September 8, 2007

Fact and Fiction in the War on Terror

Fact and fiction in the war on terror
The Age, Melbourne
April 7, 2005

Michael Connors

Looking for an exciting and lucrative career? You may have seen the recent recruitment advertisements for Australia's premier intelligence agency, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO).

They invite applications from people who can think outside the box. Such banal management-guru speak nicely glosses over the kind of thing you might be required to do if you are recruited, including having people think inside a box - namely a 5-by-5 room for interrogation. These are the boxes that generate most of the intelligence on terrorism.

And it is this intelligence that is increasingly cited in the many authoritative books on terrorism. It seems it is now respectable to include in a list of references things such as Terrorist 489: Intelligence Debriefing, CIA, Our Part of Cuba. If intelligence or counter-intelligence is not your thing, what about writing a book on the War on Terror?

It used to be globalisation that sold books. Now it's terror. Readers can't get enough of thinly researched - but polemically driven - books exposing the inner sanctums of terror networks. The great thing about writing books on current affairs is that opinion trumps fact. In the lazy world of prejudicial common sense that the war on terror has ushered in, you can build a writing career as long as you toe the right line, genuflect in the direction of Big Daddy (authority in all its rotundity), and repeat sanctimonious tripe about the need to repel barbarians at the gate.

If you take the right approach, you might have a bestseller in the making. Judging from the dozen or so books I have looked through, any person who can implausibly claim to have interviewed an informant has a chance of writing a bestseller. The more masked informants, the better the book will sell. When you do research have a mask on hand, just in case you get a photo opportunity. If you manage to score a few interviews, the blurb for your prospective book may read "Using unused sources, this book offers new news on a problem that is new".

Problematically, but unavoidably, if you are going to write a book on terror you have to demonstrate some knowledge of Islam. To do this, it helps to produce a glossary of strange-sounding words that you have never encountered before. Use italics to suggest a scholarly approach to languages that you do not understand. Where possible, make a reference to the crusades as this will add historical depth to your work, but do get the century right (check Encyclopedia Britannica).

To give the work a feeling of authenticity, try to begin chapters with references to dusty roads and villages only to be found off the beaten track.

Best of all, put yourself in the narrative. Paint a self-portrait of a wilful and seasoned traveller, seeking out sinister operatives in faraway places. Make sure you refer to how the Islamic Morning Prayer (Fajr) interrupts your sleep when you are on the road - people like to identify with the writer. You need not be concerned that your arguments are flimsy; there is a ready-made trick to give the appearance of being informed. All you need do is cite and recite. Read through the footnotes of various books on terror and you will discern a pattern of repetition: citation and recitation. Say something over and over again, and supply a footnote.

The CIA Factbook seems to be a constant star in many bibliographies. Using such sources will establish as fact even as flimsy a premise that al-Qaeda is everywhere. There are many other sources. You can quote anyone who has an affiliation with the proliferating number of Institutes of Strategic Studies. Don't be afraid to contact any organisation with acronyms such as ISS, ISIO, SISS. Such organisations have on hand a number of media-savvy researchers eager to be interviewed and cited about any topic. Make sure your sources, real or unreal, do not say anything original, challenging or thoughtful.

If they do, someone will want to know who they are, and you might find yourself in an ASIO interrogation room, explaining that the informant doesn't exist. The ASIO operative will, no doubt, think you have impeccable journalistic ethics, and try and break you down. Lawfully, of course.

To maintain rapport with the reader, it is important that you do not disturb society's sense of proper proportion - tragedies that happen to our people are capital "T" tragedies. The following opening line is obligatory for any book on the right side of the War on Terror: "The Tragedy of 7/11". Make sure you engage a proofreader to spot embarrassing mistakes.

Finally, don't worry about being caught out for being shallow, ignorant and a poseur - this has not hurt the careers of some prominent professors.

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