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Revisiting 9/11

William Li

Ask Dr. Fisk all you like, but for heaven’s sake, don’t get him started on documentaries!

Distinguished journalist Robert Fisk from London’s Independent newspaper delivered a thoroughly engaging and emotional speech on Wednesday, Feb. 5 at MIT. He received a well-deserved standing ovation from an overcrowded 10-250, and an enthused applause from those in a packed-beyond-legal-capacity 34-101. However, despite such an immediately favorable response, there were definitely parts of his speech that clearly took away from the impact it would have otherwise had. Lengthy digressions from the topic, and a drawn out ending that included video clip after video clip, kept me from fully appreciating his message.

Dr. Fisk introduced the theme of his speech, “Ask All You Like About 9/11 -- But For Heaven’s Sake Don’t Ask Why,” by claiming that Americans left out the “why” in its reaction to 9/11. He accused the United States government of failing to look for a motive behind the terrorist attacks, when such practice is standard for investigators of any crime. He then went on to supply the audience, in great detail, with the motive as he sees it.

Dr. Fisk apparently had anticipated an event such as 9/11 as a result of pent up frustration and indignation that reached dangerous levels, which ultimately led to a devastating expression of retaliation. He believes the Muslim world hates us with a vengeance because of the severe mistreatment they’ve received at the hands of America throughout the years, and that Muslims, forced out of homes despite holding legal title deeds, persecuted in Turkey (an act of ethnic cleansing some historians have called a Holocaust) by a government supported by the United States, and constantly misrepresented by American coverage of the Middle East conflict, have finally exploded. Through historical citations and movie clips, Dr. Fisk made a most impressive presentation of the “other side” in explaining the “why.” For providing such enlightenment to those who have, until now, lived in America’s bubble, the speech deserves great praise.

I am inclined also, however, to point out some of the less spectacular aspects of the speech. Dr. Fisk spoke a great deal about America’s ever more serious standoff against Iraq, and the constant tug-of-war between Bush and the U.N. Security Council, with one side hotly impatient, madly seeking, even conjuring evidence, and the other side playing the wait-and-see game. I acknowledge that it would be unrealistic for Dr. Fisk, discussing foreign policy, to ignore the most important issue for American foreign policy today. However, the title of his speech should have limited Dr. Fisk to discussing the Iraqi issue as it relates to 9/11. Specifically, he should have expanded on the curious question of how Hussein has magically replaced Bin-Laden as the icon of evil, and how a war on terror has been turned into a war on Iraq.

Instead, the arguments quickly digressed into irrelevant criticism of the U.S. military, and an overplayed evocation of sympathy from the audience. Dr. Fisk went to great length to show the audience the devastating health effects of depleted uranium, which was used by the U.S. military in the Persian Gulf War. He cited numerous occurrences of cancer in the Iraqi population after the war as evidence of the effects of the radioactive material. Following the citation, Dr. Fisk showed us picture after picture of the faces of children who were suffering from cancer, and then informed us that none of the children survived. This was no doubt an emotional moment for the entire audience, who reflected on the costs of war. However, such a dramatic display was unnecessary and inappropriate for a speech on 9/11. A discussion on U.S. military irresponsibility is best left for another lecture, one that includes the dropping of the atom bomb, the air campaign against Afghanistan, and the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia.

Apparently still in the spirit of overdoing things, Dr. Fisk showed four lengthy clips of documentaries based on his work. All four clips recorded Dr. Fisk’s personal encounters with the plight of groups of Muslims, who had been forced to give up their land and their homes. While Dr. Fisk may have been trying to drive home the images of scattered and lost people, the combined twenty-plus minutes of footage in a two-hour speech was clearly overkill.

It is indisputable that Dr. Fisk engaged the audience in an exciting and thought-provoking talk. His insights on history and the point of view from which he presented them, through his privileges as a world-renowned journalist, certainly provided a fresh breeze for many of his listeners, who have so far only heard tales woven by the American media. However, in relying on emotion to deliver the impact of the speech, his strategy backfired.

In America, 9/11 continues to be the most sensitive issue for the majority of the people. Anyone who attempts to play on emotions puts himself in a precarious position, particularly if he presents information contrary to popular sentiment. No visuals, however sympathy-inspiring, can compare with the images of the Twin Towers as they burned fiercely with thousands still trapped inside. No documentary could wrench the heart as HBO’s “In Memoriam: New York City” did for the American public. The horror and tragedy of 9/11 stand out by themselves, and Dr. Fisk should not have attempted to equalize anything with the events of that day, as if suggesting that 9/11 was somehow justified.