How do you manipulate public opinion?

26 March 2019

How do you manipulate public opinion?

Precisely twenty-six days after the attacks of 11th September 2001, the American and British air forces began their bombardment of Afghan targets. The 'war on terror' had begun. The SP was the sole party in the Dutch Parliament to condemn both the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on the one hand, and the bombing of Afghanistan on the other. In the Dutch media too there was virtually unanimous support for the bombardments. Where did this consensus have its roots?

By Ruud Kuin

“America and the Americans have time and again helped other countries in times of need. That also obliges others, in addition to moral considerations, to practise solidarity... America must be able to count on its friends for unlimited cooperation, and that means NATO countries, including the Netherlands. So there's no place for the one-fingered salute or for unsolicited advice, on which when it comes to the US, Europe has a patent.”
So said the editorial in (the national daily) De Telegraaf on 13th September 2001. The paper represented the overwhelming consensus of feeling after 9/11: America and the Americans deserve our unconditional support.

Wim Kok, who was Prime minister at the time, told Parliament that “The Netherlands and the United States share the same fundamental values. In these difficult times, we are one with our American friends.” All daily newspapers took the same line, without modification, and in their comments expressed themselves in comparable terms. In various editorials pointed to the fact that this attack was an attack on 'us', and that the hope was that the world would, as one person, get behind America's fight protect the democratic values of freedom and justice.”

Right to vengeance

In the days following the attacks, George W. Bush used ever more robust language. He pointed to Osama bin Laden as the conspirator-in-chief and demanded that the Taliban, at the time in government in Afghanistan, extradite him. Otherwise, vengeance would ensue. Diplomatic contact between premier Kok and Washington hardened the originally nuanced position of the Dutch government. Kok now described the attacks as “a war on our democracy, and on the whole of the free West.” Twenty-six days after 9/11 public opinion was also united on the US and British bombing. De Telegraaf supported the attack and once again expressed prevailing opinion in the following comment: “There remains no other option after the failure to respond to their legitimate desire to have Osama bin Laden extradited.”
The debate quickly became polarised: you were either for America or for Bin Laden. Criticise the bombing of Afghanistan and you were against America. That was the prevailing opinion, one which made a middle course impossible. Decrying the attacks on the US, rejecting the US right of vengeance and questioning the effectiveness of bombing Afghanistan are three totally different things, but quickly became commingled in the public debate. Even those who doubted that the bombs would indeed counter terrorism defended the right of the US to respond to the 9/11 attacks. “The bombing is unavoidable and justified as revenge,” wrote the late JL Heldring, then a columnist in the daily newspaper NRC Handelsblad. “But are they also an effective response to the phenomenon of terrorism? Or is this a hydra, which, whenever one its heads is chopped off, grows two new ones? The breeding ground of terrorism is not so much poverty as humiliation.” Despite the doubts about the bombings, he did not reject the American bombing campaign, which was in line with near enough the whole of public opinion.

Grim atmosphere

“Whether vengeance is the correct political answer is in the view of my party doubtful,” said SP leader Jan Marijnissen during the parliamentary debate on 9th October 2001, three days after the bombing began. “Politicians must look above all to the future, with the question “how can we react in the short term in a way which doesn't start a cycle of 'an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth', a cycle of revenge, but rather attempts to make the world safer? Bombing the poorest countries in the world merely causes misery for the local population, and won't lead to rolling up Bin Laden's terrorist network. All past experience demonstrates that this sort of massive attack with bombs and cruise missiles always kills innocent people, creates new streams of refugees, and that poverty and illness among the population will grow. The SP is of the opinion that those responsible for the attacks must be pursued, arrested, tried and punished. But the struggle against terrorism must principally be aimed at isolating the terrorists by removing the breeding grounds of fanaticism and hatred.”

The SP was the only party to reject the attack on Afghanistan. The atmosphere in Parliament was grim. Trade Minister Eveline Herfkens of the Labour Party (junior member of the coalition government) launched a scathing attack on Marijnissen. “I understand,” she said, “that (he) prefers to place all blame on the Americans.” Christian Democrat Jan Peter Balkenende, who went on to become Prime Minister the following year, but was at the time still a Member of Parliament, interrupted Marijnissen to state that Afghanistan's failure to cooperate in the extradition of Bin Laden could surely not be allowed to remain without consequences. Marijnissen reacted calmly. “Your question is completely justified,” he told Balkenende. “However, I draw your attention to the fact that international politics offers many examples where the international community makes a particular declaration and the country in question fails to follow it. If in every one of these cases the international community – let's say America and Britain – were to declare war and start bombing, then world peace would really be put in danger.” Balkenende refused to accept this and accused Marijnissen's attitude of giving a free hand to terrorism. Marijnissen was able to respond to this as well. “The question is, however, not whether we should do something or do nothing. We agree that something must be done. The question, however, is what must be done when, and who must do it. Why is the UN not in the picture?”
Always a new enemy

The political consensus in the Netherlands was not unique. In other western countries too, almost all politicians supported the attack on Afghanistan. The same goes for the media. Noam Chomsky described in his book Media Control how in 1930s America a public relations industry was created to “master the spirits” of the “unruly herd”, by which was meant the people. The elite played an important role in this. A new enemy would have to be repeatedly created for the unruly herd. During the cold War it was the Communists. After the fall of the Wall it was drugs, and then international terrorists. Such an enemy made the masses open to things which they might otherwise have found unacceptable. In the eyes of the elite there is a “morbid dislike” on the part of the people of the use of military pressure and violence. There is, however, a means to overcome this dislike. “Let it appear, if we attack and destroy others, as if we are defending ourselves against a considerable aggressor or monster.”

Chomsky explained in his book Manufacturing Consent, on the basis of the propaganda model he'd developed, how it's possible that in western countries, where journalists have a large measure of freedom to bring out the facts, that the media function principally as a mouthpiece for the established order.

An attack on one is an attack on all

Politicians and the media in the US interpreted the attacks of 9/11 as an attack on their country as a whole. They defended the attack on Afghanistan with Article 5 of the NATO Charter, which includes the words, “an armed attack against one or more of (the parties to the treaty) them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all”. Although Afghanistan had not committed the attack, the country was nevertheless subject to attack because it had offered shelter to Osama bin Laden. He and the other perpetrators from Al Qa’ida were painted as monsters who posed a major threat to the US. The group was operating in fifty-two countries and Afghanistan was secretly working with them. Afghanistan thereby got the status of rogue state.

The Taliban surrendered early in December 2001, but the US ignored this. Indeed, the 'war on terrorism' would soon move on to Iraq, a war which had no UN mandate, where the Netherlands once again gave the US its moral support. The promise of the Bush regime, to destroy terrorism, turned out to be impossible to fulfil. Instead, terrorism continues to grow.

Eighteen years on and a whole generation of Afghans has grown up in war. Ironically enough the US is at this moment negotiating on the subject of 'peace' with these same Taliban whom they have been trying to destroy throughout these years. The war in Afghanistan could not be won. If they'd understood that in 2001, more than a hundred thousand lives could have been spared.

Ruud Kuin works for the SP Research Bureau and also the main trade union federation, the FNV. This article first appeared in the SP magazine, Spanning, in the original Dutch.

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