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HARD NEWS 21/09/01 - Making Sense of It IV

Approved: Kiwifruit
HARD NEWS 21/09/01 - Making Sense of It IV

HARD NEWS is first broadcast in Auckland on 95bFM around 9.30am on Fridays and replayed around 5.15pm Friday and 10am Sunday on The Culture Bunker. You can listen to 95bFM live on the Internet. Point your web browser to http://www.95bfm.co.nz. You will need an MP3 player. Currently New Zealand is 12 hours ahead of GMT.

HARD NEWS is also available in MP3 form from http://www.mp3.net.nz and in text form at http://www.scoop.co.nz. You can subscribe to the 95bFM Hard News mailing list at http://www.95bfm.com/hardnews.php

GOOD DAY MEDIAPHILES ... a funny thing happened to Hard News last week. After I left the building, as usual, I tidied up my script and sent to it Scoop and to the Hard News mailing list so kindly hosted by bFM.

Feedback started rolling in within the hour. People thought it was "perfect", "fantastic stuff", "a bright beacon", "one of the best thought pieces about the week", that it "ruled" and that Hard News was "the last sane voice in the media".

A little later, some very different feedback began arriving. Hard News had been "trite" and "cheap", an "attempt to excuse the inexcusable, or explain the unexplainable" and would be seen by mainstream America as "an article from a spoiled, arrogant brat from a pissy little country in the middle of nowhere."

Clearly the bulletin had gone further than I expected. It was forwarded all over the place, posted on websites and debated in the forums at Salon.com. Mindful that, although I hadn't been speaking to American residents, I was reaching them anyway, I composed a follow-up on Sunday and then on Monday posted a digest of some of the 500-odd emails that have come in from a dozen countries.

In the end, I decided, it had been a small victory for the Internet. Not the Internet of dot-coms and e-commerce, but the Internet of email, of people in touch with each other. Some of the most interesting correspondence was with people who initially thought I was an asshole. Some, people, of course, continued to hold that view.

The saddest and most beautiful things I've read have come from New York residents. My heart really goes out to them. It's all very well to say the citadels of capitalism were stormed, but you're talking about people who feel like a part of them has been ripped out.

A friend of mine who lived there for eight years, called his friend who still did. She was alright, but, without the towers, she explained, "I don't know which way is South any more."

Another old mate wrote to me about the injustice of an attack on "a city of eight million peaceful freaks". A little romantic perhaps, but it's not a bad image to have about your city, is it?

Yet another friend - I'd forgotten quite how many people I knew in New York - wrote about the "infinite sadness" of the missing persons notices stuck up everywhere. You got to know the names and faces, he said. It makes me sad to even think about that.

If grief is a kind of influenza of the emotions, we out here on the perimeter have only a sniffle. But because it keeps arriving on my computer, I've had to think about it a lot, and it's been strange. Put it this way: I'm having more of those "I need a glass of wine" moments. Like everybody else, I'm nervous.

My comments last week might have been a bit blunt given the nearness of the tragedy, but I think I was right. The official version of events - that good was attacked by evil - was promptly established. CBS anchor Dan Rather went on Letterman this week. And when Letterman asked him the question - why do these people hate us so much? - Rather offered, "well, because they're evil," and because they were jealous of Americans.

These seemed banal, even infantile, responses for a senior news anchor to give, but hell, the guy did have the job of telling America the bad news, and that must have left a mark. But the forbearance we extend to the grieving has a limit. Some of the American opinion I've read this week has been, frankly, revolting.

"Cast a wide enough net, and you'll catch the fish that need catching," advised a column in the New York Post, meaning, essentially: kill enough innocent people and you might get a terrorist.

Or check this from a New York Observer column, headed 'They hate Us Because We Are Mighty and Good': "The world's losers hate us because we are powerful, rich and good - or at least better than they are."

Or religious shyster Jerry Falwell, who claimed the attack was made possible by the American Civil Liberties Union, along with "abortionists ... the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle." Yeah, right.

But the hate prize goes to an evil and stupid column by right-wing commentator Ann Coulter in the National Review. America didn't need to be "precious about locating the exact individuals directly involved in this particular terrorist attack," she said - the target was anywhere anyone smiled at the terrible news. "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity," she advised.

Hideous. Hateful. But we do not judge a people by its worst examples, do we? Most people in most places are pretty decent: they want to be happy, and for their kids to succeed.

I don't think it's helpful to believe that "America had it coming". Nobody deserves anything like this - and a small number of things I've read from the left have run dangerously close to cheerleading. Whatever your opinion of the leadership, it's ordinary folks that die.

America has obligations little countries do not. It provides things nobody else can. It would be hypocritical of me to hate the country that made the Apple Macintosh, the Velvet Underground and my favourite trousers. I don't hate America: I like it.

The point is that specific elements of American foreign policy have rebounded disastrously on American citizens: some of the anger and venom directed at bin Laden this past week ought to have been directed at the people who bypassed their country's constitutional safeguards to, basically, invent him.

But, sadly, that won't happen. Where they do report the CIA's dirty little history in this matter, mainstream American papers tend to bury it down the page. CNN.com - staggeringly - is carrying what it refers to as an "in depth profile" of bin Laden in which the issue of American assistance is not even mentioned.

This genuinely puzzles me. If there were even a suspicion that my government had helped someone who was suspected of an act like this, I'd expect it to be in the headlines. Yet many Americans, including some of otherwise liberal disposition, are highly resistant to talking about America's foreign policy history right now. But right now is the time that it needs to be confronted.

The US taxpayer helped create both bin Laden and the Taliban in its pursuit of a strategic black eye for the Soviets. In a 1998 interview, former US National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski bragged about America's "excellent" secret operation to "draw the Russians into the Afghan trap".

Along with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the US provided money - and we're talking $2 billion in covert funding -and missiles to the Mujahadeen to wage what might be seen as the first jihad.

The CIA established a relationship with bin Laden, and it seems some of his people were trained in sabotage techniques and other kinds of dirty war - in the US.

Even if you accept that it was appropriate to assist in a foreign war in this way, the American government could have put its money on a number of other, less extremist, groups. Instead - and not for the first time - it chose a thug.

Some of this is outlined in a remarkable story by the UK Independent's Peter Popham, which ran in the Herald on Tuesday. But the most chilling element of Popham's piece concerns the emergence of the Taliban. They came from the Afghani refugee camps in Pakistan. Stripped of their country and their culture, teenagers had only hardline Islamic schools to anchor their lives. With a little help from Pakistan - and the CIA - they became the bunch of psychotic thirtysomethings who now run their ruined homeland.

So, you want to create more, and bigger, refugee camps? Well, are you feeling lucky, punk?

The sad truth about Afghanistan is that there's virtually nothing there to bomb that hasn't already been reduced to rubble. Most of the people who live there haven't even heard of Osama bin Laden; but they know plenty about being in the way of war. A military assault that took civilian lives in Afghanistan would be cruel and stupid.

But there will be an assault: a so-called "cosmetic attack" to satisfy public opinion. What happens after that is unclear. There might even be some benefits.

In order to keep the Islamic world on board, America will have to haul Israel into line. Perhaps the crooked financial networks these groups use will be cleaned up. Maybe PR considerations will see the US ratify a few more UN human rights agreements - it has only endorsed four of the last 21. Hopefully, some actual terrorists will be caught.

On the other hand, a single screw-up - like the bombing of a Sudanese chemical weapons plant that actually turned out to be aspirin factory, after bin Laden's attacks on US embassies - will rebound in spades. Pakistan's leadership, for a start, is sitting on a powder keg of Islamic opinion. But, even in the West, opinion could swing rapidly. Think Vietnam, only bigger.

One thing that can confidently be said that is that the American President is a liability. His spectacularly delusional promise that America would "rid the world of evildoers" was, I suppose, harmless enough. Not so his invoking of the Crusades to describe what America had in mind.

This is, as we have heard many times, war already; but for the sake of the world it cannot become war on the Middle East or war on Islam. Indeed, there's a real opportunity here to bring the likes of Iran - no friend of the Taliban, as it happens - in from the cold. And then the President declares a "crusade". The White House spin doctors apologised afterwards, but it was still a dreadful moment.

America has found real leadership in this time of crisis - most notably in the person of New York mayor Rudy Giuliani: cometh the hour, cometh the man. Ordinary Americans have found good things in themselves and each other.

But the American President seems shallow and stupid.
Compared to him, the American President seems shallow and stupid. Bush's approval ratings are through the roof - from less than 50% to over 90% - but you get the impression that a glove puppet would have been pretty popular in the circumstances.

I would have hoped the debate would be a little more reasoned here; but, sadly no. At Question Time in Parliament this week, Richard Prebble and Bill English - standing in for Jenny Shipley, who, bizarrely, flew out to Europe the day after the terrorist attacks - peppered the Prime Minister with questions that were essentially variations on why her commie peacenik government wasn't standing by America.

Nato has enacted a clause that declares that the attack on America was to be considered an attack on all member countries. Prebble and English demanded we should join Australia in doing the same with Anzus.

Actually, we've already made a far stronger commitment to help than, say, France or Germany. We've offered SAS troops and, of course, our part in Echelon means we provide more intelligence assistance to the US than most other countries in the world - whatever you think of that.

We've declared our commitment to a global push against terrorism. What we haven't done - and shouldn't do - is write a blank cheque for American military adventuring. I was pretty disappointed in Bill English, actually. I thought he was better than that.

Anyway, non-New Zealanders can turn away now if you like: it's Air New Zealand time. What a shambles. What a hideous shambles. What a shocking indictment of the standard of corporate governance in this country. Again.

The relatively small club that runs corporate New Zealand of course put out the word for its usual cheerleaders to, for God's sake, blame the government, and the Prime Minister in particular.

The Australians seemed to buy it initially. Ansett workers blockaded the Prime Minister - who had a notably rotten week - in her plane in Melbourne.

The Australian, a Murdoch paper, ran an editorial this week blaming Helen Clark, who, it said, "obstinately refused to lower government control of the airline from 49 per cent".

I presume what the author was reaching for was that the New Zealand government wouldn't allowed the foreign ownership threshold to be raised to 49 per cent. Not exactly the same thing.

But I don't think even this is true, and I'll tell you why. I have in my possession a copy of an email sent from the New Zealand Treasury to Rob Campbell, the government's chief negotiator in the Air New Zealand dealings.

I can't say how I got it, but let's say it was a matter of accident rather than malice. It reads better now than ever. It was written on late August with, quite obviously, no inkling of the crisis that was about to unfold. A deal had been agreed and was set to be announced before the opening of the markets the following Tuesday. It was, it appears, a deal in which Singapore Airlines was to raise its shareholding in Air New Zealand to 49%.

And then the government was finally told by the Air New Zealand board quite how bad Ansett's position was. Singapore presumably bailed out of the deal; just as it had reneged on an earlier agreement in June, after the Australian government - steaming with self-interest as usual - leaned on the New Zealand government to put the Singapore Airlines offer on hold and consider a counter-offer from Qantas.

But it defies logic to suppose that, even if the New Zealand government had ignored the Australians and carried on with Singapore, Singapore would ever have gone through with its proposal - for the very simple reason that the Air New Zealand board would eventually have had to reveal financial information that would have simply scuttled it.

The New Zealand government isn't blameless. It could have acted more quickly and it should have ignored the Australian pitch for Qantas. But the Australian government - which created the whole fiasco by reneging on the Open Skies deal and forcing Air New Zeakand to buy half its basket-case airline if it wanted to fly domestically - is very much to blame too.

You can also line up Rupert Murdoch and TNT - who bled Ansett dry when they owned it - Singapore Airlines, perhaps the Ansett workers - although the recent disappearance of their entitlements from the airline's balance sheets seems to border on the criminal - the management, who were amazing paid bonuses last week, and, of course, Brierley's and the independent directors. Club members all.

It looks like we taxpayers may soon be owning part of our national carrier again. Good. Because the government could hardly be any worse at running an airline than private enterprise has been - G'bye!

Russell Brown
russb@hardnews.co.nz

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