Irfan Hussain: Distortions and Delusions

By Irfan Hussain
This article appeared in Dawn on October 3, 2009

National Geographic aired a programme about the 9/11 conspiracies the
other evening. While it did not cover any new ground, it did
painstakingly demolish many of the idiotic theories that have been
doing the rounds for the last eight years.

What struck me most about the TV documentary was the ease with which a
rumour can be spread compared with the time and expertise it takes to
expose it as a lie. Literally millions continue to believe that the
Twin Towers were actually brought down by thousands of explosive
charges planted inside the building and not by the airliners that
crashed into them. It took a crew of experts who brought down a
building to demonstrate how ridiculous the conspiracy theory really
is.

The camera took us to a condemned structure that was scheduled to be
demolished, and then showed the team wiring up the place with
explosives. The number and location of demolition charges had been
precisely calculated in advance, and it took two days to place them,
even though it was a three-storied structure. The Twin Towers, by
contrast, were skyscrapers that would have taken weeks to wire up. To
imagine that this could have been done secretly is to live at the very
top of cloud cuckoo land.

One 9/11 conspiracy theory that became a favourite on the Internet the
day after the attack was that all Jewish workers had escaped the
carnage as they had been warned of the attacks, and therefore did not
come to work that fateful day. This is supposed to prove the Mossad
connection with the atrocity. However, nobody ever says how they
jumped to this conclusion as employment records in the US do not
mention religion. And yet there are millions of people who continue to
believe this particular urban myth.

Just as these crackpot theories continue to do the rounds in
cyberspace, all kinds of outrageous claims are made on TV and go
unchallenged. Recently in Pakistan, a number of newspaper and TV
reports claimed that the US embassy in Islamabad was about to get
1,000 Marines, apart from hiring the services of Blackwater, the
private security outfit that has won infamy for its actions in Iraq.

Suddenly, talking heads across TV screens in Pakistan were nodding in
unison. Nobody mentioned that Blackwater had changed its name to Xe.
And certainly, no print or electronic journalist took the trouble to
check with American diplomats. In fact, even when the embassy issued a
clarification that no battalions of Marines were about to storm
Islamabad, many continue to insist that there’s going to be a surge in
their existing number. Perfectly reasonable people believe the embassy
will be transformed into a bastion, and that Pakistani installations
will be at risk.

Even though a few dissenting voices challenge these distortions, it is
hard to rebut a falsehood on TV, given the format of talk shows. By
allowing equal time to participants, the person with an axe to grind
can throw any number of verbal grenades without the need to prove
their veracity. But anybody trying to demolish these lies immediately
runs into the time barrier. The reality is that on camera, it is
harder to establish the truth than it is to concoct or repeat a few
lies.

Another example of the media distorting reality is the Kerry-Lugar
Bill. This legislation, recently voted into law by the US Congress, is
a major triumph for Pakistan. But the way it has been dissected by our
‘experts,’ it would seem that it’s a dubious bit of rubbish dragged in
by the cat. Pundits have examined it for caveats and restrictions, and
continue to smell a rat.

For years, the Pakistani chattering classes have been bemoaning the
fact that Americans have helped Pakistani governments when they have
been run by generals. This, they rightly argue, has helped the
perpetuation of military rule, pointing to Zia and Musharraf as prime
examples of American largesse handed over to dictators. But here we
have an unprecedented infusion of assistance to sustainable
development and democratic institutions, and there are few cheers for
those who have worked to put this package together and get it approved
by Congress.

Nobody hands out $1.5bn annually over five years unless it’s in their
interest. Clearly, Americans would like to see a stable Pakistan that
does not provide a safe haven for jihadis. But surely this is what we
want too. So why this reluctance to acknowledge a convergence of
interests?

In a sense, our relations with the US have become hostage to a
virulent media that seems hell-bent on bashing Washington at every
turn. Over the years, I have opposed American policies in many parts
of the world. But I recognise that the US has global interests and can
be a force for good.

So who is whipping up this anti-American sentiment? A lot of the blame
must be placed at the White House gate. The blank cheque to Israel is
the source of much anger. The invasion of Iraq fuels some of the fury.
Avoidable civilian deaths in Afghanistan are another cause. In
Pakistan itself, the drone attacks that have killed so many Al-Qaeda
and Taliban leaders have also caused considerable collateral damage.

But there’s more to it than these policies and perceptions. In the
current venom-laden environment, it is clear that ordinary Pakistanis
are being manipulated by cynical groups. Unfortunately, our media is
more accustomed to pandering to existing prejudices than challenging
them. So if anti-West sentiments are the flavour of the day, TV
channels are happy to fan the flames to improve their ratings.

Currently, the religious right, the liberal left and the military
establishment are riding the same anti-American bandwagon. The mullahs
tacitly support the Taliban and what they stand for; the left hates
the US more than it does the Taliban; and the army is sick of being
told by Washington that it isn’t doing enough. By amplifying these
anti-West feelings through the media, our generals can tell Americans
that they cannot act take tougher action against the militants in Fata
as it would inflame public sentiment and might destabilise the
government.

While we tend to get very emotional about distant Muslim causes, our
own problems need urgent attention. Poverty, disease and illiteracy
are all pressing concerns that successive governments have failed to
tackle. Thus far, the excuse for this neglect has been the lack of
resources. Now, however, the Kerry-Lugar bill gives us an opportunity
to invest in our people. Let’s not blow this chance.

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