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For the life of me, I can’t understand the preoccupation of the American media — from TV to newspapers to the free-lance pseudo-journalists of the Internet — with the periodic ranting of Osama bin Laden.
More disconcerting is the determination to disseminate his twisted messages as though he were a foe with legitimate aims rather than the vicious thug he is. Is it the same fascination one gets from watching a hideously ugly, menacing spider?
This maniac is responsible for killing more Americans on their own soil than any other outside force since the Revolutionary War. Yet every time his propaganda machinery gears up, he is immediately awarded star status, with every word analyzed. Can you imagine the outcry that would have ensued had the translated ravings of Adolf Hitler been broadcast to the nation during World War II? Talk about aiding and abetting the goals of one’s enemy.
And that is just what is occurring. The latest bin Laden video is little more than a call to recruit fanatics to his cause, which is, of course, to rid the world of as many of us and our allies as possible. The viability of this Saudi monster’s mission depends on swelling his terrorist ranks with men and women from Baghdad to Boston and beyond. That he is quite successful at it can be seen in the number of plots involving Western cells of fellow travelers in this country and throughout Europe since Sept. 11, 2001.
So why are we not using some discretion here?
A simple explanation might be that in the competitive world of journalism and the exercise of our First Amendment rights, we too often forget that the constitutional privilege granted by the nation’s founders carries with it as much obligation on our part as it does on the government. In other words, a free press has a clear responsibility to restrain itself, to refrain from furthering the positions and causes of those who preach inhuman solutions. At least, one would think so.
That does not mean that an aggressive press should not shine a light on evil. Certainly it should. In the case of bin Laden, however, his penchant for murdering the innocent is well known. There is a large difference between disclosing those with such heinous characteristics and allowing them to use you, which is exactly what bin Laden has been doing periodically since 9/11.
It would be easy to once again point the finger at the fiendish Internet and its army of bloggers, many of them utterly ignorant of any obligation to truth or responsibility. They rush to be “first” in providing the millions of computer addicts with the latest terrorist diatribe and threat. The fact is that the mainline distributors of our news, perhaps concerned about dwindling numbers of readers and viewers, have been just as irresponsible. Their haste to hit the airways or headlines with bin Laden’s every word has flagrantly exceeded the boundaries of good journalism.
Some of bin Laden’s attraction comes from his stature as one who could commit the most extreme crimes against humanity and not pay for it personally. With every failed attempt to locate and arrest or eliminate him, his legend grows not only among those who believe he is invincible, but also among the innocent who fear him and to whom he has become a household name for evil. The failure of the Western powers to find him has been his best recruiting tool among fanatics and those who are potentially so. He has no need, as other such crusaders before him, to be a martyr. Zealots flock to his name. His lieutenants who have been captured or killed have been replaced with those equally as vicious.
One can only hope that sooner rather than later the infirmities of age and the stress of running and hiding ultimately will do what the intelligence services of the world have failed to do. In the meantime, it can only be wished that those who understand that he is a cave-dwelling, murderous misanthrope will use better judgment in allowing him a periodic platform to address the people of a nation he hates. But don’t bet on it.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)