A few months ago, my old friend Tom Friedman set off for the small Gulf emirate of Qatar, from where, in one of his messianic columns for The New York Times, he informed us that the tiny state's Al-Jazeera satellite channel was a welcome sign that democracy might be coming to the Middle East. Al-Jazeera had been upsetting some of the local Arab dictators – President Mubarak of Egypt for one – and Tom thought this a good idea. So do I. But hold everything. The story is being rewritten. Last week, US Secretary of State Colin Powell rapped the Emir of Qatar over the knuckles because – so he claimed – Al-Jazeera was "inciting anti-Americanism''.
So, goodbye democracy. The Americans want the emir to close down the channel's office in Kabul, which is scooping the world with tape of the US bombardments and – more to the point – with televised statements by Osama bin Laden. The most wanted man in the whole world has been suggesting that he's angry about the deaths of Iraqi children under sanctions, about the corruption of pro-western Arab regimes, about Israel's attacks on the Palestinian territory, about the need for US forces to leave the Middle East. And after insisting that bin Laden is a "mindless terrorist'' – that there is no connection between US policy in the Middle East and the crimes against humanity in New York and Washington – the Americans need to close down Al-Jazeera's coverage.
Needless to say, this tomfoolery by Colin Powell has not been given much coverage in the Western media, who know that they do not have a single correspondent in the Taliban area of Afghanistan. Al-Jazeera does.
But why are we journalists falling back on the same sheep-like conformity that we adopted in the 1991 Gulf War and the 1999 Kosovo war? For here we go again. The BBC was yesterday broadcasting an American officer talking about the dangers of "collateral damage'' – without the slightest hint of the immorality of this phrase. Tony Blair boasts of Britain's involvement in the US bombardment by talking about our "assets'', and by yesterday morning the BBC were using the same soldier-speak. Is there some kind of rhetorical fog that envelops us every time we bomb someone?
As usual, the first reports of the US missile attacks were covered without the slightest suggestion that innocents were about to die in the country we plan to "save''. Whether the Taliban are lying or telling the truth about 30 dead in Kabul, do we reporters really think that all our bombs fall on the guilty and not the innocent? Do we think that all the food we are reported to be dropping is going to fall around the innocent and not the Taliban? I am beginning to wonder whether we have not convinced ourselves that wars – our wars – are movies. The only Hollywood film ever made about Afghanistan was a Rambo epic in which Sylvester Stallone taught the Afghan mujahedin how to fight the Russian occupation, help to defeat Soviet troops and won the admiration of an Afghan boy. Are the Americans, I wonder, somehow trying to actualize the movie?
But look at the questions we're not asking. Back in 1991 we dumped the cost of the Gulf War – billions of dollars of it – on Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. But the Saudis and Kuwaitis are not going to fund our bombing this time round. So who's going to pay? When? How much will it cost us – and I mean us? The first night of bombing cost, so we are told, at least $2m, I suspect much more. Let us not ask how many Afghans that would have fed – but do let's ask how much of our money is going towards the war and how much towards humanitarian aid.
Bin Laden's propaganda is pretty basic. He films his own statements and sends one of his henchmen off to the Al-Jazeera office in Kabul. No vigorous questioning of course, just a sermon. So far we've not seen any video clips of destroyed Taliban equipment, the ancient MIGs and even older Warsaw Pact tanks that have been rusting across Afghanistan for years. Only a sequence of pictures – apparently real – of bomb damage in a civilian area of Kabul. The Taliban have kept reporters out. But does that mean we have to balance this distorted picture with our own half-truths?
So hard did a colleague of mine try, in a radio interview the other day, to unlink the bin Laden phenomenon from the West's baleful history in the Middle East that he seriously suggested that the attacks were timed to fall on the anniversary of the defeat of Muslim forces at the gates of Vienna in 1683. Unfortunately, the Poles won their battle against the Turks on 12, not 11, September. But when the terrifying details of the hijacker Mohamed Atta's will were published last week, dated April 1996, no one could think of any event that month that might have propelled Atta to his murderous behavior.
Not the Israeli bombardment of southern Lebanon, nor the Qana massacre by Israeli artillery of 106 Lebanese civilians in a UN base, more than half of them children. For that's what happened in April, 1996. No, of course that slaughter is not excuse for the crimes against humanity in the United States last month. But isn't it worth just a little mention, just a tiny observation, that an Egyptian mass-murderer-to-be wrote a will of chilling suicidal finality in the month when the massacre in Lebanon enraged Arabs across the Middle East?
Instead of that, we're getting Second World War commentaries about western military morale. On the BBC we had to listen to how it was "a perfect moonless night for the air armada'' to bomb Afghanistan. Pardon me? Are the Germans back at Cap Gris Nez? Are our fighter squadrons back in the skies of Kent, fighting off the Dorniers and Heinkels? Yesterday, we were told on one satellite channel of the "air combat'' over Afghanistan. A lie, of course. The Taliban had none of their aging MIGs aloft. There was no combat.
Of course, I know the moral question. After the atrocities in New York, we can't "play fair" between the ruthless bin Laden and the West; we can't make an equivalence between the mass-murderer's innocence and the American and British forces who are trying to destroy the Taliban.
But that's not the point. It's our viewers and readers we've got to "play fair" with. Must we, because of our rage at the massacre of the innocents in America, because of our desire to kowtow to the elderly "terrorism experts", must we lose all our critical faculties? Why at least not tell us how these "terrorism experts" came to be so expert? And what are their connections with dubious intelligence services?
In some cases, in America, the men giving us their advice on screen are the very same operatives who steered the CIA and the FBI into the greatest intelligence failure in modern history: the inability to uncover the plot, four years in the making, to destroy the lives of almost 6,000 people. President Bush says this is a war between good and evil. You are either with us or against us. But that's exactly what bin Laden says. Isn't it worth pointing this out and asking where it leads?