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.Powered by Sidelines