When Alienated, Violent Men Demand to Be Publicized
Media decisionmakers are stuck between what might happen if they don't do what terrorists ask and encouraging blackmail if they do
OKLAHOMA CITY was terrorism wholesale. The Unabomber practiced terrorism retail. The one was supposedly in protest against a world government conspiracy, the other against a world technological conspiracy. Both seemed bent on breaking down government and society.
In common they have paranoia and a dehumanization that can come with paranoia. Timothy McVeigh, calling himself a prisoner of war, showed no emotion about shattered lives in Oklahoma City. The Unabomber, in his letter to the New York Times, displayed no remorse about his actions. A reformed German former neo-Nazi, Ingo Hasselbach, says that ideology and conspiratorial thinking can destroy ''even the most basic human sympathy.''
This is far from what Sen. Barry Goldwater had in mind when he said in 1964, ''Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.'' But running through the bloodstream of American history there are paranoid strains and violent strains that can, in combination, be devastating. The ''conspiracies'' run from the Papist plots of the 19th century to the Communist plots of the McCarthy days. Violence runs from John Brown and the abolitionists to the Ku Klux Klan, all investing themselves with moral rectitude.
Whether inflammatory talk over the airwaves contributes to inciting those predisposed to violence needs more dispassionate study than the current emotional climate seems to permit. But more important than external influences may be the pathology of alienation. It seems clear that those bent on slaying some demon called ''government'' are affected by rootlessness and frustration, often fostered by economic dislocation and insecurity.
Several analyses, including one in the Wall Street Journal, have raised the question of whether we are witnessing some extreme form of white male rage. That may be too facile an idea. Yet it is true that we see mainly white male faces in the militia camps. And the FBI believes the Unabomber is a white male, as well.
The Unabomber presented the New York Times with a painful decision when he offered to call off attacks on persons, although not on property, in return for publication of his manuscript, running some 30,000 words. If his offer is not accepted, he said, ''We will start building our next bomb.'' Publisher Arthur Sulzberger said his paper ''can't be held hostage by those who threaten violence,'' but the Times would look at the manuscript and make a ''journalistic decision'' about publishing it.
The phenomenon of blackmailing the news media has grown with the growing importance of the media as a way for terrorists to achieve ego satisfaction. Often news managers submit rather than face the consequences of refusal. In 1975, the German Bader-Meinhof gang negotiated the release of five of its jailed members in return for releasing a kidnapped politician. As part of the deal, German television showed the gang members boarding a plane and broadcast dictated propaganda statements. A German TV executive later said ''We lost control of our medium.''
A year later, Croatian nationalists in this country hijacked a Chicago-bound plane and threatened to kill its 92 passengers unless its propaganda statement was published in American newspapers. The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times were induced by the American authorities to comply. The passengers were released. The hijackers eventually flew to Paris where they surrendered in response to an ultimatum from French authorities. Benjamin Bradlee, the retired executive editor of the Post says that today he would probably not have yielded to that threat, but back then, he could not face the possibility of a story that would say, ''Umpteen American hostages were killed today because Bradlee refused to publish.''
A year after that, in 1977, the New York serial killer who called himself ''Son of Sam'' demanded that Jimmy Breslin, then a New York Daily News columnist, publish his letters. After talking to the police, Breslin did so. When finally captured, the killer, David Berkowitz, said in a prison interview that seeing his letters in Breslin's column gave him ''a rush.'' Robert Ressler, an FBI veteran, believes that seeing his prose in print probably escalated Berkowitz's murderous activities.
That points to the dilemma the The New York Times faces. Giving terrorists the media kicks they demand may or may not deter them from further violence. In any event, if the blackmail succeeds it invites others to try threats of violence as a way to validate their importance. The Times, which has been consulting the FBI, is walking on eggshells. ''We can't be held hostage,'' says Sulzberger, ''but we'll look at the manuscript, make a journalistic decision, and whether we publish it ourselves or not, we'll do all we responsibly can to make it public.'' That is clearly intended to gain time, to keep the serial bomber negotiating.
But at the end, there will be a decision to make and it will be agonizing. To surrender to blackmail is to invite more blackmail. But then, every editor has in mind Ben Bradlee's fear of blame for ''umpteen Americans killed.''