James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Monday, October 18, 2004

A puzzling and worrisome failure of the press

The gutlessness and laziness of the American "mainstream" press becomes more disturbing with each day.

Today’s example of their feckless acceptance of Bush administration twists of the truth, even as the editorial writers call for Bush’s defeat Nov. 2, almost made me spit out my first mouthful of morning coffee. This one may be big-time important.

A heavy one-column headline in my local newspaper, the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, declares "Bin Laden gains an ally." The Associated Press story is bolstered by bits and pieces from the day’s New York Times story, which is only slightly better and also lacks truly essential information.

The stories proclaim that the most fearsome of the "insurgents" in Iraq, a group led by one Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, has formally aligned itself with Osama bin Laden and his Al-Queda, the better to murder American troops and their allies. The group is called something like One God and Jihad. (Something like, because the translations we get are not always accurate.)

(Forgive the use of quotation marks around "insurgents," but the use of the word in context of Iraq disturbs me. I have trouble with describing people who are fighting against invaders of their country by that term. Terrorists, yes. They are that.)

Here’s some background that neither the Star Tribune nor the Times provided, background that I suspect will be absent from every newspaper in this country:

For several months, the Bush Administration and the high-ranking U.S. military and civilian officials in Iraq have been blaming much of the mayhem in that country, the bloodiest and most vile actions, such as the beheadings of hostages, on Zarqawi. There is a $25 million reward – the same as for bin Laden – for his capture.

Zarqawi, 38, is said to be the man who does the beheading in three videotaped executions of hostages. In fact, the executioner is identified as Zarqawi on at least one of the tapes.

A possibly minor problem with the story of the alliance between Zarqawi and bin Laden is that the two generally have been seen as rivals for leadership among terrorists. Zarqawi, a Jordanian, and bin Laden, a Saudi, don’t seem to like each other much, and Zarqawi has given some indication that he’d like to replace bin Laden as the superstar of Arab terrorists. So say both Arab and western press.

That’s not to say they couldn’t resolve their differences to the extent of joining in various murderous enterprises, of course.

The bigger problem, one not mentioned anywhere on U.S. television or in American corporate newspapers, so far as I can tell, is that various Middle Eastern and European news outlets have been reporting for months now that there are serious reasons to doubt the identity of the executioner/terrorist who claims in Iraq to be Zarqawi.

There are four discrepancies that have raised the doubts.

One is that Zarqawi is said to have a prosthetic leg, but the man claiming to be Zarqawi on the beheading tapes and some others moved with ease and smoothness. He lacked the telltale limp and/or hitch in the step that people with prosthetic legs inevitably have.

The second is that while Zarqawi’s face is well known, and his pictures used almost daily on television and in newspapers in the Middle East, including in Iraq, the murderer shown on the beheading tapes and some others is masked. Since his appearance is known throughout the region, why would he bother with a mask?

A third reason for questioning the man’s identity is that the real Zarqawi has a pronounced Jordanian accent, according to the Daily Telegraph and other English newspapers, which are supported in that by several Middle Eastern news agencies, including Al-Jazeerah. The "Zarqawi" on the videotapes has the accent of an Iraqi.

And then, of course, there are the reports that the real Zarqawi was killed more than two years ago, but they shouldn’t be taken as evidence of anything until someone actually does some reporting and finds out whether they guy is dead or alive.

I can’t for the life of me figure out why the American press is ignoring the questions about Zarqawi. I’ve been seeing reports on the issue for several months, and I’ve wondered why our newspapers have never hinted at what is a very big question in the Middle East and is of considerable interest in Europe. I intended to raise the issue here at some point.

British and Arab reporters and columnists have suggested that American officials are exaggerating Zarqawi's role -- and possibly feigning it -- because his existance as a threat gives the Iraqi puppet government an excuse to use harsh measures against the opposition.

At least one British reporter, Adrian Blomfield, said sources suggested to him that the Zarqawi threat has been made up, or at least greatly stretched, by the Bush crowd to make it appear that opposition to our occupation comes from outsiders, rather than Iraqis.

I've been reading this stuff for months, and mumbling about its absence from our newspapers. Still, I didn't get really concerned until today. A murderer is a killer is a murderer, regardless of what he calls himself.

Now I’m concerned.

A few possible scenarios occur to me for the sudden elevating of Zaraqwi to bin-Laden status, and undoubtedly anyone who reads this will come up with some. First, given the nature of the Bush crowd and its established reliance on lies and dirty tricks, is to wonder whether we’re being set up for some sort of October surprise. Create a monster on a par with bin Laden, whom they can’t get their hands on, and then bring him in just before the election?

Or, more likely, the guy, if he is a phony Zarqawi, simply is using the name and image to pull power to himself. It doesn’t matter. A capture of somebody using that name, now established as a living devil, would give Bush an electoral lift with a very large segment of the American public. Critical reasoning aren’t us.

But the truth is that I don't know what’s going on regarding Zarqawi, his organization and Al-Queda. None of us do. I am nevertheless very concerned that important pieces of the story, which are being reported elsewhere, are missing from our news. American reporters and editors are taking the Bush crowd’s version of the story at face value – again – and I very much fear we, the American public, are going to get stung – again – as a result.