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Living Beyond The Grid
by Michael Gillespie
July 25, 2004

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The Grid, introduced earlier this week by TNT (Turner Network Television), is the latest anti-terrorism action/adventure fantasy dreamed up by Hollywood movers and shakers eager to profit from the ongoing disaster that passes for American foreign policy in the Middle East and anxious to maintain a steady flow of propaganda and misinformation to naive and gullible audiences.

TNT attempts to legitimize yet another simplistic portrayal of the complex set of social, economic, religious, and political realities that define the deepening crisis in the Middle East by claiming that, "The Grid depicts both sides of the war on terrorism. While the limited series focuses primarily on the counter terrorists and their work in gathering intelligence and following leads, it also explores the terrorists' motivations and the impact of their violent actions on their families. The producers of The Grid have placed authenticity and credibility as their top priority." Don't believe it for a moment. The teleplay by Ken Friedman, directed by Mikael Salomon, is not entirely devoid of nuance, but it comes nowhere close to providing an adequate exploration or accurate depiction of the range of experiences that inform anti-Western feeling and animate anti-colonialist sentiment in the Middle East. Not even relatively high production values and television stars Dylan McDermott and Julianna Margulies can obscure either the distinctly and overtly pro-Western political agenda or the racism evident in The Grid's portrayal of Arabs and Muslims. In Friedman's and Salomon's Grid world, there are only two kinds of Arabs, two kinds of Muslims, those who are good and those who are evil, those who are with us and those who are against us. Though TNT says producers Tracey Alexander and Brian Eastman "studied the roots of terrorism and the motivation behind terrorist acts, the family and educational background of terrorists and the struggles within the broad Arab and Muslim world to oppose them," if you blink while watching The Grid you are likely to miss any evidence of a substantive understanding of the root causes of terrorism. Moreover, there is no evidence that The Grid's producers have ever encountered much less entertained the concept of state terrorism. It is surprising that the BBC would risk its considerable if somewhat battered prestige by participating in a Fox Television Studios production such as The Grid. With The Grid, corporate media has moved in the direction of internationalizing an only slightly more sophisticated version of the trite anti-Arab and anti-Muslim propaganda product that has been a Hollywood staple for decades.

In the initial 2-hour episode of the mini-series broadcast on TNT's cable and satellite channel on Monday, July 19, British and American counter-terrorism agents team up in an effort to stop a fictional international Arab/Islamic terrorist cell planning and carrying out attacks across the world. The terrorists botch a plan to release  sarin, a deadly nerve gas, at a conference of Muslims and Jews where there would have been hundreds of victims. Instead, the sarin, released prematurely, kills only a dozen or so people in London. The Grid's plot, of course, is pure fantasy with an anti-Arab and anti-Muslim political agenda. In reality, though there is evidence that some few Islamic extremist groups have sought - thus far without success - the means to manufacture and use poison gas, Western and other non-Islamic governments and counter-terrorist organizations have a long history of using and favoring the use of poisonous gases. For instance, no less iconic a figure than Winston Churchill, as Colonial Secretary, enthusiastically called for the British military to use poison gas in air and artillery attacks in Iraq against Kurds and Iraqis in the 1920s. Churchill wrote: "I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes." During World War I, poisonous gases were used militarily by both sides, and during WW II, Adolph Hitler's Nazi regime used poison gas to systematically exterminate European Jews in death camps. Saddam Hussein's secular Baathist regime is widely reported to have used poison gas against Kurds and Iranians during the period when his regime was at war with Iran and allied with the United States. More recently, during the siege of a Moscow theatre, Chechen terrorists took over 700 civilians hostage, including patrons and performers, and demanded the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya. In the early morning hours of October 26, 2002, counter-terrorism forces from Russia's elite Spetznaz commando unit of the Federal Security Services pumped a sleeping gas (actually a fentanyl-based aerosol) into the theater through a hole in the wall and stormed the building. About 50 terrorists and 120 hostages died during the raid or shortly thereafter. Many of the terrorists, about half of whom were women, were shot in the head. Most of the dead were overcome by the gas and died of complications or inadequate medical care. Thus, the historical record of the use of deadly chemical gases for military and counter-terrorism purposes seems to indicate it is non-Islamic governments that have favored the use of poisonous gases and pioneered their actual use, killing millions of civilians along the way. TNT claims that The Grid's producers have sought to "insure accuracy and avoid negative stereotypes . . . [and that] the BBC contributed its vast experience of producing material for and about the Arab and Muslim worlds." But not one word of the politically inconvenient historical context of the use of poison gas is mentioned by The Grid's writers, who put deadly sarin in the hands of fictional Islamic extremists with a fictional plan to kill hundreds of innocent civilians at a fictional conference of Muslims and Jews. Has a blacker pot ever sought to profit, financially and politically, by turning up the flame under a kettle of Arab Muslims? Perhaps.

The Grid's plot is just more of the same from Hollywood's shopworn bag of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim political propaganda and racial and religious stereotypes. The Grid brings immediately to mind an early episode of The West Wing in which an outraged fictional president Jed Bartlett had to be restrained by his advisors after a fictional Arab state shot down a fictional U.S. military transport aircraft causing the deaths of all the fictional personnel on board. Never mind that no Arab or Muslim state has ever shot down a Western government's transport aircraft, military or civilian. In reality, it is non-Arab and non-Islamic governments that have shot down civilian transport aircraft. On February 21, 1973 Israeli Air Force F-4 Phantom fighters supplied by the US government shot down a Libyan Air Airlines Boeing 727 after it strayed into Israeli airspace. Seventy-four passengers and crew were killed. On September 1, 1983, Korean Air Lines Flight 007, a commercial Boeing 747 flying from New York to Seoul and carrying 246 passengers and 23 crew, was shot down by Russian fighter aircraft after straying into Russian airspace. On July 3, 1988 the USS Vincennes was situated in the Persian Gulf when the cruiser shot down an Iranian commercial Airbus A300B2-202 (Iran Air Flight 655) after mistaking it for an Iranian F-14. The total of 290 dead civilian crew and passengers included 66 children. But the fact that no Arab or Islamic regime has ever shot down a Western transport aircraft, civilian or military, accidentally or otherwise, seems not to have bothered the writers and producers of The West Wing, just as The Grid's writers and producers appear to have been blissfully unconcerned about the historical record of the use of poison gas.

With politically-freighted entertainment product such as The Grid filling the nation's airways, it is oddly encouraging to read Robert Jensen's  and John Chuckman's indictments of the sins of American imperialism. When I read trenchant analysis like Jensen's and Chuckman's, I am often reminded of an account I read years ago written by a Lebanese doctor who worked in the emergency room of a Beirut hospital in the 1980s. As I recall it, the doctor wrote of his encounter with a Lebanese father who arrived home after work one day to find that in his absence an Israeli warplane (supplied by the USA) had rocketed the high-rise apartment building in which he and his family lived. His small children, all three of them, had been alone in the apartment after school in the minutes after his wife left for work and before he returned home from his job. The rocket (also supplied by the USA) had entered the living room and exploded, blowing apart and killing the three children. The man had gathered up his children’s remains, body parts and pieces of body parts, and placed them in a plastic garbage bag. He had brought the bag to the hospital, to the emergency room, which was where the doctor talked with him. The tearful, distraught father told the doctor he didn't know what else to do, where else to go.

Some 20,000 Lebanese, mostly civilians, many of them women and children, died violently in Lebanon in the year 1982 alone. They died as a direct result of U.S. support for Israel's invasion of Lebanon--some 20,000--that's roughly seven times the number of civilians who died on 9/11/2001. One wonders, of those Americans knowledgeable enough to locate Lebanon on a map or put a name to the country's capital city, how many were at all troubled by those 20,000 civilian deaths? How many Americans questioned or protested their government's Middle East foreign policy in 1982? For that matter, how many Americans were sorely troubled by the violent deaths of thousands of innocent Afghan civilians who died as a direct result of the U.S. bombing campaign in 2002, or the deaths of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians who died as a result of the so-called precision U.S. bombing campaign and artillery bombardment during the war to remove Saddam Hussein's regime from power in 2003? Arab and Muslim lives have long been undervalued in the West.

Only now, now that Americans are dying daily on the ground in the Middle East, are serious questions raised regarding American policies and the terrible cost of empire. Why? Because ours is a culture steeped in half-truths and trained in art of selective compassion by the media organizations that provide us with information. For decades we have been bombarded by propaganda that systematically de-humanizes Arabs and Muslims as the evil "other" unworthy of our respect, pity, or compassion. News coverage has seldom bothered to name Arab and Muslim civilian casualties of Israeli or U.S. military actions. Whether the number of dead and wounded is large or small, Arab and Muslim men, women, and children often are mentioned only as nameless and faceless statistics, unless of course they happen to be terrorists, "high-value" targets in America's war on terror. Meanwhile, Israeli civilians, police, and military casualties are more often named, their grieving families are interviewed, their grief-stricken faces flashed around the world on Big Media news programs, while American soldiers are endlessly praised and lauded as heroes, except for "a few bad apples" who were stupid enough to document their own depravity as they reveled in the systematic abuse, torture, and rape of Arab men, women, and children in Saddam's Abu Ghraib prison, a hell-hole refurbished for use by the U.S. military at the expense of U.S. taxpayers.

Democracies find it a great deal easier to muster public support for wholesale oppression, exploitation, and mass murder when they are able portray the enemy in one-dimensional terms, as evil terrorists, killers who have no respect for human life. This is one way our leaders and compliant Big Media talking heads so effectively obscure the fact the USA and its allies have, over the years, killed or subsidized the killing of literally hundreds of times more civilians in the Middle East than Arab fanatics and Muslim extremists have killed in the West. And never mind the decades upon decades of cruel exploitation and ruthless oppression that we in the West would, were it our lot, certainly resist at least as bitterly, as determinedly, and as bloodily as do some Arabs and Muslims. Entertainment product such as The Grid is intended to obscure such inconvenient truths. The Grid is carefully crafted to support a particular political agenda: There are new U.S. military bases to be established and natural resources, mainly oil, to be controlled and extracted at prices favorable to U.S. interests. There are lands to be conquered, puppet governments to be installed, arms to be sold at tremendous profit, war crimes to be investigated by generals, massive intelligence failures to be whitewashed by blue-ribbon panels. There is America's all important ally whose special interests must be served and whose "security" must be guaranteed. There is a war against "terrorism" to be won. And you are either with us, or you are against us.

Government censors and the media mavens who do their bidding (or perhaps it's the other way around - it's become difficult to know just who is running the vast psy-ops circus anymore) selectively feed us information and disinformation and attempt to manipulate our emotions while they hide from our eyes and from our ears the true horror of war. We are not allowed to see photos of the flag-draped coffins of U.S. troops who die in Iraq and Afghanistan, just as we are not allowed to witness the terrible plight of the nameless Arab, the faceless Muslim, standing in the hospital emergency room holding a garbage bag containing the remains of his children, weeping under the burden of a loss that will forever blight what may remain of his life. Yet somehow we Americans must come to understand that his children are as dear to him as ours are to us. We must come to understand that the inherent value of human life is not determined by racial or religious differences or circumscribed by political boundaries. We must come to understand that wars fought by wealthy and powerful nations against poorer, weaker ones are every bit as likely to demoralize the victors as well as the vanquished, that we can neither civilize the world nor transform it into a safe, secure, globalized free market with conventional bombs and bullets or with nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons. We must come to understand that modern weapons of mass destruction have made warfare potentially suicidal on a planet populated beyond its optimum carrying capacity. We must come to understand that selfish political sagacity itself is ultimately suicidal, destructive of all those qualities that ensure human group survival.

We need more leaders who wisely work for the welfare of all humanity even as they strive to promote the legitimate interests of their national and racial groups. We must come to value that which we have in common. We must identify those common goals toward which we can all work together, in peace. We must. Otherwise we will likely be remembered only for catastrophically interrupting the progress of human civilization, if we are remembered at all. 

Michael Gillespie is a freelance journalist based in Ames, Iowa, who writes about politics, media, and interfaith relations.  Though he studied the history of political terrorism at Harvard, he does not market himself as a "terrorism expert."  His work appears frequently in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.