TCS Daily

Spinning for Al Qaeda

By Michael Totten - May 26, 2004 12:00 AM

At the very moment Americans are rightly incensed at the Iraqi prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib, Al Qaeda cut off Nick Berg's head in front of a camera, plastered the snuff film all over the Internet, and claimed the murder was an act of "retaliation." Western journalists predictably and repeatedly broadcast Al Qaeda's spin on their own atrocity.

The way CBS reported it was typical:

"A video posted Tuesday on an al-Qaeda-linked Web site showed the beheading of an American civilian in Iraq and said the execution was carried out to avenge abuses of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison."

At least they acknowledged the word "avenge" was terrorist spin and not fact. Others recklessly let Al Qaeda write their own headlines. The Des Moines Register trumpeted on the top of the front page: Militants avenge abuse with taped beheading. The headline in the Akron, Ohio Beacon Journal simply read Brutal Retaliation.

Journalists don't put Al Qaeda's spin on the news because they sympathize with it. No one sits around the copy desk thinking of clever ways to shill for the enemy. It gets in there anyway, partly because of acute feelings of guilt over some Americans' bad behavior in Abu Ghraib but mostly out of sheer laziness. Al Qaeda provides ready-made "news analysis," so why not just stick it in there? It takes more effort to get contrary quotes and, besides, debunking propaganda is "editorializing."

Journalists should ask themselves what is the news value in characterizing a brutal act of terrorism in Al Qaeda's terms in the first place, whether or not it's in quotation marks. Every detail that goes into a news piece is weighed for its relevance and necessity. No rule of journalism requires the inclusion of Al Qaeda propaganda.

I'm not saying Osama bin Laden, et al, should never be quoted. Far from it. Sometimes it's instructive to read what they have to say. The question to ask is, who benefits from a quote? The person being quoted or the person reading the quote? Only a terrorist can benefit if his lies are published without counterpoints or rebuttals.

The idea that Al Qaeda murdered Nick Berg in retaliation for anything is absurd on the face of it. We already know Al Qaeda says every Jew (Nick Berg was Jewish), every American (Nick Berg was American), and every "infidel" (Nick Berg was an "infidel") has a hit put out on his head. This was the case years before most of us had ever heard of Abu Ghraib, even years before September 11. Nick Berg would not be alive if Abu Ghraib were a soup kitchen. Saying one event triggered the other flies in the face of everything we know about Al Qaeda.

The problem is this knowledge, though common, collides with a contradictory Middle Eastern narrative that itself is almost as common. That is "the cycle of violence."

Al Qaeda has learned from Hamas. Hamas pulls this stunt all the time. Nevermind their genocidal charter. The most recent attack on a Tel Aviv coffeeshop? That's a "retaliation," or so Hamas wants you to believe, for the latest round of Israeli anti-terrorism.

It's brilliant and effective propaganda, really it is. The Arab-Israeli conflict is routinely referred to as a tit-for-tat "cycle of violence," as though Israelis and Palestinians are chimps with sticks beating each other over the head for no good reason other than that the other chimp just did the same five minutes ago. It belies the fact that Israelis are still defending themselves from a half-century-long eliminationist onslaught. Hamas and Islamic Jihad don't need provocation to commit atrocities. They seek the total destruction of Israel and its replacement with a Taliban-style police state.

In the Introduction to Civilization and Its Enemies, Lee Harris writes:

"The Enemy is someone who is willing to die in order to kill you. And while it is true that the Enemy always hates us for a reason -- it is his reason, and not ours."

We're incensed about the prison abuse in Abu Ghraib. We don't hate ourselves, we're angry. And we're angry for our reason. We can't let ourselves believe our enemies are mad at us for our reason. They aren't. Some of our soldiers failed to live up to our own standard of decency. Our standard is not Al Qaeda's. The day we believe otherwise is the day we believe Al Qaeda might have a point, that Al Qaeda might even be right. They're masterfully exploiting the uniquely Western idea that "we have met the enemy, and he is us." Resist.

Michael J. Totten is a TCS columnist. Visit his daily Web log at He recently wrote for TCS about Saud-Free Arabia.


TCS Daily Archives