Murray Sayle: Terror and television

The great reporter Murray Sayle died last weekend. Here, in an article written in the cataclysmic aftermath of 11 September 2001, he recalls another monumental day – and his experience as an eyewitness to history
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Independent Voices

Where were you when you heard about the massacre of the innocents in New York and Washington? I was in bed in Japan, reading a new book about Vietnam. The phone rang. It was my son, Alex, calling from Sydney. “Turn on the telly, Dad,” he said. “You’ll see why.”

I did and joined several billion others, glued to the endless rerunning of those unforgettable clips, aircraft crashing into landmark skyscrapers in New York, smoke pouring out of the even more iconic Pentagon in Virginia, politicians jostling to get their faces on to the box with defiant, fight-them-on-the-beaches soundbites – images we have already filed alongside Diana, Princess of Wales’s fatal underpass and President Kennedy’s last motorcade. I turned to my wife, Jenny. “What’s the date?” She looked at a bedside newspaper. “12 September here; in New York, 11 September.” “Uh-huh,” I said. “Here we go again.” For me, 31 years had just rolled away.

I am standing among a mob of journalists on a desert airstrip outside Amman, Jordan. The date is 12 September 1970, and I have a comfortable three days before the deadline of my then employer, The Sunday Times. I am about to witness something new: the world’s first made-for-television news story.

War by television was already struggling to be born in Vietnam, where I had spent most of the previous four years. Hobbled by primitive equipment, straining to look the part, the box men seemed like actors, playing what we print journalists actually were: observers/participants trying to make sense of what we saw, with the writer’s luxury of at least a few hours to gather our thoughts. We did notice that the Vietcong seemed to have a shrewd grasp of television news schedules in New York, especially towards the end of the war, when live footage from the battlefield became practical. In our innocence, we thought we were the real reporters; television was showbusiness. But we were seeing a new kind of asymmetrical war, in which the weaker side on the ground bypasses the stronger, exploiting technology to impact directly on hearts and minds on the other side. No one wrote about that, and |television, the least self-critical of media, still hasn’t grasped how easily it can be hijacked by terrorists.

Cut (writers started using television terms about that time) to Jordan in “Black September”, 1970, where the perpetually fractious elements of Yasser Arafat’s PLO were training a predominantly Palestinian militia of fedayeen, “men of sacrifice”, to reopen the Six-Day War lost to Israel in 1967. King Hussein of Jordan, an imprudent participant in the 1967 war, wanted no repeat engagement and used his army to crush the PLO. Hussein’s men were mostly desert-dwelling Bedouin, hence our journalists’ shorthand, “Feds vs Beds”. Elements of the defeated PLO then resorted to the ancient strategy of terrorism, renamed the “Propaganda of the Deed” by its 19th-century Russian exponents, now enhanced by the new gadgets of television and passenger jets.

PLO fighters, carrying grenades in those naive pre-X-ray days, hijacked aircraft belonging to Pan Am, TWA, Swissair and BA (the last, an early-morning business commute from Amsterdam to Manchester) and forced all but Pan Am to land on a disused RAF strip in the Jordan desert, named Dawson’s Field. (A Palestinian woman, Leila Khaled, became the first celebrity hijacker when she narrowly failed to take over an Israeli El Al jet over the Thames.)

What happened next was new to journalism. Messengers from the PLO called on the international press at our various hotels with an offer we couldn’t refuse. “Be ready in 10 minutes. We’ve got something special for you.” A nondescript convoy of jeeps arrived at the appointed time. We climbed aboard, not exactly eager for the treat but full of curiosity, the journalist’s ruling passion. Our vehicles had men in Arab headdress armed with machine guns, making clear who was in charge. Semitic warmth was, however, in evidence; our escorts laughed and joked, and we later heard that the business commuters were served coffee after their terrifying desert touchdown with a cheery “Welcome, friends!”

Arriving at Dawson’s Field, we found positions already marked for the television crews and an enclosure, well out of shot, for the writing press. “ABC goes here, NBC there, BBC this way,” the Arab master of ceremonies called out. “You’ll be filming the hostages as they come out and say how well they’ve been treated. Any questions?” The television people said they were

ready; the MC called what sounded to me like the Arab equivalent of “Roll ’em!” The door of the nearest aircraft opened and passengers filed down an improvised ladder and on to the television screens of the world. They then lined up in what television calls an extended group shot and delivered short speeches – clearly rehearsed – about the kind treatment they had received. We mere scribblers were not allowed to speak to them. The performance over, the MC called, “Cut!” now in English for the television people. “Everybody happy with that?” he asked jovially. The television “interviews” went round the world that night, with no indication of who had directed them.

Next day, we were summoned for another performance, this time to see (and film) the airliners being blown up, in order, we were told, to forestall possible commando attempts to seize them back. The passenger hostages had already been safely removed, and negotiations began to exchange them for Ms Khaled and six other terrorists held by Switzerland and Germany. The deal, much criticised after the event, came off, thanks in part to the humane mediation of Michael Adams of The Guardian, who persuaded the Arab side not to separate Jewish passengers from the rest in the hope of exchanging them for Palestinians held in Israeli prisons. I wrote something forgettable for the next Sunday Times, but I was puzzled then and am puzzled now. Why was I there at all? What stuck in the world’s collective memory was not words, but the images which recur to this day: orange flames, billowing black smoke, and the tails of destroyed aircraft, the defeat of technology by the primitive power of the will – rather academic to write about, but unforgettable on prime-time television.

Black September launched the movement which climaxed in September 1972, when a band of Arab guerrillas seized the Israeli quarters of the Munich Olympic village and took nine of the athletes hostage. All nine, plus five Arabs and a policeman, died in a heavy-handed German rescue attempt. No images resulted memorable enough to top Dawson’s Field – that had to wait until 11 September 2001. The theory behind these atrocious acts is easily described in words, but impossible to explain on television, whose vivid, mindless images are themselves at the heart of the strategy. The long shadow of Vietnam hangs over us still.

Anyone in conflict with the US or one of its allies, clients or protectorates is bound to try, as Che Guevara put it, to create two, three, many Vietnams. The Americans were not “defeated” there in any conventional sense – they simply packed up and went home, leaving South Vietnam to its fate. In any such seemingly unequal contest, the weaker side, if in a position to deny a clear-cut military decision to the stronger, may still be able to impose perpetual war, thus compensating for material inferiority with greater determination. Sustaining this resolve is the aim of the terrorist. The whole point of terrorism, Lenin once said (he was in two minds about it himself), is to terrify, but this is only half the story. The other half is to hearten the terrorist’s supporters, with visual proof that the cause is far from lost and, by provoking reprisals from the stronger side, to draw recruits to his ranks from the “moderates” on his side. The more violent the response, the better. The terrorist therefore selects targets that will cause maximum indignation and the harshest backlash, so attracting maximum publicity for his small band of suicidal zealots. Television is his best medium, and when he can use real-time, all-day, you-are-there television, he’s in heaven.

How to foil this strategy? One way is to stay out of fratricidal, hate-laden conflicts altogether. But this is not easy for a global power, especially if, like the US, it contains minorities supporting one side or the other. If non-intervention is too difficult, then calm deliberation is the next-best option. Yet even this is all but impossible in a country as open, diverse, impatient and television-soaked (the last two closely connected) as the US. Politicians, themselves hijackers of the box, have only words to set against the propaganda of the deed, those clips of flames and broken bodies that speak more loudly than any words.

And these dry words, published a week after the event, are too soon to possess historical authority, too late to advise caution before the images have soaked into our collective memories. Nevertheless, it’s worth noting the defencelessness of great cities before determined attackers. Recall those axe-wielding barbarians, our own ancestors, who turned the opulent cities of the late Roman Empire into uninhabitable ruins. Jutes, Saxons, Vandals and the rest had no television, or even writing, only word of mouth to spread terror. It was quite enough.

This piece first appeared in ‘Prospect’ magazine in October 2001. See

About the author

Tough, grouchy, physically robust and intellectually razor-sharp, Murray Sayle was a journalist of the |old school. He was a reporter, a story-chaser, an investigative terrier. Born in Australia in 1926, he started his British journalistic career in crime and graduated to war zones, |producing a stream of celebrated pieces for The Independent Magazine, ‘The New Yorker’ and ‘The New York Review of Books’, among others. In 1995, he was accorded a rare honour when ‘The New Yorker’ cleared out an entire issue to publish his long essay |Did the Bomb End the War?, which questioned the notion that it was the atom-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that persuaded the Japanese to surrender in the Second World War. Sayle was seldom happier than when flying into the Vietnam “Zone” in a US army helicopter, both its open doors filled with gunners blasting into the jungle. His prose embodied the man: it was wiry, muscular, shorn of adjectival flannel, piling clauses on clauses, carpet-bombing the reader with details, then throwing in a subtle, incendiary allusion to Roman legions or Shakespearean heroes. He was a man who loved being in the presence of history.

John Walsh