Transcript of October 11, 2001 interview of Gordon Mitchell by Kirsi Jansa, Freelance reporter for the Finnish Broadcasting Company. Selected portions of interview scheduled to air October 16, 2001 on AJANKOHTAINEN KAKKONEN, Finland TV Channel 2. Shortly thereafter, video archives should be available online at http://www.yle.fi/a2/.
Kirsi Jansa (KJ): How would you describe the fear Americans feel today?
Gordon Mitchell (GM): There is intense fear, coupled with the trauma of reacting to the bombings. Part of the fear is complicated by uncertainty. The nature of the attacks was so unimaginable and unpredictable that now, when people ask the question what might be next, that feeds the climate of fear and uncertainty. For example, you hear people speculating about attacks on the water supply, even government officials. They speculate in one breath, but in the next breath, they explain that there is no credible evidence suggesting a threat. That is an outgrowth of the fact that the nature of the September 11 attack was so unanticipated, so out of the blue, so off the radar screen of most official analysts.
KJ: According to the media, how united is the country today?
GM: Many people note that polling data suggests extreme unanimity of support behind the war effort, and also general agreement about the types of measures that should be taken, military strikes for example. I read coverage of one poll in New York concluding that 30 percent of New Yorkers now favor some type of internment camps to prevent further terrorist attacks and control the dangers of Arab Americans and Muslims within U.S. borders. In general, I think the media is portraying the story that there is a large degree of support for the Bush administrations aggressive military response, a war-type response.
KJ: What is your idea of how real this image being portrayed by the media is? How close is it to the truth?
GM: One problem with polling data is that it is generated by asking isolated individuals questions on a one-on-one basis, then adding up the aggregate set of individual opinions. In a lot of ways, that does not accurately reflect the collective opinion of a society. Collective opinion is a result of deliberation, people getting together and talking to each other. Trying to learn about the issue and maybe change their views in response to other perspectives. That process is currently unfolding. But I think there is a dilemma going on, with people on the one hand being steered in the direction of making decisions, forming opinions, being pushed to do so by pollsters and people calling for immediate action. On the other side, it is very difficult to form opinions because the issues are extremely complex, and events are moving very fluidly. In some ways this is overtaxing the ability of people to process information and reach conclusions.
KJ: What is the role of the media in how Americans, both mainstream and progressive, see the reasons why all this started happening?
GM: There is a general trend in media discourse now to try to bracket the question of why the attacks happened. This is an example of self-censorship that seems to be surfacing. Certain topics seem to be perceived or explicitly labeled as off-limits, that shouldnt be explored in public discourse. For example there is the television show "Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher" on the American Broadcasting Company. In the first show after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the host of the show, Bill Maher, began speculating about that question. Specifically, he was thinking about the issue of cowardice. Was it a cowardly act for terrorists to attack the World Trade Center and Pentagon? He was questioning whether or not it was. He was wondering if the fact that terrorists gave up their lives suggested perhaps that they were not cowards, and that the United States government was actually the coward, by sending Tomahawk cruise missiles against Bin Laden in 1998. That means of delivery, of not giving up your life, but just pressing a button and having a missile fly across an ocean and then destroy a target in another continent was cowardly. For that statement, Maher was castigated by other media figures and he received quite a bit of pressure from his employer. There were local network affiliates that pulled the show, refusing to broadcast additional editions of "Politically Incorrect." Several corporate sponsors, Sears and Federal Express, pulled their advertising from the show in an attempt to pressure the discourse away from those kinds of controversial questions. So I think this is one complicating factor when it comes to assessing public opinion on the specific question of causation, and also in general the problem of broaching topics that may be perceived as off limits or inappropriate topics to discuss at this stage.
KJ: How is the media treating the topic of American foreign policy?
GM: I think media are struggling with a very difficult dilemma. On the one hand, the Bush administration is attempting to set out a script for what is occurring. This has certain characters, with the United States playing the role of the fighter of terrorism, trying to spare the world from terrorism. Then of course we have Osama bin Laden and his followers, cast again in the role of Hitler, replaying the kinds of themes we saw in the Gulf War. The problem, for media, is that departures from this script, even appropriation and use of images that tend to refute or undermine the credibility of that narrative, are often labeled as unpatriotic, as inappropriate topics to raise at a time when mainstream opinion seems to be that people should come together, defer the searching and possibly divisive questions that might be necessary to figure out what is going on, and instead push ahead with this unified military campaign.
KJ: What are they doing? What are the consequences?
GM: Where does it lead? One answer to the question could be discovered, analyzed, and understood by seeing the unfolding drama as a competition of sorts, a dramatic competition between different scripts. I talked about the Bush administrations script. Osama bin Laden is a very sophisticated rhetorical strategist. He has a different script to which he hopes the world will subscribe in sorting out events. That script casts the United States in the role of an infidel who preys on weakened, defenseless nations, using its imperial power to try to colonize the Middle East and take over the entire world. Where things lead depends in part on how the struggle between these two scripts unfolds. I am concerned about what happens after the Bin Laden situation is resolved. What is the next step in this, what some call a ten year war on terrorism that the administration is contemplating? Will we in fact pursue this "ending states" strategy that folks within the administration such as Paul Wolfowitz are advocating? This would entail going into Iraq, Syria and other nations, possibly Iran, removing their governments forcibly and installing replacement regimes that are more amenable to fighting terrorism. That is one place that it could lead, which quite frankly, is frightening.
KJ: Now lets go to the peace movement. What is the relationship between the peace movement and the media now, perhaps compared to the situation in the Gulf War?
GM: The media want stories. They want things that are newsworthy. I think that a lot of the media expect answers from the peace movement. They want alternatives to military conflict. The difficulty for the peace movement is that many of the alternatives that come to mind, such as more forthright enforcement of international norms and pursuit of multilateral solutions to terrorism such as the International Criminal Court, are wrapped up in a set of assumptions and patterns of discourse that were already there before the terrorist bombings. For example, conservatives in the United States Congress were deeply critical of the United Nations and the International Criminal Court before the bombings, and a lot of those suspicions are now surfacing when peace movement advocates defend those alternatives in public. That gets reflected in media coverage when proposals are compared and people are trying to sort through the meanings of the suggestions. Increasingly, I think that what we will see is the peace movement isolating the question of free speech, trying to defend the concept of dissent itself. If indeed it is a ten year war, it is not something that is going to be concluded quickly, and there will be a need for substantial and searching discussions, public discussions, about strategy and proper responses. The peace movement will have to fight with the media and try to assert its voice in an attempt to get out different kinds of viewpoints that can break up the homogeneity of the administrations discourse, which is trying to impose a certain kind of script, a certain way of understanding events that are unfolding.
KJ: So far, how has the media treated the peace movement compared to the Gulf War? When we talked on the phone you said it was different this time. Can you briefly compare?
GM: There is a fair amount of media ridicule of peace movement activism of the sort that is able to be pigeonholed and classified as purely anti-war, in terms of simply rejecting military options. It seems that the mainstream media does not tend to give much credence to that viewpoint. I think the reason behind this relates to a topic we were discussing earlier. There is a desire for alternatives. The attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon can not go unanswered. Those acts must meet with some response. To the extent that the peace movement simply puts out a negative message of war is not the answer, I think that does not play well in mainstream American media because it is an implicit statement that the attacks should not receive an aggressive, a forthright, or an appropriate response.
KJ: What is the state of the first amendment today and what are the challenges? This is perhaps repeating back to when you mentioned on the phone regarding Finlandization.
GM: I am thinking about a Finnish word I recently read about, itsesensuuri, which as I understand it, roughly translates into English as "self-censorship." I think that is a big part of the answer to the question about free speech and the first amendment in the United States now. While it is true that there is not a lot of overt censorship in terms of journalists being put in jail by the U.S. government, there certainly is a lot of pressure being put not only on members of the media, but also members of the general public, to hew closely to the official script being put out by the Bush administration. This is an act of war. We need to respond with military aggression. We need to prepare for a long, ten year war on terrorism. Folks who depart from that narrative come under substantial pressure in our society right now. They are pressed not to deviate, to correct their comments and bring them more in line with the official script. So there are examples of this Finnish phenomenon of self censorship taking place. Ironically, the interesting thing is that itsesensuuri took place in Finland during the Cold War, specifically on the issue of Finnish media coverage of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, where there was a substantial amount of distortion, sanitization, and packaging of the narrative to the people of Finland. I think there is a similar process that could be unfolding in the United States today. Maybe it is an Americanized Finlandization that we are seeing.
KJ: Which is bigger, government control or corporate control of free speech today?
GM: In some ways, this is a very difficult question to answer because as the Finnish example shows, sometimes you do not know what the level of censorship or information control is when you are in the midst of an event. Some of the techniques are covert and only come to light later on. But you can see symptoms and specific cases where there are leaks, or policies adopted by the United States government to restrict access to classified information. We just saw that last week with the Bush administration limiting the number of congresspersons who can actually have access to classified information down to eight specific persons. That was a response to some congressional leaks. As I was mentioning in a previous example, journalists who are voicing concerns on both sides of the issue are coming under pressure because of their corporate sponsors threatening to pull out their advertising support and not carry their news programs anymore.