bin Laden Footage

Security, Not Censorship

The five major U.S. television news networks have announced they will refrain from broadcasting unedited footage released by Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda members. CNN, NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox News agreed Wednesday to eliminate offensive, threatening or violence-inciting statements, by request of the White House.

National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice also expressed concern that speeches released by the terrorists following the air strikes in Afghanistan may contain coded messages directed at al Qaeda members across the world. She noted that specific hand gestures and certain words are potential signals for global terrorists to act. In addition, Rice believes that airing the messages gives the terrorists the opportunity to spread hateful propaganda.

As evil and cowardly as the terrorists are, there is no doubt that the Sept. 11 attacks were performed under a high degree of precision and coordination. An intricate form of communication is one of the key reasons why four commercial jets were hijacked within minutes of each other.

Now that we are at war, our national security is at stake. Knowledge of bin Laden's secret methods of communication is very limited, but what is known is that many terrorists are sleepers. They lay low and blend in with society until someone transmits the proper signal to act. You can bet that signal doesn't consist of bin Laden calling them on the phone.

An examination of bin Laden's hateful tirade aired minutes after the first bombings in Afghanistan already deserves scrutiny. For instance, it was clearly evident the speech was made before the raid because it showed bin Laden was preaching in broad daylight although the strikes occurred deep in the night. He organized the attacks and then successfully guided our reaction to them by commanding airtime with the release of his videotape.

We must not play bin Laden's games. A look at the dangerously volatile anti-war demonstrations in Pakistan reveals his power; his very image has the power to incite anger and violence. Bin Laden uses every chance he gets to place himself in front of a camera, to preach his divisive invective, and to empower his untouchable mystique. By giving him the attention he so desperately seeks, we only further destroy the sense of security he sought to corrode Sept. 11.

The media must maintain a careful balance between providing an accurate depiction of bin Laden and his beliefs and allowing the government to control the news. While it is noble of the newscasts to comply with President Bush on this particular request, there is always the danger that the press will become too strongly influenced by governmental pressures.

In this case, the federal government did not force the media to stop airing the messages, and thus did not venture into the territory of external censorship. What is troubling, however, is the relative ease with which the government was able to convince the press to engage in an act of self-censorship.

It is vitally important for our country to be aware of our enemy - to understand the way he operates so that we can overcome him. We must experience his rhetoric to know who and what we fight against, whether on the battlefield or in our hearts.

Although people may find bin Laden's diatribe offensive, neither the government nor network executives should suppress information vital to our understanding of the war we are living. Sometimes the truth wounds, but we cannot heal without drawing a little blood.

Otherwise, the danger is that the public is blind, leaving the government to pursue a precarious path on its own. Our prior experience in Vietnam, where the Nixon administration blocked its constituents from knowing its costly activities and mistakes, is a testament as to why the public must be informed. Our government is structured around a system of checks and balances. The people's check on their representatives is perhaps the most important of these, for in a system founded "by the people, for the people," there can be no valid operation which is closed off to the inspection of those it is designed to serve.

American journalists are also American citizens. As citizens, they must protect the security of the country from external enemies. But as American journalists, they must provide the public with the information that allows it to maintain its own freedom. Without knowledge, we are powerless.