Politics & Policy

New Censors’ Obsession

The truth is out there. It may be suppressed.

George Bernard Shaw once wrote that assassination is the extreme form of censorship. Today, I wonder what he would say about the censorship of assassination as a political organizing principle. Sadly, one is forced to ask this question just now as we witness some of our nation’s newspapers refusing to accept a paid advertisement in the form of the documentary Obsession.

#ad#For those unfamiliar, Obsession was put together in the aftermath of 9/11/01 to help educate Americans and other English speakers about the roots and methods of terrorism, the uses of propaganda in the Middle East, and the tactics of recruitment — including the recruitment of children and suicide bombers (too often, the same thing). It was one of many civilian-distributed educational efforts that sprung up after 9/11 to help educate on a topic of obvious concern and too little knowledge. It was a heroic effort. Of late, that effort has been regenerated, with a campaign to have Obsession sent into homes and distributed in local newspapers.

But not all newspapers are accepting the advertisement. And in the quest to keep the DVD out of the hands of too many Americans, some journalists are betraying their own ignorance. Take Keith Olbermann of MSNBC. Olbermann recently said Obsession is “neocon pornography.” I can only imagine what Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz must have thought of this comment, he being one of the most prominently featured experts in the documentary. Professor Alan Dershowitz, a supporter of Al Gore, John Kerry, and Barack Obama, and an opponent of the Iraq war, would be just about the last person to think of himself as a neoconservative.

Other experts in the documentary include Egyptian-born Nonie Darwish, a public speaker who has denounced radical Islam and whose domestic politics are nowhere readily evident; Itamar Marcus, an Israeli who has established a media research center exposing Palestinian propaganda; Martin Gilbert, a British historian of impeccable credentials; Steve Emerson, one of the first journalists to learn and speak of terror cells within the United States; Daniel Pipes, one of the most respected scholars of Islam in the West; and others unrecognizable to any professional political fundraisers, whose politics is anybody’s guess. To be sure, some of these experts have become controversial, good experts often are. But so far as I can tell, in the case of Daniel Pipes for example, controversy about him results from his belief that political Islam is a threat to both the West and moderate Islam. He’s just that controversial.

Too bad such experts are denounced, silenced, and dismissed by shibboleths that explain nothing but are well received in the fever swamps of ideological rigidity. Ever since re-reading Daniel Pipes’ and Steve Emerson’s work in the 1990s, when they were predicting the destruction of the World Trade Center and worse, I’ve come to believe we have more to learn from them still, and that we ignore their scholarship at our own peril. Perhaps that is why Emerson is one of the first calls televised news organizations make whenever a terrorist event takes place anywhere in the world.

But we have a lot more to learn from all of the experts in Obsession, and denouncing them and the project seems something very close to banning books because the ideas found in them are uncomfortable or offensive to some. I will readily agree: terrorism and the recruiting of children as suicide bombers is offensive, to put it no worse. I think most would agree as well, we know nothing like enough about such tactics and problems so as to begin a campaign to silence documentaries about them. A campaign to silence is what we have, however, and Keith Olbermann is hardly alone.


Just this week, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch refused to accept the advertising revenue and distribute the DVD, claiming “[the paper] took an ethical stand and refused to distribute the DVD of a film that for two years has troubled American Muslims.” Last week, North Carolina’s Greensboro News & Record decided not to distribute the DVD (again, within its paid advertising section) because, as the publisher of the paper put it, “it was divisive and plays on people’s fears and served no educational purpose.” Look for more newspapers to follow suit. (Update: The Detroit Free Press just refused the ad/distribution as well).

“An ethical stand?” “No educational purpose?” Dershowitz, Pipes, Gilbert, Emerson, and others featured in the film are some of the most sought after speakers not only on college campuses and in academic conferences, they are regularly featured on nightly and cable television for their expertise. Something else had to be going on, and one of the editors at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch let the cat out of the bag, quoting a Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) official as stating “We feel that it’s going to incite more hate and bigotry against our community.” In fact, CAIR has issued a press release on the film, asking its members to cow their local newspaper editors, “calling on anyone who received the Obsession DVD in their newspaper to contact the papers publishers to ask why they believe it is appropriate to profit from anti-Muslim hate.”

#ad#CAIR is more than within its rights to protest a documentary about radical Islam, a documentary that states at the outset that “most Muslims do not support terror” and the media kit of which states one of the goals as “recongiz[ing] the initiatives of moderate Muslims to promote tolerance.” What surprises is that an organization such as CAIR — continually telling us that it is a mainstream organization that opposes terrorism — would have anything to fear from a film depicting that which they claim they are not: immoderate extremists. The even greater surprise is that newspaper editors and publishers would engage in public interest self-censorship and so readily agree to an outside organization’s political demands.

The journalist community is usually the loudest to condemn any form of actual or perceived censorship, and — in the extreme — it even celebrates itself with awards for revealing some of the most highly classified wartime national security intelligence. But a documentary about radical Islam is, for them, beyond the pale. In fact it has become “ethical” to refuse its paid distribution; it has become appropriate for them to deem undisputed film imagery, documentation, and scholarship as serving “no educational purpose.”

During a recent commemoration of 9/11, Debra Burlingame (whose brother was a pilot on American Airlines Flight 77) was asked what she missed most since 2001. Her response: “I miss the anger.” Ms. Burlingame was of course talking about the anger of Americans for being attacked. That is long gone. What I look forward to missing — someday — is the slandering of journalists and experts who educate us about the nature of our enemies. Some anger, of course, never even began and we could use a dose of that just about now: namely, the anger so called religious civil rights organizations should have for those they claim distort their religion when they engage in mass slaughter. That, we haven’t seen enough of. Indeed, there’s a lot we have not seen — and some of our nation’s newspapers are complicit in that blindness today.

– Seth Leibsohn is a fellow at the Claremont Institute.

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