The media and the terrorists

Thomas Sowell

11/9/2001 12:00:00 AM - Thomas Sowell

THE media seem to be doing a major part of the terrorists' work for them. What is the point of terrorism, after all? To get the most bang for the buck from the limited resources at the terrorists' disposal. That means scaring as many people as possible from whatever actual damage you can do.

The September 11th terrorist attacks were the exception, rather than the rule, in creating huge damage. Usually, it is a question of getting as much mileage as possible from actions that directly harm a relatively few people, but put fear into the hearts of millions and spread confusion that disrupts a whole society.

The media handling of the anthrax attacks was all that the terrorists could hope for. The fourth person to die from anthrax produced front-page banner headlines. Tragic as the death of anyone may be, when you are in a war you do not headline the deaths of four people. More people than that can get wiped out with one burst of machine-gun fire. More people than that died in Andrea Yates' bathtub.

It is obvious that the people to whom the anthrax-laden envelopes were sent were chosen because their deaths would be big news. What the terrorists seem not to have realized was that anyone that prominent was likely to have someone else opening his mail.

The ideal, from the terrorists' standpoint, would be to get more publicity and more fear-mongering without having to actually do anything. This too was accomplished for them by big media coverage of potential attacks and highly publicized speculations as to what might happen next.

Government officials have not been wholly blameless in issuing public announcements of "credible threats" of a wholly unspecified nature. What are you supposed to do when you hear such ominous but unknown threats? Stay home from work? And how do you know that the terrorists are more likely to strike where you work than where you live? Such warnings seem less likely to protect the public than to protect government officials from criticisms that they didn't warn us.

The media not only help our enemies at home, but overseas as well. Military operations had barely gotten underway in Afghanistan before American reporters were seeking out every case of collateral damage on civilians from our bombing raids -- and were reporting the Taliban's claims as if they were facts.

Does anyone know of any war where there were not innocent civilians killed? That is one of many things that makes war so hideous. But you don't get out of a war by pretending that you are not in it. The terrorists put us at war on September 11th. We could bury our heads in the sand and do nothing, but that would not stop them -- and others -- from inflicting more of the same on us. Our only hope of deterring more such attacks is by killing those responsible and letting others know that it is going to cost them dearly if they try anything like it.

There seems to be some hand-wringing among some in the media about whether they can be patriotic Americans and at the same time report the news objectively. But the truth is the truth, regardless of whose side you are on. Sometimes it is hard to know the truth, but you don't get around that by reporting every claim by an enemy regime with a long history of lying -- and then pretending to believe that it is just as credible as what you have learned from more reliable sources.

Much of the media has a confusion between being objective and creating an arbitrary "balance" between "the two sides."

Objectivity is about facts. Medical science can be objective about the facts about a disease without being neutral as between the bacteria and the patient. Medical researchers' objectivity about the facts is what enables them to discover how to save the patient's life and kill the bacteria.

News-gathering does not have to stop during a war. But news is what has actually happened. Rumors and speculation are not news. Nor are American military plans news. Reporting these plans and jeopardizing Americans' lives is espionage.