There are times when I feel like a man with no country.
I’ve lived two-thirds of my adult life overseas. So even though this Okie will probably always sound like a Yank – damn right! – I don’t think like the average American. I probably never did, but even less so now.
When Osama bin Laden was put down, I watched thousands of Americans surrounding the White House and chanting “USA, USA”, as if we’d just won gold at the Olympics. It just made me sad. Yes, I understand America’s need to get something in the “W” column, after so much bad stuff. But I wonder how big a “W” this will be, and how much of the sword will come with it. And at what cost to our honor?
This all came home last night as my 22-year-old son and I discussed the news and views and spin. He was grappling with whether to defend America to his colleagues and, if so, how?
How could he know the truth when every news report conflicted with the one before it.
Osama hid behind his wife. Well, actually he didn’t. There was heavy enemy fire. Or maybe not. One chopper crashed. No it didn’t. Yes it did. It was a kill-not-capture mission. No, it was actually a mission against a high value target. We swear.
So I tried to explain my version of reality – one forged by 30 years in the media and PR, which is no place for virgin souls.
I explained that the conflicting news reports did NOT absolutely mean lies, spin or enemy action. I reminded him of that exercise when one person whispers something to another, who tells it to another, etc., and by the time the information gets back to the originator, it’s rubbish.
And today, this game of pass-the-news-parcel is played at the speed of lightning – with hundreds or thousand or millions of sources firing news and views at will into the internet: the Paki guy tweeting live during the attack, plus media, politicians, Pentagon, spooks, foreign countries, Al Qaeda, idiot bloggers, et al, most speaking or tweeting and texting “off the record: and RIGHT NOW. And RIGHT NOW no one really knows the facts. But still, everyone is talking, because news is a currency spent NOW or it’s worthless.
I covered police as a young reporter in Texas. I learned that news isn’t black and white. That eye-witnesses basically suck. If five people see a shooting, in broad daylight, there will be five or more conflicting versions of what happened. Why? Real bullets make people shit scared.
I asked my son to imagine being in Pakistan. After midnight. And the raid happens. Navy SEALs race from room to room. Probably under fire, or expecting to be. Using flash-bangs and night-vision goggles. Knowing that in their “business”, the difference between life and death, success and failure, is measured in milliseconds and millimeters. They also knew the high value target or targets in that house were responsible for killing thousands of innocent Americans, and that they would do so again, given half a chance. So they killed Osama.
But what happened to Osama, really? Exactly how did it go down?
Only the SEAL in the room, and MAYBE the people watching the “helmet cam” live broadcast, really knows how Osama went out.
But the voracious media needs stories NOW, so stories flood out, leak out, and will keep coming for days. Content will include truth, lies, emotion, propaganda, dis- and mis-information and speculation, all delivered NOW via the internet, or ALMOST NOW by main stream media.
I told my son how hard it is to deliver accurate information when a business is in crisis and fear rules. When CEO’s and Boards and lawyers are scared and wanting above all else to save their asses, and they pressure Communications people to do whatever is needed to make it go away. I remembered refusing a CEO’s order to lie to media, at some personal cost, and I wondered how hard it must be to tell THE TRUTH when the Agency, or White House or Pentagon were ordering you to tell THEIR TRUTH , to spin it or make it go away, and the media jackals are baying at the door, under pressure from their own bosses to get the story out now! Because in journalism, if it bleeds, it leads. And it’s all about ratings.
My son asked, “What good did it really do to kill Osama? Why didn’t they capture him like the others and put him on trial? Why did they have to kill him? Especially if he was unarmed.”
How to explain the real truth? And what three decades of experience suggests to me is the REAL truth?
So I started by explaining the power of the Fourth Estate and what a news cycle is. Why a dead Osama was better (shorter story, mainly positive) than a live Osama awaiting trial, or, worse, being held in Gitmo without trial (the never-ending, negative story). In the latter scenario, every day would give terrorists and revolutionaries what they crave – TV cameras and microphones aimed at them. The technology and forum they need to foment revolution, to shout their truths: Alluha Akbar, Death to America.
I talked about the Twitter revolution that’s destabilizing the Arab world, and why NO Arab country apparently wanted Osama’s body, hence the burial at sea.
I tried to explain why Osama, born into Saudi royalty, was a singular figure to millions of angry Muslims, AND millions of equally angry Americans. Why Saudi Arabia, America’s oil-rich “friend”, had bankrolled Al Qaeda (or at least many Saudis had). And why killing Osama, the head of the jihad terror snake, might in the long run reduce donations to Al Qaeda, and thus save lives. I stress might.
I told my son that Navy SEALs were the toughest, bravest of men, the best of the best. I said that I believed they were sent to kill, not capture, high value targets in that compound (read “Osama bin Laden”) and to bring back photo and DNA evidence. Else why not just use drones to bomb the compound back to the stone age?
To “get” this conversation with my son, it’s important to understand that it happened right after we watched “Green Zone”, a movie starring Matt Damon as a soldier trying to find WMD’s in Iraq, when there were none, and then trying to find THE TRUTH, when there was none of that either.
I explained that the first casualty in war is always the truth. That power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. That the world still runs on oil. So deal with that.
Then my son, who still loves America even though we left when he was four, asked the hardest question of all – is America the good guy? Or the bad guy? Or maybe both? What is the truth?
And that would be the $64,000 question. Where do you start? I guess you start in your heart, with what you’ve seen and what impacted you most.
I told my son that I asked that question when JFK got killed or, rather, when I was a teen in the Seventies and read perhaps 100 books and reports on the assassination and cover up, while trying to find the truth, when the powers that be lied and schemed and covered up. (Don’t talk to me about lone assassins. Just don’t.)
I explained how spending three years as a journalist then PR guy in Singapore, a city-state just down the peninsula from Vietnam, gave me a very different view on that complex war, and how much of the world saw the U.S. and Russia/China as giant elephants. And all the little guys wanted was to keep their rice and families from being trod on.
We talked about the Catholic concept of just wars, and how things are today. I mentioned President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s grave concern about the Military Industrial Complex, and how the world is exponentially more complex now than it was then. And how war is such a big and profitable business for some.
I said I accept that intelligence-gathering is important, maybe now more than ever. But don’t tell me the CIA are good guys. Not since JFK, thanks. Not after I was interviewed in D.C. for an “editor” position that was really “spook”; and 30 years later, I still get the creeps thinking about the woman who interviewed me. Who smelled of death. Who looked like a hyena. With a flesh-eating face. Not kidding.
Anecdotes? Yes, they are. My ones, all of which contributed to my opinion that America, my native land, is good and bad. Often times seemingly well-intentioned but naive. Sometimes seemingly the tool of wealth and power that is beyond my ability to grasp. Sometimes leading the world in great things (tech, science, medicine), sometimes in the worst things (abortion and pornography).
Which brought me to the BIG TRUTH. And for me, at 55, with too many hard miles on the clock, there is only one truth.
Jesus Christ is the way and the truth and the life. Unless you believe that, you are doomed in this life to be Pontius Pilate, forever asking, “What is truth?”, but never getting an answer. Because the truth, on this earth, is subjective, malleable and untrustworthy.
And why am I writing all this on a humor blog? Because my son asked me to. Because he said it helped him see things a bit clearer.
Even though I am a small fish in a small pond, I do know some things that most others don’t. My son thinks I should write about these things rather than about Crack Puppies and high school stupidity.
He thinks we should all be trying to find the truth, and we should use all the skills we have to do so.
I used to believe that. Such a long time ago.