The Eyes of the World

The duty of the foreign correspondent is to write with Olympian authority and see the people of a distant land more clearly than they see themselves.

Last Sunday, when the American press teemed with tales of al Qaeda on the run, Rupert Cornwell of Britain’s Independent provided a bigger picture. “At first glance, the unilateralist, let-the-rest-go-hang mindset for which George Bush was excoriated in the first few months of his Presidency seems to have been expunged by the devastating shock of 11 September,” Cornwell told his readers. That’s certainly a popular view here in the States. But according to Cornwell, it’s not so.

Though President Bush had declared, “Every nation has a stake in this cause. For every regime that sponsors terror there is a price to be paid, and it will be paid,” Cornwell explained that Bush shouldn’t be taken seriously. “This is leadership with a diamond-hard, unilateralist edge,” Cornwell instructed. “Is Washington really going to take on states such as Iran, avowed sponsors of terror against Israel, but which are being–to borrow a diplomat’s favourite word–‘helpful’ in the present crisis? Almost certainly not. But anything less would merely bear out the complaint that this is a war not against terrorists but against America’s enemies.” Cornwell argued that unilateralism is historic in the U.S., that President Clinton was a unilateralist and Bush is simply more blunt about being one, and that it’s likely that in the aftermath of Afghanistan “America will revert to its old ways. Its approach to the world may become not less self-centred, but more self-centred than ever.”

These were hard words, and they fulfilled the foreign correspondent’s important duty of assuring the folks at home that the world is essentially unchanging and their presumptions about it are sound. Nevertheless, the question of how others see us fascinates a lot of people, and a big crowd gathered two weeks ago when the Chicago Humanities Festival conducted a roundtable on the subject in the auditorium of Northwestern University’s law school.

“What I write is considerably sharper than what is written in the American press,” said Cornwell, one of six Washington-based correspondents who took part. “I was back in London a few days ago, and it was very interesting that failure, or lack of success, is pointed out for what it is, and also the underlying problems of the campaign, which go very, very deep indeed, are much more bluntly and squarely addressed than they are here.

“It comes back in a sense to the question, ‘Why do they hate us?’ But you never get much of an answer to that in the American press.”

“Is the United States hated?” wondered the Tribune’s Richard Longworth, the moderator. “Is it simply resented? We absolutely have to think about it, and I don’t think we are.”

“Obviously, we don’t hate you.” This was John Ibbitson of Canada’s Globe and Mail, drawing a big laugh. “But Canada–and I suspect this is true of all the Western Hemisphere nations–is very nervous about the United States right now. One of the things I’ve worked hard to get across to Canadians is, although there are voices of dissent, voices of debate, all Americans are very united and implacably angry at this time, which is very admirable in some ways but frightening in others, because we’re just moving in one direction without a tremendous amount of debate. For others, who are near and who are affected by your decisions, this can have troubling consequences. Tom Ridge, for example, talks a great deal about the need for a North American security perimeter. That has major implications for Mexico and Canada. We have very different immigration laws and refugee laws and border-patrol rules and customs. Are we going to be expected to rewrite our laws to bring them into conformity with what you want?”

Arkady Orlov of the Russian news agency RIA-Novosti said Russians don’t hate Americans either. “There is definitely a great amount of love towards this country, but the love could be tough sometimes. I think we have to look at this from a greater perspective. I think what is going on is not just a relation between a certain country and America. It’s part of the process which somebody calls globalization. It so happens that globalization has definitely, to a large extent, an American face on it.”

Xavier Mas de Xaxas of the Barcelona daily La Vanguardia drew the familiar distinction between hating Americans–nobody does–and hating America. “Spain, for example, didn’t have a Plan Marshall. Instead it got a Plan Franco–and for 40 years. And because it was in the American interest, we had a fascist dictatorship that slowed a lot the development of the country. So there is a lot of resentment in the Spanish people toward the American way of dealing with the problems of the world.”

Cornwell: “One of President Bush’s remarks that I do find a little troubling is where he seeks to divide the world into saved countries–either you’re with us or you’re with the terrorists. It’s perfectly possible to be not terribly fond of America but also very hostile to terrorism. I find that simplistic distinction that either you’re with us or against us rather frightening.”

Applause rang through the auditorium.

Swimming against the tide, Gintas Alksninis of Lithuania’s largest daily, Lietuvos Rytas, announced that a recent poll had established that his country was “especially positive about the effects of U.S. foreign policy, coming in second only to–guess what?–Israel.”

“It’s not a hate,” said Thomas Gorguissian of Egypt’s Al Wafd daily. “There’s a kind of anger and resentment–not because of how you live, or how wealthy you are, or how healthy you are, or because of the lifestyle. They are expecting, because you are the powerful, most resourceful country in the world, you’ll pay some attention to what’s going on in the world beyond the fence behind which you are living.”

There are good people everywhere, Gorguissian went on. “They don’t have to come here to be good.” When the smattering of applause passed he continued, “With the census results a few months before this September, most of the American newspapers were so proud of how it looked like in America. Everything is there–every country and every ethnic group and every religion and every color. And all these people are here, and they say, ‘This is America!’ And it becomes like, ‘OK, maybe these animals would be good if they were in this zoo, but not in their jungle.'”

Longworth said it sounded as if the United States hadn’t paid much attention to what people in other countries were thinking. Had September 11 changed this? “Do you find in Washington that you have more access to government sources? Are people more open and anxious to talk to you?”

“No and no,” said Cornwell.

“But if we’re fighting a propaganda war,” said Longworth, “we have to influence the correspondents in Washington on the front lines.”

Cornwell told him, “I haven’t noticed much attempt to do so.”

When Longworth invited questions from the audience, a woman raised her hand and identified herself as a native Hungarian, a Canadian citizen, a resident of the United States, and a Jew. “I notice that there has been some cynicism on the panel,” she said, “and I would venture to say why we don’t have the question as much ‘Why they hate us?’ is because why they hate us does not justify what happened.”

There was a ripple of applause at this suggestion that the panel had been dancing around first principles. To louder applause, Longworth replied, “I hope that nobody here mistakes the honest opinions of people from different parts of the world who view the United States in a certain way as cynicism.”

The panelists did briefly talk about the facts of September 11, as distinct from the roots of September 11 or the repercussions of September 11. Cornwell marveled at the “sheer extent” of the carnage, which he called “amazing.” He said, “What happened in–what? two hours?–was twice as much, in terms of casualties and victims, as what happened in 30 years of Irish troubles.” He and Mas de Xaxas described the terrorism back home as something people got used to and learned to live with. In just the past week a car bomb had injured 95 people in Madrid and a judge had been assassinated in Bilbao, Mas de Xaxas noted. “Terrorism has not been well understood here,” he said. “In the American media, even today, Basque terrorists are referred to as guerrillas, as fighters.”

Orlov reflected on the measures his country had taken against nihilist undergrounds. “For 70 years under Soviet rule there was no terror in Russia,” he said. “First of all probably because Lenin and Stalin to a large extent were terrorists themselves.”

Trials and Errors

When newspapers err they should err on the side of the Bill of Rights. After all, that’s the side of their bread the butter’s on. Last week the White House OK’d drumhead justice for terrorists. The New York Times was outraged and the Chicago Tribune troubled, but the Sun-Times gushed. “We don’t need years-long trials or our courtrooms turned into political circuses by fanatics making preposterous claims about the Sept. 11 attacks,” it editorialized last Friday. “Military tribunals are the appropriate forum for handling these war crimes.”

Defendants brought before these tribunals would have no right to a jury and no right to review all of the evidence against them. The standard of proof would be lower than it is in the usual criminal court, and a simple majority of the presiding officers could declare guilt and impose any penalty, including death. There’d be no appeal. The defendants would have “fewer rights than they’d enjoy in our criminal court system,” the Sun-Times allowed, but at least they’d get a lawyer.

Apparently the White House and Sun-Times are privy to data the rest of us haven’t seen showing that the rounding up of suspected terrorists is an exact science. The case for these kangaroo courts rests on the assumption that everyone brought before them will be guilty. As Attorney General John Ashcroft put it, “Foreign terrorists who commit war crimes against the United States, in my judgment, are not entitled to and do not deserve the protections of the American Constitution.”

“These trials could be held outside public view to protect sources of classified information,” said the Sun-Times. “Most likely any such trials that do occur would be held outside the United States.” In other words, the tribunals would take place out of sight and out of mind–which to the Sun-Times is an argument in their favor.

Instead of pretending to care about constitutional principles, the Sun-Times ridiculed anyone who does. “Civil libertarians are complaining that those foreign enemies who would destroy America and its ideals ought to be protected by those ideals,” said the editorial. “Reminds us of the old joke about the man killing his parents and then pleading that he’s an orphan.”

The editorial, headlined “American way too good for them,” appeared the morning of the day that defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited the editorial board. He must have been pleased.

Zucker Ready to Rumble!

“Inc.” disappeared last Friday from the pages of the Tribune, but it’ll have an afterlife in the courtroom. Last week sports agent Steve Zucker sued the Tribune Company and former “Inc.” columnist Ellen Warren for defamation.

You might recall from the July 27 Hot Type that last June 22, “Inc.” carried the following item: “What was he thinking? The last person we expected to see Wednesday at Ch. 2 sportscaster Tim Weigel’s tearful, joyful memorial service was his ex-agent, Steve Zucker. Weigel and Zucker had a legendary falling-out dating back many years, fueled by dueling lawsuits and a restaurant confrontation just last year. So imagine our stunned disbelief to see Zucker trying to get past three different checkpoints at the church service. Each time, he was politely turned away.”

Zucker insists he was never at the June 20 service. He says he was helping his wife shop in downtown Chicago, and then the two of them met friends for dinner at Gene & Georgetti. He told me he’d assumed that Terry Armour, a sportswriter before joining Warren at “Inc.,” was responsible for the item, and he left a message for Armour on the pair’s voice mail. Warren called him back.

“She said, ‘I have sources that saw you there,'” Zucker told me. Sources? The item had said it was “our stunned disbelief,” not the disbelief of unnamed sources. Zucker said Warren explained, “Oh, no–that’s just the way we write. It’s a number of sources.”

Zucker’s suit covers this ground. It goes on to say Zucker has reason to believe a “purported source” of Warren’s later spotted him on television and then told Warren that there’d been a mistake–Zucker “was not in fact the person who had attempted to crash the memorial service.” (This “source” is presumably Lissa Druss, a WBBM TV producer who was handling crowd control at the memorial service.) The suit says Zucker understands that Warren “urged her to remain silent about the episode in the future.”

Disconcertingly, the suit claims the “Inc.” item ran on June 25, three days later than it actually did.

Armour is being shifted to Tempo to write about entertainment and celebrities. Warren becomes a globe-trotting senior correspondent, an assignment vastly more appropriate to her considerable abilities than a gossip column ever was.

Zucker alleges that the “Inc.” item subjected him “to ridicule, derision and embarrassment” and that he’s “been unable to sleep on a regular basis due to Defendants’ humiliation of him.” He claims to have lost the business of prospective clients who read “Inc.” and recoiled from his “gross lack of judgment.”

Attorney Paul Vickrey says his client filed suit reluctantly. “In the grand scheme of things–with people dying in terrorist attacks–he actually tried to accept Ellen Warren’s instruction that he should just forget about it, though his reputation had been trashed. But he realized it would be a mistake to let this kind of personal attack go unanswered. We asked for an apology. They gave us no choice. Now it is about money. That’s the only thing that’ll make them sit up and take notice. We’re going to ask for a big number.”

The Tribune isn’t discussing Zucker’s beef except to stand by its story. “The Tribune has a policy of promptly correcting errors,” Warren E-mailed me. “No correction has appeared.”