When Ron Paul recently made the mundane observation that the United States was attacked on 9/11 because “we’ve been over there” (i.e. because of the U.S.’s presence and actions in the Middle East), Rudy Giuliani responded with predictable contempt and disbelief. And the press predictably followed suit, with Wolf “received wisdom” Blitzer badgering Congressman Paul the next evening to retract his (accurate) statements. But the worst part of it for me was the reaction of the public–the roars of support for Giuliani’s ignorant posturing by those in the audience.
I marvel at how it’s possible that more than five years after 9/11, many Americans are still unaware of the most basic facts about the people who attacked us. They know nothing of bin Laden’s 1996 fatwa–the very title of which is “Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places”–in which he cites U.S. foreign policy, including the sanctions on Iraq and U.S. support for Israel against the Palestinians, in justifying his call for war. And they’re unaware that bin Laden has continued to say exactly the same things in recent years as well (“Oppression kills the oppressors and the hotbed of injustice is evil. The situation in occupied Palestine is an example. What happened on 11 September and 11 March [the Madrid train bombings] is your commodity that was returned to you.”).
It’s not really fair to blame them, though, because this kind of information is systematically downplayed, filtered out, or simply tossed down the memory hole by the media. It takes real effort to discover it, and a nearly equal amount of effort to retain it in the face of the fairy tales (“they hate us because of our freedoms”) that are repeated endlessly in the newspapers and on the nightly news.
I saw this process in action on a much smaller scale recently–a textbook example of just how the media in this country lies to us. It was in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech killings. The press was full of accounts of the pre-massacre life of the killer, Cho Seung Hui. One story in the Washington Post particularly caught my eye when it talked about “scary lines from Shakespeare” that Cho had written on the chalkboard outside a girl’s dorm room; having read a good bit of Shakespeare, I wondered what those “scary lines” might be. The author, Michael E. Ruane, went on to describe the incident more fully:
He frightened a friend of Koch’s by writing on her door board lines from “Romeo and Juliet,” in which Romeo says: “My name, dear saint, is hateful to myself. . . . Had I it written, I would tear the word.
Now, anyone who remembers Romeo and Juliet knows that something rather important is missing from this quote. But did Cho actually write it as Ruane presented it to us? No, he didn’t. The London Times provided us with the full text:
On December 13, another female student complained to police about Cho. One message he sent quoted Romeo and Juliet, saying: “By a name, I know not how to tell who I am. My name, dear saint, is hateful to myself, because it is an enemy to thee. Had I it written, I would tear the word.
Those 7 missing words are crucial. Romeo is telling Juliet that he hates his name because his family is at war with Juliet’s, and so the fact of his identity makes it impossible for them to be together. He doesn’t hate his name for itself; he hates the effect that he fears that it will have on Juliet. By choosing that quote, Cho was expressing his feelings for the girl, but also saying that if she knew who had written the note she would likely reject him (and given that she reported him to the police, he was obviously right on that count). It’s a very telling choice of words on his part–not “scary” at all, but literate, romantic, quixotic, and more than a little hopeless.
But Ruane decided to remove that critical 7-word phrase from the quote, leaving the 17 words around it alone and significantly changing the meaning. Why? Why not just present the quote exactly as Cho wrote it?
By the time Ruane wrote this story, Cho had become the monster of the moment in the United States–the other, the outsider, the enemy. Just as with bin Laden, we’re not supposed to try to understand the motivations or look at the reasons behind the actions of these monsters; we’re just supposed to fear them, denounce them, and hate them. It’s a world of absolutes, where childish fables give us the comforting certainties that a complex world otherwise denies us.
So Ruane’s purpose in bowdlerizing the quote is clear: to give it as ominous a spin as possible. To transform one of the most famous romantic sequences in all of literature into “scary lines from Shakespeare”. To make Cho sound like a lunatic who hated his own name with such demented fury that if he saw it written down, he’d tear up the paper. To remove an inconvenient shade of gray from a story that needed to be told only in black and white.
This was just one small lie, told by one reporter, tucked away in one story, published on one day. The major media in the U.S. lie to us in just this way dozens or hundreds or thousands of times every single day, on topics ranging from the trivial to the earth-shattering. So it’s not surprising at all that so many people in the U.S. end up with a distorted view of reality; rather, it’s a minor miracle that any of us manage to escape it.