Mission: Al Jazeera: Build a Bridge, Seek the Truth, Change the World, with Josh Rushing
Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, America has been engaged in its own jihads, both the lesser and the greater. With troops deployed around the world presumably defending their homeland (while offending nearly everyone else), one might call it a victory in this lesser jihad that at the time of this writing there have been no new attacks on the United States since the twin towers fell; however, reports from the frontlines of America’s greater jihad-the struggle for the nation’s soul, the ideas for what America is supposed to represent-are much more grim.
For fourteen years as a U.S. Marine I dedicated my life to defending America, but through a surprising series of events I have found myself pulled from the fight against foreign enemies and thrown onto the frontlines of America’s greater jihad, as a correspondent for Al Jazeera English.
I have an office four floors above our studio in a building three blocks from the White House in Washington. From this starting point, in the heart of our nation’s capital, I often find myself traversing the battle lines of America’s struggle with the worst of itself. Such was the case when I went to do a story on America’s dwindling rural population-in Small (and getting smaller) Town, USA.
In a country consumed with immigration issues I wanted to explore a corner obsessed with emigration. Producer Peggy Holter, cameraman Mark Teboe, and I headed to Divide County (population 2,200), in rural northwest North Dakota, just a few miles south of the Canadian border. There I interviewed everyone from high school students to business owners about the value of their little piece of the heartland, and the risk of it emptying out as young people went away to college and found little reason to return home afterward. I first sensed something might be amiss when a reporter from the local paper, The Journal, showed up to cover me covering them on my first day in the area. She was friendly enough, but after chatting for a bit she admitted to her surprise about how I was dressed. I thought blue jeans and a khaki shirt might appear more causal than what she was accustomed to seeing reporters wear on TV.
“No,” she said, “It’s just that when I heard there was a crew here from Al Jazeera I thought you’d be wearing robes and headscarves.”
Although this would not have been true even if I were working for Al Jazeera Arabic, the original Al Jazeera, I took the opportunity to tell her about Al Jazeera English-which at the time was preparing its global launch-and the story on “vanishing America” we were pursuing in her neck of the woods. She seemed fine, we parted amicably and I didn’t give it much further thought until she called me a few days later sounding more than a little distraught.
She told me that a couple of days after we met, a man who identified himself as an agent from Customs and Border Protection entered her office and asked her to step outside with him. She asked if she could bring her reporter’s notebook, to which he sternly replied, “No need. I’ll be the one asking the questions.” Once out of the office he began to grill her about her encounter with me: “Did he look American? Do you think he was a citizen? What kinds of questions did he ask? What were they doing up here near the border? Did they take pictures or videos?” The agent informed her there were potential international implications to my visit, on which he was not at liberty to elaborate.
This impromptu interrogation left her upset, and, since headlines at the time were exposing (and criticizing) the U.S. intelligence services for maintaining a list of private phone numbers they sometimes tapped in search of potential terrorists, she also worried about having been added to that database. Would calling her mother to discuss the interrogation put her on the list as well? She e-mailed her brother in Washington State, who, like his sister, found the story alarming, and hesitated before calling to reassure her. When he hung up the phone, he saw an unmarked car pull up in front of his house. A man leaned out of the passenger side, spray-painted a symbol on the sidewalk in front of the house and drove off.
He was dumbfounded by what he saw, and had he not taken a picture of it, even his sister may not have believed him. Overcoming her fear, she wrote a column about her bizarre encounter in The Journal, while her brother recounted his own version on his blog. The fuse was ignited: from there a watchdog group that wrongfully associates Al Jazeera with Al Qaeda picked up the story and released an urgent media advisory about Al Jazeera probing the U.S.’s unsecured borders. This became a national story when Fox News ran a note about it on its ticker. Then a legion of conservative bloggers propelled the incident even further, fanning the flames of their xenophobic followers with visions of Arabs teeming at the U.S.’s porous borders.
Back in North Dakota, the Customs and Border Protection agent who had visited the reporter was now following in my footsteps, giving the same big-brother treatment to everyone I interviewed, prompting a series of nervous phone calls to me. People I had interviewed were worried they might have said something that could put the country at risk or, even scarier, that they might have said something that could have put themselves at risk from their own country. The agent effectively burned every bridge I had crossed in North Dakota, ensuring there weren’t going to be any follow-up interviews on this story.
All this might have been more amusing than frustrating, were it not for a bolt of bad news I received the same day I found out about the federal agent on my trail. In an email from an old friend, I learned that one of my best friends from high school, Matthew Worrell, had just been killed in Iraq when his Little Bird helicopter was shot down in a battle south of Baghdad. Like me, Matt had two sons who looked just like him. Jake was three years old and Luke, which is my son’s name as well, was 18 months. Matt’s death hit me hard. At the funeral his sons wore tiny suits and Luke sucked on a pacifier with a red, white and blue handle that matched the colors of the flag draped over his father’s coffin.
Matt’s death reminded me that the struggle, the lesser jihad the United States currently faces, comes at a high cost. What angered me most was that Matt died serving an idea of America-the idea of a nation with an open mind and heart-that resembled the actual state of America less and less, and seemed to be vanishing faster than the people in North Dakota.
Instead, the nation was becoming one blinded by fear, seeing enemies where there aren’t any, and treating honest inquiry-the kind guaranteed in the Constitution-with suspicion or hostility.
I called the agent who was on my trail. This time the questions were for him. Why was he harassing the people I interviewed? If he had questions, why didn’t he call or pay me a visit? Was this part of his job? To protect America’s unsecured Canadian border from the ‘threat’ of Washington-based reporters? His stumbling answers were meek at best.
The story of my misadventure in North Dakota resurfaced six weeks later when my executive producer, Joanne Levine, mentioned it in an op-ed piece about Al Jazeera for the Washington Post. To accompany her article, the Post editor retrieved an archived photo of a protest that had occurred outside the Al Jazeera English’s Washington studio. A group opposed to Al Jazeera coming to America (never mind that Al Jazeera Arabic already had a bureau in Washington and had been distributed in the States for years) had spent months on its website calling for a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week protest, claiming the launch of Al Jazeera English could lead to suicide bombings on the streets of United States. The group’s recruitment skills were about as effective as their planning foresight:
May 1, 2006
Al-Jazeera Office Protested
Six protesters stood outside al-Jazeera’s new downtown Washington office yesterday, calling its soon-to-be-launched, English-language network a “propaganda shop on American soil.”
“Al-Jazeera is not welcome here,” said Dave Holly, a computer programmer from Valley Forge, Pa., who protested outside the Arab network’s office in the 1600 block of K Street NW.
Organizers had said they expected about 200 protesters, but the gathering fell flat. The United American Committee, which organized the demonstration, said the gathering would kick off a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week vigil outside the office. But by 3 p.m., all six had gone home.
“We’re a small group. We’re just starting to organize,” Holly said yesterday, explaining the low turnout. “The word is just getting out about this.”
I missed the show, though a few of my colleagues went by to see the event, but like the people who had organized the demonstration, they too were disappointed with the turnout. Although a photographer covered the diminutive demonstration, the Post did not print a picture-until they retrieved an archived photo of the April protest to accompany Joanne’s commentary. The photo’s frame was tightly filled with a handful of protesters and their handmade signs, without explaining they were the protest in toto; from the tightly cropped photo you might have thought the demonstration was huge.
This is a strange time for America. Everywhere it seems people are seeing things through a prism of their own fears and stereotypes. When the reporter from The Journal in North Dakota heard a crew from Al Jazeera English was in town, she expected Bedouins on camels. The Border Patrol assumed we were doing reconnaissance for a pending invasion. The reporter’s brother thought secret agents were marking him, but instead, the person in the mysterious car was simply designating a trail for a bike race passing through the neighborhood that weekend. The protesters believed we were bringing an anti-American agenda to our nation’s capital. And my friend died in a war fought for fears of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and terrorist ties that didn’t exist.
From my vantage point-working for an Arab-based media company in the heart of the United States, trying to practice skeptical and challenging journalism in a news environment that seems increasingly less so-my North Dakota experience has all the elements of a good story: honest, hard-working people; fearful bureaucrats; ignorant extremists; a good soldier who made the ultimate sacrifice; and a few simple twists of fate, such as the stranger marking the brother’s house and the photograph taken out of context. It was as rich and kaleidoscopic as any true picture of our country; and it was business as usual on the frontlines of America’s greater jihad, and my own, personal mission Al Jazeera.