Trying to find the wise words

September 21, 2001

Squeezing an analysis of terrorism into three minutes is no easy job, writes Lawrence Freedman

I spent the afternoon of September 11, along with everyone else with access to a television, mesmerised by the ghastly images from New York. I had intended to finish my handout for a course on the conduct of contemporary wars. Instead, I found myself watching the start of another one, soon proclaimed by President George W. Bush, not wholly accurately, to be the first of the 21st century.

Barely an hour had passed before I was asked to write a newspaper article and then, as I struggled to find suitable words, I began to receive a call every few minutes, some providing an opportunity to sort out thoughts with journalists from a variety of countries. The bulk were requests to serve as a pundit, which largely had to be turned down.

Meanwhile, I was starting to worry about a good friend bound for Lower Manhattan that day, who later turned out to be fine but shaken, and became anxious to talk to my son in Chicago, especially after an erroneous BBC report said that city had also been hit. Colleagues report similar experiences, and I know they were not at all unique to King's.

The media surge at times of conflict is familiar enough. The space to be filled with comment and analysis is determined by the size of the story rather than what might usefully be said. The call on academics to fill the gaps is constant and incessant. It can appear flattering and irritating in turn. Specialists who can barely command a hearing in their faculty suddenly find themselves with international audiences. Yet they need to keep their contributions in perspective, for they are just one in a jumble of voices, perhaps contributing at best to a developing, often highly speculative, consensus on the meaning of events. Only occasionally will they add significant interpretation or perhaps sound an important discordant note. As with everyone else, they try to explain what is going to happen next when not actually sure what happened just before.

In this case the surge was extraordinary and nobody was prepared. Normally there is some sort of warning that fighting is about to start. Both the Gulf and Kosovo campaigns, for example, were advertised well in advance. Yet with the devastation unfolding on screen, comment was largely superfluous, and while the attacks on the United States were startling, they were not mysterious. There was no question but that this was deliberate and, in the targets chosen and the suicidal audacity with which they were struck, the whole thing stank of Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda group. It was, of course, necessary to point out that the Oklahoma bombing had initially been inaccurately blamed on Middle Eastern terrorists by some, and my colleague Mike Clarke observed, before it was confirmed by the FBI, that this operation must have originated in the US itself. Even so, it was clear that Al-Qaeda had returned to the World Trade Center, having tried and failed to destroy it in 1993. Soon the main question revolved around the nature of the American response and whether or not this would make matters worse.

No doubt other academics will soon evaluate the performance of the media during this crisis and judge whether it was biased. The media will be indicted for neglecting the many reasons why so many people hate the US, and then for giving too much time to apologists for terrorism. Those who tried to contribute will know that the real problems lay in attempting to address complicated issues in three-minute slots, dealing with the question posed rather than the one you wanted to answer, and responding to the latest news before its veracity had been confirmed. Confusion and flip judgements may have been problems, but not editorialising and not, with the stakes so high, the seriousness of those trying to produce the programmes and the newspapers.

Lawrence Freedman is professor of war studies at King's College, London.

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