Deadly Journalism

Deadly Journalism

Anwar al-Awlaki, Samir Khan and the issue of editorial responsibility.

In the CIA drone strike that took out Anwar al-Awlaki last weekend in Yemen, another al Qaeda operative, Samir Khan, was killed. Al-Awlaki, 40, was al Qaeda’s chief English-language propagandist, and Khan, 25, ran his magazine. Both were American citizens.

American newspapers were filled with articles and editorials about the strike, but one comment about Khan stood out in my mind. “He was just an editor,” said a Muslim in Khan’s hometown of Charlotte, N.C., who was upset about his death. “He was just writing.”

I presented that comment to my journalism students on Monday to get them thinking about the responsibility that journalists have for what they write. “Writing can have deadly consequences,” I told them. Then I asked them to research the work of Khan, who at 25, was roughly the age of students in my class. They quickly located all seven issues of Inspire, the online magazine that Khan wrote for and helped edit. Here is some of what they found:

  • The magazine, first released in June 2010, had as its stated purpose to allow Muslim terrorists to “train at home instead of risking dangerous travel abroad.”
  • It included articles on how to make incendiary devices, including one called “Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom.” It also had tutorials on how to aim assault rifles and drive trucks for maximum killing power.
  • The magazine openly called for the destruction of Israel — “the Zionist entity on the soil of Palestine” — and glorified the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. It ran a special issue of the magazine on the 10th anniversary of the attacks with the headline, “The Greatest Special Operation of All Time” emblazoned on the cover.
  • My students noted that the magazine had sophisticated graphics, photos and many of the features found in American magazines, such as letters to the editor, advertisements and poems.

n The content, however, was rather juvenile. One student compared it to a high school chemistry textbook and another to a church pamphlet. The poetry was especially bad, and included lines like these: “The soaring bird sings tweet / Martyrdom kisses your feet.”

n In the Fall 2010 issue Khan wrote an article called “I am Proud to be a Traitor to America” in which he said, “I am acutely aware that body parts have to be torn apart, skulls have to be crushed and blood has to be spilled” in order for “Islam’s claim to power” to be realized in the world.

n In another issue, Khan explained that he left North Carolina for Yemen in 2009 because he was upset with “America’s cowboy behavior in Islamic lands” and decided to join al Qaeda’s global struggle. “I decided to take up the pen,” he wrote.

“Taking up the pen” can be a dangerous game. I used the Khan case as an opportunity to talk about Julius Streicher, the editor of the popular anti-Semitic German magazine Der Strumer. The magazine — which predated Hitler’s rise to power but was later embraced by Hitler, who called it his “favorite newspaper” — had as its motto “Die Juden sind unser Ungluck,” The Jews are Our Misfortune.

In Streicher’s world, Jews caused the worldwide Depression, were responsible for unemployment and inflation, promulgated prostitution and were responsible for all unsolved killings in Germany, which could be explained as “Jewish ritual murder.”

Streicher was captured at the end of World War II and brought to justice before the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, where he was tried as an “accessory to murder.” He was hanged on Oct. 16, 1946, along with nine other condemned defendants at the first Nuremberg trial.

In his book, “The Myth of Moral Justice,” Thane Rosenbaum writes of Streicher: “He carried no gun and wore no uniform, but in the end his malignant words and racist images made him as murderous and culpable as the Nazis.”

Samir Khan appears to have been collateral damage in a CIA strike intended to kill his boss, Anwar al-Awlaki. He was never brought to trial, but there is little doubt in my mind that he was as much an “accessory to murder” as other writers and editors masquerading as journalists for their own twisted and nefarious purposes.

Ari L. Goldman teaches journalism at Columbia University.

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