraq,what the american people don’t realize is just how difficult it is to build a democracy and when you throw in a political agenda such as our media has been doing it makes it that much more difficult to accomplish. I do agree that things could have been done differently at times but such is the case when one political party is in power. I’m sure the same “bitchin and moanin” would be done if the roles were reversed. You gotta love a democracy though. As bad as it may seem here,it’s still the best show in town. As for the remark,”there is no comparison between Iraq and Vietnam” I disagree wholeheartedly. Islamic ideals and Communistic ideals are similar in the sense that they are controlling in every aspect of daily life. Trying to turn Iraq into Afghanistan is a strategy. They do not want us to stay,as a matter of fact,they want to come to our shores and instill their way of life on us and the rest of the world.(read sharia law) I pose this question to Mr. Berger and the American people: If we leave Iraq and the Middle East will they(the extremists)leave us alone? I for one think not. If Israel packed up and moved to the south pole I think they(extremists) would still try to eliminate them. There is an overwhelming hatred by Islamic extremists for those who do not think like them and I believe they will do whatever it takes(human bombs) to change that.Would you be willing to do that? I think it needs to be mentioned here that in my estimation a major player in all of this is none other than Saudi Arabia. They have been a silent killer in this conflict and the United States needs to be taken to task for not putting them on the proverbial “carpet”. The things they have done behind the scenes from their teachings(Zionist hatred) to instilling Wahabbism in the Serbia/Croatia genocide to the Sudan has been nothing short of horrendous,yet they remain unscathed and that is a shame. I really thought they would change their tune once these extremist started attacking them in their own country but alas,some things never change. Your question about U.S./Canadian relationships to Mr. Berger prompted a statement by him that prior to the U.S. invasion,Iraq was not an especially meaningful player in global terrorism. What? Twelve years of thumbing their nose at the world(U.N.-ugh!),behind the scenes deals(oil for food scandal),genocide of the Kurds means nothing? Now,let’s talk WMD’s,in the research that I’ve done(conservative readings of course)there has been proof that Saddam did indeed have them and that they are now in Syria. Iraq had more than enough time to move them and move them they did. Why the Bush administration didn’t bring this out I do not know. I’ve definitely questioned some of their tactics when being put on the spot by the media. They have made tremendous mistakes in the P.R. department. As I’ve stated to you previously I have no love loss for either political party or politicians in general for I believe they do not have our best interests at heart but the liberal left is doing in my opinion a serious injustice(bordering on treason) to America and our Armed Forces by acting out in the way they do. In closing I’d like to thank you for allowing me to voice my opinion. Isn’t it great that we can do this? Let’s hope that someday,everywhere,it can be the same. God Bless America.

  • Yes, it is great. That’s why I love to write. As for the whole terrorism issue, I do tend to agree that conservatives have the enemy sized up better than their liberal counterparts – or at least deabte it better. I came out of school with liberal leanings (without realizing it. It’s amazing how little conservative thought was even mentioned now that I think back). Liberalism is the foundation of Western political life. Liberals feel attacked because 1) they are a mess and have to regroup and 2) conservatism is resonating with people now. The two together make Liberals feel under threat. The best way I can describe it is by using Walter O’Malley. He once complained to a reporter that he lost money one year. When the reporter asked O’Malley’s accountant about it the beancounter explained that the year previous the Dodgers made 4 million. The following year they made 2 million. Though revenues were down they still made money and remained profitable. However, in O’Malley’s mind they LOST money. That’s the feeling I get with Liberals who paint themselves as victims – something they should stop doing because it’s only impeding them. In any event, Iraq should not be viewed through a Liberal/Conservative or even libertarian dichotomy. Calls by the Democrats to set a prescribed date for a withdrawal are either intentionally misleading or naive. Anyone with a remote reasonable mind would see that pulling out serves nobody’s interests. I guess they really don’t care what happens to Iraq.