Now It’s Personal

Posted January 2, 2006

Categories: Articles

When President George W. Bush admitted finally on September 5 that the CIA held suspected terrorists overseas and interrogated them according to an “alternative set of procedures”—an intriguing euphemism for torture—he gave the speech before a hand-picked audience. No pesky journalists were allowed to interrogate the president. In the audience were relatives of those who died on September 11.

The Bush administration is particularly adept at putting a face on its policies. At the September 5 event, the president focused on the faces of al-Qaida operatives Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed: to provide some more detail on his most-wanted-poster approach to foreign policy and to erase from the public mind the faces of all the wrongly detained and “alternatively” interrogated terrorist suspects (one military U.S. military interrogator estimated for 60 Minutes that 20% of those held at Guantanamo are innocent).

The faces of the 9/11 victims reminded the larger American audience of the human costs of terrorism. This was pure political theater, where abstract principles such as “due process” and “Geneva Conventions” generate no applause lines.

Different Face, Different Policy

One 9/11 family member who wasn’t in the audience on September 5 was Wilton Sekzer, a former New York cop and Vietnam vet whose son worked on the 105th floor of the World Trade Center’s Tower One. When his son died, Sekzer was so bent on revenge that he wrote to everyone in the military asking them to drop bombs on Iraq with his son’s name on them. The Pentagon complied by dropping a personalized bomb on April 1, 2003 on the Iraqi Republican Guard.

But, as Sekzer recounts in the September 10 issue of Parade, the revelation that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with al-Qaida or 9/11 changed his mind completely. “I feel that the government exploited my feelings of patriotism,” he confesses. Sekzer, interviewed by filmmaker Eugene Jarecki who did last year’s documentary Why We Fight, drives a wedge through the administration’s media strategy. Here is a face and a story that can reach Parade readers more effectively than statistics, polling data, or an elegantly but abstractly couched argument.

There has been some excellent commentary on the fifth anniversary of 9/11. Tom Engelhardt in The Nation imagines what might have happened if the hijacked planes hit the World Trade Center but the towers didn’t collapse. Juan Cole in Foreign Affairs debunks the top myths about the event (that it changed U.S. foreign policy, that it represented a clash of civilizations). Jim Lobe deconstructs the administration’s frame of “Islamofascism” at Common Dreams.

These are provocative pieces, and I highly recommend them. They don’t, however, humanize the conflict. All too often, we leave the field open for the administration to occupy the mental bandwidth of the population with the faces and stories that it wants to promote.

New Columnists

This week at FPIF, we’re getting personal.

First of all, we’re introducing our new columnists. Six new FPIF columnists will give you their personal take on the news. We’re publishing their photos, too, so you can put a face to an opinion.

Conn Hallinan, a former professor of journalism at UC Santa Cruz and columnist for the San Francisco Examiner, is our leadoff batter. In “Light Among the Ruins,” he gives you a snapshot of the new Israeli peace movement. You’ll meet Yana Knopova, Khulood Badawi, and Uri Avnery, the people and voices “that most of us do not see or hear on the six o’clock news or read in our newspapers,” Hallinan writes. Israel’s anti-war struggle is no abstraction, and Hallinan makes it real for you.

Next up is Walden Bello, sociology professor at the University of the Philippines and director of Focus on the Global South in Thailand. He will give you a preview of the International Monetary Fund/World Bank meeting in Singapore this week. This is a very personal issue for Walden. The Singapore government has banned him from entering Singapore to attend the meetings.

Keep an eye out for our next columnists as they appear. Laura Carlsen runs the Americas Program out of Mexico City for the International Relations Center. Emira Woods is the co-director of FPIF at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. Frida Berrigan is senior research associate with the Arms Trade Resource Center of the World Policy Institute in New York. And, as cleanup hitter, Michael Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and the author most recently of Blood and Oil .

Also at FPIF

Also this week at FPIF, check out Kristin Shafer’s exhaustive critique of the Bush administration’s policy on two key global toxics treaties. Although the president promised to sign the Stockholm Treaty and the Rotterdam Convention, Washington has ratified neither, Congress is attempting to water down domestic toxics laws, and the United States still export tons of dangerous chemicals that are banned in this country. For a 60-Second Expert version of her brief, go here.

There is also an analysis from Alan Cibils and the Americas Program of Argentina’s experience dealing with debt and the IMF.

If you’re in DC, come join us at Provisions Library for a discussion of “Why They Hate Us.” Stephen Kull, of the Program on International Policy Attitudes, will discuss the international political cartoons on display at Provisions in the context of the polling he does around the world. Are the cartoons true pictures of how the world feels about America, or are they mere caricatures?

FPIF, September 13, 2006

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