Fisk — the journalist who asked 'Why'

July 26, 2008

The Age of the Warrior: Selected Writings

By Robert Fisk

Fourth Estate, 2008

522 pages, $30 (pb)

Forty years ago, they tried to teach Robert Fisk, cub reporter for the Evening Chronicle in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the essentials of journalism — "equal time to all parties. No anger, no passion, no suggestion that there was right or wrong", and always write in cliches. By 2007, Fisk, Middle East correspondent for the Independent, had, to our immense benefit, still not learnt these lessons that have become second nature to the journalistic herd.
Sitting in his apartment balcony in Beirut overlooking the Mediterranean, Fisk notes in The Age of the Warrior (his collection of weekly Independent columns) that the only things more ubiquitous than bombs and bullets in this troubled region are the pen-and-microphone brigade's cliches like "cycle of violence" ("no side taken there") and "the fears of Israeli security chiefs" (the "'security' word is always linked to Israel" but "'terrorists' are always Arab").

Journalists, writes Fisk, "are supposed to be 'objective', to avoid anger" and this mandatory "lack of 'bias'" is now "the great sickness of our Western press and television — an antidote to personal feeling, an excuse to avoid the truth" about Western imperial arrogance and bloodshed in the Middle East.

Anger at "terror" (always Arab, needless to say) is the "only kind of anger that journalists are permitted to deploy, the anger of righteousness and fear".

It is the language of "our masters, the Bushes and Blairs and Browns". It is journalism as "cheerleading". "Source everything", adds Fisk about the unwritten rule, "to officials: 'American officials', 'intelligence officials', 'official sources', … Above all, show respect. For authority, for government, for power".

The "flabby journalism of Reuters or CNN or … the BBC", he says, reflects our journalists' submission to the "verbal trickeries, antiseptic phrases and hygienic metaphors" for the murders, death squad assassinations, massacres and torture performed by "our side" in the war for the Middle East.

Above all, while the journalist is free to ask the "What", the "How" and the "Who", they must never ask the "Why". It is rare for a journalist to suggest that "the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip by Israel, its use of extrajudicial executions against Palestinian gunmen, the Israeli gunning down of schoolboy stone-throwers, the wholesale theft of Arab land to build homes for Jews is in some way wrong". There must be no hint that Israel's Western-backed colonialism might be a cause of Palestinian grievance and violence.

Accused of being "pro-terrorist", "anti-American", and "anti-Semitic" in the wake of September 11, 2001, by vitriolic Zionists, Fisk replies "of course I had dared ask the 'Why' question. Why had nineteen Arabs flown aircraft into the World Trade Centre, the Pentagon and Pennsylvania? How very odd. The nineteen murderers came from a place called the Middle East. Was there a problem out there?"

Osama bin Laden thought so, asking the "Why" question in one of his videotapes: "If you bomb our cities, we will bomb yours". Thus, says Fisk of bin Laden's horrific answer, on 7 July 2005, "four British Muslim suicide bombers killed 52 and wounded 700 on the London Tube and bus system" (missing Fisk himself by just three of four trains). A barbaric act, says Fisk, agreeing for once with Blair, but he adds, "what were the civilian deaths of the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003, the children torn apart by cluster bombs, the countless innocent Iraqis gunned down at American military checkpoints?". Are not these barbaric, too? "When 'they' die, it is 'collateral damage'" in the approved script; "when 'we' die, it is 'barbaric terrorism'".

With an unasked "Why" question failing to illuminate any meaningful answer, we are offered at home only heavily armed policemen, departments of anti-terrorism and alleged plots by alleged terrorists by the score, while most journalists "suck on the hind tit of authority, [and] quote endless 'security sources' without once challenging their information or timing of terror plot discoveries", all against the background hum of the "routine bestialisation" of Arabs and Muslims in television and cinema which portray them, "Nazi-style, as murderers, thieves and child-molesters" from "an alien, cruel, sadistic race".

All this scaremongering and demonising by the Western "Ministries of Fear", says Fisk, fails to protect us from the few but monstrous terrorist crimes that do occur. The "only way to protect ourselves from the real violence … visited upon us is to deal, morally, with courage and with justice, with the tragedy of Lebanon and Palestine and Iraq and Afghanistan. And this we will not do". "Our great leaders" will not deal with the causes of that terror, Western policies in the Middle East, instead preferring the "sheer unadulterated bullshit" like Bush telling us that "they hate us because of our freedoms".

In the manufactured "clash of civilisations", our leaders are "keen to lecture Muslims on the evils of Islamic terrorism" but, asks Fisk, "how can we lecture Muslims, when our own religion is stained with blood?". There is violence and extremism, mass murder and ethnic cleansing, aplenty in the religious texts of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, he writes, but "a hundred years of Western interference in the Middle East has left the region so cracked with fault lines and artificial frontiers and heavy with injustices that we are in no position to lecture the Islamic world on human rights".

Human rights will not be on the mind of Blair, the latest in a line of Middle East "peace" envoys who seem to have spent a great deal of time waging war. There will be many "appeals for restraint and moderation" from Blair "but none for justice as Israel continues to take Arab land".

Blair, "this vain, deceitful man, this proven liar, a trumped-up lawyer who has the blood of thousands of Arab men, women and children on his hands", reminds Fisk of another pompous war criminal, "a certain Kurt Waldheim", the former UN boss who believed he could be an "envoy for peace despite his wartime career as an intelligence officer for the Wehrmacht's Army". Waldheim's visits "came to nothing, of course", says Fisk, "but his ability to draw a curtain over his wartime past does have one thing in common with Blair, for Waldheim steadfastly, pointedly, repeatedly refused to acknowledge — ever — that he had done anything wrong".

The discredited Blair won't be spurned by all Arabs, however — "his unique blend of ruthlessness and dishonesty will go down well with our local Arab dictators" whose obsession with "security" will find a sympathetic sounding-board in Blair. Western economic interests (investments, arms sales) and support for loyal, local strongmen who can control their subjects means there will be silence on the decapitation of criminals in the monarchist Saudi Arabia, the "pit of oppression and poverty" that is Hosni Mubarak's Egypt, the warlords and drug barons in Hamid Karzai's puppet government in Afghanistan, the corrupt princes and emirs of the Gulf states.

Religion, says Fisk of the reactionary features and dangerous extremists of the Islamic, Christian and Jewish faiths, is not a force "for good, for tolerance, for compassion" but most Christians, Muslims and Jews draw on the "tolerant and moderate" aspects of their religious tradition. So too, from amidst the "corpses of Palestine and Israel, murdered bodies in the garbage heaps of Iraq, the young women shot through the head in the Baghdad morgue", Fisk can also see that most "ordinary Americans are way out in front of their largely tamed press and television reporters".

In this wide-ranging collection (Fisk covers ancient and modern wars, Afghan poet-refugees, T. E. Lawrence, the Crusades, Vichy France, the Titanic, global warming and a Beirut cat called Walter), he writes "in frustration and fury and sadness", displaying the skills of the committed journalist, the art of the essayist and the vigour of the polemicist, always grounded in his love of ordinary people, especially those deemed expendable in the blood-smeared, warring ways of "oil and colonialism" in this "age of the warrior".

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