Skip to main content

Photographer and reporter Scott Peterson

Photographer and reporter Scott Peterson of The Christian Science Monitor has been covering the war on terrorism since the Sept. 11 attacks. He is also the paper's Moscow bureau chief, and a former Middle East correspondent. Peterson recently attended a training camp for journalists to learn how to deal with kidnappers and gunmen. He was also a friend of murdered journalist Daniel Pearl. Peterson is the author of the book Me Against My Brother: At War in Somalia, Sudan, and Rwanda.

40:08

Other segments from the episode on June 6, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 6, 2002: Interview with Scott Peterson; Interview with Robert Jay Lifton.

Transcript

DATE June 6, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Scott Peterson discusses the war on terrorism and the
dangers faced by journalists
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Scott Peterson, has been covering the war on terrorism for The
Christian Science Monitor. He's recently been in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia
and Iraq. He's been The Monitor's Moscow bureau chief since June of 2000.
Prior to that, he served for four years as the paper's Middle East
correspondent. He was based in Amman, Jordan, and also covered the Arab and
Islamic world. Before joining The Monitor, he wrote for the Daily Telegraph
of London covering the Balkans and Africa. He chronicled his experiences in
Africa in the book "Me Against My Brother: At War in Somalia, Sudan and
Rwanda." We invited Scott Peterson to discuss his experiences covering the
war on terrorism. Let's start with his recent trip to northern Iraq, where he
reported on a small Kurdish group of radical Islamists called Ansar Al-Islam.

Mr. SCOTT PETERSON (The Christian Science Monitor): Well, this is a very,
very small group that is kind of hidden in the far eastern regions of
Kurdistan. It really has stemmed out of a long-standing organization, the
Islamic Movement of Kurdistan, which has been a small political movement in
northern Iraq for quite some time. I mean, this is a group that was never
particularly militant or that was even particularly important for a long time,
but they do have the ability to destabilize if they want, and I did speak to
sources in northern Iraq during my recent visit in which they described how
al-Qaeda members had worked very hard to try and recruit some people from this
organization and try and bring them on to their kind of ideological
wavelength. They apparently were successful in doing that. And also I spoke
to people, too, who described that there had been a lot of support for this
group from Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. His purpose was to find any means
possible to help destabilize the situation in northern Iraq, and he felt that
this was a worthwhile tool for that.

GROSS: What's confusing about this is that during the Gulf War, the United
States was aligned with the Kurds. The United States tried to help the Kurds,
and we appeared to be on the same side. So why is it now that some of the
Kurds are in league with al-Qaeda and are the United States' opposition?

Mr. PETERSON: Well, these really are a small number of Kurds who, to be
honest, are actually fighting the main Kurdish groups, the ones who we were
allied with and the ones who we still consider to be our friends today.
Basically these are just a very, very small unit. One of their first acts of
real militant defiance was to kill one of the Christian leaders, a Christian
Kurdish leader in northern Iraq. So they have been launching attacks against
the mainstream Kurdish groups which they consider to be secular, which they
consider to be anti-Islamic. And, of course, Islamic militarism has never
been an issue in northern Iraq. All of Iraq is essentially secular in its
outlook. Has been for decades. So, you know, we haven't had the same kind
of, you know, religious fervor that we've had in other places in the region.

So remarkable that this organization came up, but one of their first targets,
you know, were those US allies. Of course, they consider those Kurdish
groups, the PUK and the KDP in northern Iraq, also to be too pro-West, and
that's another reason, they say, for attacking them.

GROSS: If this is a pretty small group, this Kurdish group that's aligned
with al-Qaeda, what's the significance of the group?

Mr. PETERSON: Well, the significance is that it really only takes a few
people to cause major, major disruptions, to terrorize anyone. I mean, we saw
what happened on September 11 when just 19 people were able to kill 3,000, and
we saw the incredible impact that that's going to have. It's going to define
this country for years to come probably. I mean, that was an incredible
moment, organized by and carried out, at least, by less than 20 people. So
likewise, even in northern Iraq, if you've got a few operatives, if they are
determined, if they've got training, if they've got funding, they can be a
danger. And certainly the Kurdish groups in northern Iraq feel that they are
really at risk from them.

GROSS: Since there is this Kurdish group that appears to be aligned with
al-Qaeda, do you think that the United States will use that as one of the
reasons to attack Iraq if the United States does, in fact, follow through on
that threat?

Mr. PETERSON: Well, I think that will be probably one of the many excuses
that will be used, and certainly the administration is looking for excuses
everywhere it can. There was a remarkable story that I reported while I was
there. I interviewed an Iranian operative who said he had been in the pay of
Baghdad in order to go out and destroy American warships in the Persian Gulf.
Now, of course, if something like this were to be proved--he actually didn't
carry out any of these attacks because he was arrested before he was able to,
but he'd been told about them, told that he was on the lineup to carry out
these attacks. And basically if anything like that came to light, if there
were any evidence that were unearthed that Baghdad had anything to do with
September 11, none which exists yet, or that, for example, Baghdad had some
hand in the destruction of the USS Cole warship in Yemen a couple of years
ago. If anything like that came to light, that would certainly be used as,
you know, evidence and as justification by the administration for going after
Saddam Hussein.

At the moment, those things aren't there, and in a sense, you know, we also
know that Baghdad--or we have an idea that Baghdad has not really been engaged
in any kind of external terrorism for the last 10 years, and this is something
that certainly has policy-makers scratching their heads, because it means they
need to look to other justifications and other excuses: weapons of mass
destruction, you know, how much of a danger Saddam presents to the region,
this kind of thing.

GROSS: Now you say that this Kurdish group is reportedly supported by Saddam
Hussein. How much support is he reported to be giving them?

Mr. PETERSON: What he's reported to be giving them is a lot of money and also
apparently some of the senior leadership are in the pay of Baghdad's
intelligence organization, the Mukhabarat. Now that doesn't mean that Baghdad
created this organization with an aim toward undermining the Kurdish groups.
It's just using them as an instrument. And, of course, in this whole region
there are all kinds of movements and political parties and, you know, there's
an awful lot of spy vs. spy going on, and you've got Iran, you've got Iraq,
and you've got Kuwait and you've got this whole mix-up of people who all have,
you know, different aims and different motivations, and so I would think it's
simply prudent--this isn't a surprise to me. It's simply prudent for Saddam
Hussein to have his finger in that pie, as he does have his finger in the pie
with Iranian opposition groups, for example. I mean, any card that he may be
able to play, he would want to invest in, which is what I think he's done
here.

GROSS: Now the Kurds and Saddam Hussein have been enemies. It was the Kurds
that were gassed by Saddam Hussein with chemical weapons. Why is Saddam
Hussein now supporting this Kurdish group?

Mr. PETERSON: Well, I think really it is to undermine--still his main
strategy is the same, that he is very, very much against these Kurdish groups,
in part because he sees what the Kurds have actually achieved over the past
several years. I mean, when I was in Kurdistan in 1991 at the end of the Gulf
War, and I was there and watched the Kurdish uprising then collapse, and I
fled along with one and a half million Kurds into Turkey. Many people went to
Iran. And really they were starting at zero. And when I went back this
time--I've been back a couple of times in the interim, but when I went back
this time, it was amazing to see the progress that they had made in terms of
getting their economy together, in terms of getting their infrastructure
together, in terms of really investing in the future and having some degree of
hope. So I think his strategy still is to undermine that progress as much as
he can, and by supporting this kind of splinter group, he's able to do that.

GROSS: Now this Islamist group is a splinter group. It's a small group.
What about the rest of the Kurds? Do you think they would still be on the
side of the United States if the United States attacked Iraq?

Mr. PETERSON: I think that the Kurds would very, very much be on the side of
the United States. This is something that they've been fighting for for
decades. But one thing that we must remember when we're talking about the
Kurds is that they have been betrayed several times in the past several
decades. For example, one of the critical ones was in 1975 when there was a
relationship between the Kurds and Iran that the United States backed and
supported, and the Kurds--basically once the Iranians, when the Shah of Iran
made a peace deal with Baghdad, the Kurds were left high and dry, and the
United States, Henry Kissinger, secretary of State at the time, just let that
happen. So that was one thing. And apparently Henry Kissinger, to this day,
rues that betrayal and, of course, that's something that colors the entire
Kurdish political outlook and view toward the West.

Another example was in 1991, as I described the Kurdish uprising in 1991 that
collapsed. I mean, we were there. Kurds felt that there had been a promise
from President Bush Sr. that the United States would be behind them if they
rose up against Saddam. And what they couldn't believe was that they did
that, they rose up, sure enough, but Saddam's helicopters came in, forced
everybody to flee, made their counterattack and, lo and behold, up above, 14
and 15,000 feet overhead we could all see American planes. And what one Kurd
after another told me `Where's Bush? Where is Bush?' They were really
expecting the United States to play a role. And ultimately these are things
that mean that the Kurds require very strong and iron-clad guarantees if
they're going to buy into any American move against Baghdad this time.

GROSS: My guest is Scott Peterson. He's covering the war on terrorism for
The Christian Science Monitor. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Scott Peterson is my guest. He's the Moscow bureau chief for The
Christian Science Monitor, but since September 11th, he's been reporting on
the war on terrorism. He's recently reported from Afghanistan, Iraq and Saudi
Arabia.

While you were recently in Iraq, were you getting a sense of how afraid Iraqis
are, how concerned they are about the possibility of an American attack?

Mr. PETERSON: Well, they are definitely both concerned and they're also
hopeful. Remember now that I was in northern Iraq, which is an area that is
not controlled by Saddam Hussein, and also I was there for--had entered the
country illegally. I did not have an Iraqi visa. Baghdad had not approved my
trip. So in terms of what the rest of Iraq--you know, what the Iraqis think
who are still under control of Saddam Hussein, I don't know what their views
are. But what I do know in speaking to quite a few defectors who had left
Saddam-controlled areas, that basically people are very, very frightened about
what is going to happen. They're very concerned that the United States is
going to make an attack. But at the same time, they are hopeful that if the
United States pulls it off in a way that works and is not particularly bloody,
that Saddam Hussein will no longer be a part of their lives, and that is
something that they very much are interested in.

But it is kind of a tricky balance, and I think the real concern is over what
the level of American commitment will be, and whether the US is going to be
clever enough to pull this off, considering all the incredible complexities
that surround any such operation and, you know, that we see on borders right,
left and center around Iraq, there are just so many compounding factors that
need to be taken into account.

GROSS: Now you reported that you were hearing from people in northern Iraq
that there would be a lot of defections against Saddam Hussein if the United
States attacked, because a lot of people want to get rid of him. Who are you
hearing that from?

Mr. PETERSON: These were Iraqi military defectors, people who, some of whom,
had been in the Iraqi military for nearly two decades, in fact. Described a
very, very deep sense of demoralization, noting that 80 percent of Iraq's
military forces are basically conscripts. This is the normal army. This is
the group that for 10 years has not received any, you know, particular
investment. All the money that has been put into the armed forces has gone
into the Republican Guards and the Special Republican Guards. This is kind of
the final line of defense, especially around Baghdad. But, you know, when I
ask these defectors from the regular army, I said, `Well, what about these
other groups?' and they said, `Well, one thing you should remember is that,
you know, of course there will always be a hard core who will support Saddam
because they feel that if Saddam goes, they will die, too, and of course they
will fight to the death.'

But you also have a lot of other people who, even though they have been
reaping the benefits of being members of the Republican Guard and the Special
Republican Guard in terms of, you know, the best salaries, the best equipment
and, therefore, the best treatment, on the other hand, their families, their
brothers have all suffered under the regime of Saddam Hussein as much as
anybody else, and that is something that makes them angry.

So, you know, it's interesting to note also that apparently the Pentagon's
plan for--or their kind of prediction for what will happen in Iraq if they
were to launch a serious ground offensive is that it would all be over within
two weeks. And I think that says a lot about their calculations about how
willing some of these forces might be, if not to join the American side, then
to at least throw down their weapons. We had 80,000 defectors at the end of
the Gulf War in just a matter of four or five days. That was the number of
Iraqi soldiers that threw down their weapons, put up their arms and said, `We
don't want to fight for this guy anymore.'

GROSS: Now you were recently in Saudi Arabia. You report that the United
States and Saudi interests are diverging. What are some of the ways that
those interests are diverging now?

Mr. PETERSON: Well, I think that both of these countries are taking a good,
hard look at what their real interests are. I mean, of course, Saudi Arabia
has been the closest Arab ally in the Middle East for 60 years. Of course,
the deal is that the United States is there for protection in terms of defense
while Saudi Arabia provides a lot of oil and a vast chunk of the oil that the
United States uses. So this has been kind of the deal for all of these years.
But the divergences are coming--they were growing before September 11, and a
lot of that was fallout from what the Saudi leadership was seeing as President
Bush's pro-Israel policy. That was leading up to September 11. So this was a
real issue for them because they are--I mean, they very much are obsessed.
Crown Prince Abdullah is very much obsessed with this issue of Palestinian
rights and that kind of thing, and he's really--and he's feeling that way
along with many of his subjects and many people in the Arab world.

And what's changed now, which wasn't the case five years ago or even during
the first Intifadah 12 years ago is the fact that people are seeing this every
single day piped into their living rooms on television screens. Al-Jazeera
television is the main Arab satellite channel and, you know, unbelievably
horrific images and, of course, on Al-Jazeera primarily showing the Arab side
of things, and this has really angered people. I mean, I was amazed when I
was in Saudi Arabia about how much--you know, how passionate people were about
this issue. I mean, even American-educated Saudis were telling me that they
were boycotting hamburgers, they were boycotting American goods completely,
that they'd gotten American things out of their homes. I was very surprised,
because, you know, this has always been a kind of an underlying theme across
the Arab world, but I'd never seen it so, you know, ready and able to be kind
of translated into violence and translated into policy things. So I think
Crown Prince Abdullah, you know, using that, has had to reconsider--you know,
has been looking again at the relationship with the United States.

Now that said, their strategic interests remain the same. Very, very much a
close US-Saudi relationship, and in speaking with diplomats in Saudi Arabia
and Saudis as well--the Saudi leadership--they say that there's no question
that, for example, American bases may need to leave Saudi Arabia or that this
is really an issue or a problem, and that things are well. And then you speak
with other Saudi sources who tell a completely different story that, in fact,
the relationship is kind of on the edge of, you know, breakdown, that there
really is an, you know, awful lot of rethinking going on, and ultimately
they're noticing that their world views don't always tabulate in a way that is
required for allies.

GROSS: Now how is the conflict in the Middle East complicating American-Saudi
relations?

Mr. PETERSON: Well, this is where, I think, the crux is going to be, and
where the relation is either going to get closer eventually or not. I think
it's going to depend on how much Washington embraces the Arab peace plan, as
it's called, which has come from Saudi Arabia, which is basically that Arab
nations will recognize Israel, something that has never been offered by Arab
nations before, but will recognize Israel's right to exist and its sovereignty
and in a secure way, in exchange for a pullback to the 1967 borders, the
borders that existed before the 1967 war. And, of course, it was then that
Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza and eastern Jerusalem. So now the
United States has also said for the first time--this president has said that
the United States is interested in seeing a Palestinian state, but the Saudis
and other Arab leaders are not convinced yet that the United States is willing
or able to kind of work toward this solution with Israeli Prime Minister
Sharon.

And these are issues that, you know, really are going to complicate everything
the United States wants to do in the Middle East, because ultimately in terms
of moving toward Iraq, if the United States deems that to be its biggest plum,
if that's what its main objective is going to be for early next year, then
it's going to have to rethink some of these relationships in the Middle East
in order to make sure it's got enough diplomatic cover and support to pull
this off. Because you just can't go in and topple Saddam Hussein by yourself.
If you don't have Saudi Arabia on board, if you don't have--I mean, even
Iran's gonna have to be on board to a degree.

And the complications were summed up in a quote I heard from one Islamist in
Saudi Arabia who said, "If the Chinese want to go after Saddam Hussein and
topple him, fine. We're all for it. But if the Americans are gonna do it,
considering what they're doing in the Middle East at the moment, we're
completely against it." So there's very, very little support for Saddam
Hussein anywhere, but the question of, you know, kind of where the United
States weighs in in terms of balance, in terms of justice, as far as, you
know, these people in Saudi Arabia and other, you know, allies, people we're
gonna have to have on board, these are questions that matter.

GROSS: The Saudis are sending millions of dollars to aid Palestinian
families. Israel has accused the Saudis of funding terrorism by supporting
the families of suicide bombers and militants. What were you able to learn
about the actual nature of the aid that Saudis are sending to Palestinians?

Mr. PETERSON: Well, what I learned, first of all, was that Saudis are very
proud of the aid that they're sending. I mean, like I said, in terms of
describing the passion that people feel, I mean, this goes right from the very
top to the very bottom. I mean, these organizations--the Israelis, for
example, accuse this organization called The Saudi Committee for the al-Quds
Uprising. They found documents for this organization in their sweeps through
the West Bank in which they had given payments to families of, quote unquote,
"martyrs," Palestinians who'd been killed, you know, either civilians or
militants or anybody. I mean, anyone who is--any Palestinian who is killed in
this operation for whatever reason were going to be given money from the
Saudis. And the Israelis say that this is proof that Saudi Arabia is
supporting terrorism.

Now the Americans who I spoke to in Saudi Arabia didn't believe that. The
Saudis that I spoke to didn't believe that. I mean, very, very few people
believe that Saudi Arabia is actually supporting that kind of terrorism. What
they say instead was that, you know, for example when I spoke to Prince Saud
al-Faisal, the foreign minister, he said, `You know, the Israelis should
really be asking themselves why it is that we feel that we must support 1,800
Palestinian families. Why is it that there are that many "martyrs,"' quote
unquote, he said. So, I mean, their view is that they are proud of putting
this support across. They feel that if they don't do it, you know, maybe
nobody else will, and they don't hide that fact.

I mean, I was surprised to read in some papers that after the initial Israeli
accusations--and of course, you know, Ariel Sharon traveled to see President
Bush with an actual dossier that was supposedly linking Yasser Arafat to
terrorism and also this so-called evidence that was linking Saudi Arabia to
terrorism--and basically my understanding is that on the US side, they really
didn't buy it, and on the Saudi side, they're proud of that support.

GROSS: Scott Peterson. He's covering the war on terrorism for The Christian
Science Monitor. We'll continue the interview in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Announcements)

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, when journalists become targets. We continue our
conversation with Scott Peterson about covering the war on terrorism for The
Christian Science Monitor. Also, living with the threat of nuclear war
between India and Pakistan, and the possibility of a nuclear terrorist attack
here. We talk with psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with journalist Scott
Peterson. He's covering the war on terrorism for the Christian Science
Monitor, and has recently reported from Afghanistan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
He's the paper's Moscow bureau chief and former Middle East correspondent. We
spoke with him yesterday at the end of a brief visit to the US. We invited
Peterson to talk with us about his experiences covering the war.

You were a friend of Daniel Pearl's, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was
kidnapped by Islamic extremists and beheaded. I know you must have been
shaken up by losing a friend. I'm wondering if it made you afraid of doing
your job, if it made you feel more vulnerable.

Mr. PETERSON: Well, I think it definitely made us all feel more vulnerable,
losing Danny, in part because I think it--what shocked us most was that this
kind of pact that journalists, you know, have with our sources, I mean, our
ability to travel around and things, really was betrayed in a way that hasn't
happened, I think, probably since, you know, journalists were kidnapped in
Lebanon in the mid-'80s. I think, you know, people were so shocked by all the
circumstances of this. And, of course, Danny was a guy, you know, who really
was not a cowboy. I mean, he was the one who sent everyone else off to
Afghanistan saying, `I'm going to stay here where it's safe. I'm not going to
go over there. I'm expecting--you know, I'm soon to be a father.' And, you
know, he was the one who was playing it safe. So that was, you know, one
thing.

Another thing was if anyone could have told the story of what these militants,
you know, thought about and what their, you know, ideology was and to portray
their thinking, then he was the one--you know, and that is the surprise, I
think, you know, for all of us, because we're--you know, you just do look a
lot harder at contacts that you make and, you know, you wonder in a country
like Pakistan, certainly. But even in countries like Saudi Arabia, you know,
someone calls you up and says, you know, `I can really offer you a fantastic
interview' or something like that, you really need to think hard, one, whether
it's worth it, you know; and, B, you know, with what happened to Danny
it's--you know, you just realize that the mentality of some of the people that
we are having to deal with who we used to assume kind of were interested in
speaking to us because they felt that we were a conduit to the outside world
are now seeing us instead sometimes as targets, and that's a completely
different way of thinking from things that we're used to.

GROSS: They're seeing you as a symbol that can be used to make a statement to
the outside world.

Mr. PETERSON: Well, if they want to win the opprobrium of the world, you
know, by killing a Western journalist, then they certainly have made a
statement, but it's not probably the statement that they most would have liked
to get across. I mean, I don't know how that has furthered their aims,
besides, you know, really demonstrating, you know, their level of brutality
and, you know, and that was it; that they have no further aim than that. I
mean, what else could they possibly have achieved by that?

GROSS: Are there risks that you have taken as a reporter that in retrospect
you think may have been foolish?

Mr. PETERSON: Well, I mean, there are risks that I took that I may not take
now. I mean, sneaking into northern Iraq in 1991 at the end of the Gulf War
was one of those crazy ones in the sense that, you know, we paid someone $800
to walk us across this border in the moonlight from Turkey; the Turkish forces
were on high alert because of a current PKK spring offensive that was going on
at the time. We didn't know that several colleagues of ours, a BBC TV crew,
had been killed the day before going in on the same route that we went in on.
We spent the night--I mean, during the night we're walking through in the
moonlight, crossing the border, seeing the fuses of the landmines on the
ground glinting in the moonlight. This was really stupid. We were completely
vulnerable sleeping in a smuggler's cave that night. We were very tired. We
had to sleep. Our guide was an old man who had all his limbs, which meant
that he was kind of a survivor, so we thought that was good. His whole aim in
life, for $800, was to put us in the hands of the Peshmerga, who were the
Kurdish guerrillas then, and he did it.

But like I say, a similar guide taking a TV crew in the day before ended up
killing that TV crew, and, you know, so that was a mess. That was one of
those ones where you really have to say, `Hang on a second. Why do I want to
do this?' But I've certainly used up more than my nine lives in six years in
Africa and five years in the Middle East and a year in the Balkans. So, well,
yeah, there are lots and lots of things. And, you know, basically, you choose
to--you know, I'm always calculating and planning on coming back; that is the
bottom line. So to me, the fact that I have three children now does not
really enter into the calculation because the bottom line is that I'm always
planning on coming back. And that's--you know, that's for me, that's for
them, that's for everything else. I mean, the only other alternative is to
leave altogether, you know, to leave this business altogether and take a desk
job somewhere, but I'm not particularly interested in doing that, you know, so
that's the life we lead.

But, you know, the longer you survive and the more experience you have, the
better you're able to make choices.

GROSS: Now you recently went to a training school for journalists in war
zones where they actually play out scenarios of kidnapping and other kinds of
threats, and you kind of role play like you're the victim and you're being
kidnapped. Did you go there just to report on it, or did you go there for the
actual training?

Mr. PETERSON: Oh, I went for the actual training, and it was fantastic. I
think that you get something out of this, you know, regardless of how much
experience you have. I mean, you know, there are a lot of pointers and
things, things that you forget, things that, you know, after having been doing
this kind of work for 13 years, I mean, I have a pretty good idea about, you
know, how to avoid the worst problems and, you know, looking for mines and
that sort of thing. But this is a very, very stark reminder. I mean, not
only did they show you, you know, how to jump away if a grenade drops in your
midst, but they also took us out to a firing range where they fired a whole
array of different kinds of guns, the exact same kind of things, you know,
that people were with all the time--in Afghanistan, in Africa were carrying
around with them--to really get an idea about what the destructive power of
these weapons can be. And it is quite shocking when you see it. You know,
when they're banging these bullets into, you know, brick walls, into doors
that you might have thought were safe to hide behind--you know, when they use
armor-piercing bullets that are going through, you know, two quarter-inch
steel plates, that really makes you stand up and think and say, `Hang on a
second. I think I'm going to be wearing my bullet-proof vest a little more
regularly these days.'

So there were those kind of things, and also, like you say, there was also a
kidnapping scenario in which we were hooded and marches off, threatened. And,
you know, really it was fantastic. I think probably for veterans like me, who
spend a lot of time covering these kind of stories, though, I think the very,
very best thing was the first aid, because this is something that very few of
us have training in. They concentrated very heavily on this, and it's quite a
power to know now when you go into these things--I will never go into a place
again like this without having, you know, bandages and all the kind of things
that I can do, you know, to keep life alive longer if someone steps on a mine
or if someone takes a bullet, you know. And having that kind of confidence,
you know, is something very good.

GROSS: During the scenario where you were kidnapped, what did they do to you,
and what suggestions did they finally have for you about how to behave?

Mr. PETERSON: Well, what happened with me--I mean, all of us were basically
in a jeep and we stopped at a makeshift checkpoint and, you know, were
surrounded by gunmen who immediately yanked us out of the car, dragged us down
to the ground, put hoods over our head, lined us up and marched us off into a
field. You know, they were screaming, they were putting, you know--and it was
all a bit crazy. I mean, we kind of knew--and I knew at some point in this
course there was going to be a kidnap scenario, and I'd read a bit also about
what the best advice was. So the best advice is you're supposed to be the
gray man. You're not supposed to appear to be a leader, which is, you know,
kind of going to be perceived by your captors as someone who's too troublesome
to deal with. You know, you might get killed. You might get, you know, a
rifle butt in the face while you're wearing a hood. How can you protect
yourself, you know, against that sort of thing? So, you know, as they said,
`Don't do anything stupid in the first 20 seconds that you're going to regret
for the next five years,' you know, I mean, if you're going to be held captive
for five years or something.

Some of the things that we were taught to look out for, for example, was that
our captors also were wearing masks so that we couldn't identify them. So, of
course, the idea is, you know, that this is an indication that you may
survive, because they don't want to be identified before you. The fact that
they seemed to have a plan in terms of marching us off and that sort of thing
was also supposed to give us reassurance, because it meant that they knew what
they were doing, that they had a plan, that this wasn't kind of, you know, an
especially dangerous, you know, off-the-cuff, like, hijacking, for example, or
something like that. I mean, if they had come in without hoods on, screaming
at the top of their lungs, completely out of control and, therefore, you know,
themselves very nervous and afraid, I mean, this is the time when you're going
to get shot immediately, and that's also the time when we may have had
different reactions. Because, I mean, I remember thinking about this before,
I said, `OK, what about this--if this had happened to me in real life, I think
I would have reacted a lot more forcefully to it.' And then realizing that
the difference was, was that if they'd come in and appeared to be threatening
immediately, I would have felt the need to react, and maybe that would have
been the end, but it may have also been the kind of thing that somehow, you
know, delayed our captors so that, you know, we could get away.

I mean, the thing is, is that there is no answer, is the bottom line. To be
the gray man, it works most of the time. But there are a lot of other things
that are factors that you need to look for, and if you can escape in the first
30 seconds, then that's obviously the best way to do it.

GROSS: Did this experience help you feel more prepared or more vulnerable?

Mr. PETERSON: Both. Both. I mean, we're definitely much more prepared,
certainly in terms of first aid and things like that. I mean, I really know I
can aid my colleagues if we get into a tricky situation in which blood loss is
a major problem. But also I think you're right. I mean, there is a new
vulnerability that we recognize. It's always been there, but through sheer
ignorance, through sheer blissful ignorance, you know, we just haven't had to
think that every single one of those bullets and every one of those magazines
and every one of those guns that we see everywhere in every single war zone is
capable of the most immense destruction when it's fired. So, you know--and
that's just one thing. There are mines, there are mortars. You know, there
are all kinds of things. These are things that we saw all over the place in
Afghanistan, you know, and as much as you can control those risks, then you
also have problems, you know, for example, like colleagues of ours who were
killed on that convoy in Jalalabad. And, you know, there was the Swedish
television cameraman who was simply in his house in northern Afghanistan and
thieves came in and shot him dead, right through the door.

Now, I mean, that kind of thing, you know, what can you do? I mean, that is a
risk of simply being there. But this course really helped us to maximize our
chances.

GROSS: My guest is Scott Peterson. He's covering the war on terrorism for
the Christian Science Monitor. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Scott Peterson is my guest. He's the Moscow bureau chief for The
Christian Science Monitor. Since September 11th, he's been reporting on the
war on terrorism, reporting from countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Saudi
Arabia. He's also the former Middle East correspondent for The Christian
Science Monitor.

Now let me bring up a scenario in which you would truly be totally helpless,
and that is a nuclear war, if India and Pakistan do fight a nuclear war. I
mean, are you worried about being in that part of the world if and when it
happened?

Mr. PETERSON: This is definitely something that I think a lot of journalists
are thinking about at the moment, because I think anyone who's covered India
and Pakistan--and I've really only seen it from a distance. I've been in
Pakistan several times, but I haven't really been focusing on the
India-Pakistan conflict side of it. But I have been paying close attention to
it because I may be sent over there and, you know, you really do have to ask
yourself whether it is worth being there or not. And you also have to kind of
make a judgment. I mean, how likely is this going to shift, you know, from a
kind of a tactical, you know, playing for advantage into an incredible
strategic blunder? You know, top analysts there are convinced that that is a
very, very small step to take indeed, you know, casualty figures coming out
and that kind of thing. And then, you know, you listen to the leaders, you
know, who both swear up and down that there's no chance that they could make
such a--you know, that they would make such a mistake, to use nuclear weapons.

But I'm not so sure about that and, of course, on the Pakistani side,
certainly you have a, you know, incredibly weak, you know, government and
ability to control these things, you know, if Pervaiz Musharraf's government
falls to pieces. And, you know, we know that al-Qaeda people are there. We
also know that one of their main aims at the moment is to--you know, they
don't have a problem undermining Musharraf because they think that he's an
American tool and that kind of thing. So, you know, those are real issues
that, you know, are just--make this kind of post-September 11 world that much
more dangerous. And I think that when the pressure goes up like that, we
journalists certainly are thinking very hard about, you know, should we be
there or not? But then again, how could we not cover such an extraordinary
story? I don't know what the result is and I'm sure that, you know, during
the Cold War people were thinking the same thing, `Do we want to be there or
not?'

GROSS: So what are you thinking when you do your personal assessment? Do you
think it's gonna be safe in that part of the country or do you think there's
likely to be a war?

Mr. PETERSON: Well, I think there's likely to be a war. The question is,
what kind of war is it going to be, and what side do you want to be on? You
know, there's certain access that you get from the Indian side that you don't
have from the Pakistani side, but the Pakistani side is especially interesting
because of the al-Qaeda element, because of the, you know, kind of loose
nuclear weapons element, because of the pressures that Musharraf is under.
Never mind the fact that there are so many American troops there as well. So,
of course, you know, I mean, a lot of people argue, you know, that the only
reason why this has even, you know, shot to the level of tension it has is
because the Indians, for example, you know, want to get the United States to
pressure Pakistan in a big way to keep militants from, you know, moving into
Kashmir and crossing the border into India-administered Kashmir. So these are
all big, big issues.

I mean, I think that I would go because it's a story that's worth covering and
because probably, hopefully, it's not going to go as big and as broad and as
nuclear. I think that the United States will do just about everything to make
sure that that doesn't happen. You know, serious as they're taking it now,
they would take it all the more serious if it really looked like people were
getting close to pressing the button, and I think we can believe Musharraf
when he said, `I'm not gonna be the first guy to do this.' And he's been
saying this until he's blue in the face now and, of course, the Indians have
made a big issue about the fact that their policy is a non-first use with
nuclear weapons policy, but I think that Musharraf has made it clear that for
Pakistan, too, that's not really an option. So, no, I think--I mean, now I
would go, but I think, you know, it's going to be nerve-racking and it's--you
know, we'll have to sweat our way through it.

GROSS: Well, Scott Peterson, thank you so much for talking with us and I wish
you good luck on your travels around the world. Thank you very much.

Mr. PETERSON: Thank you very much.

GROSS: Scott Peterson is covering the war on terrorism for the Christian
Science Monitor and is the paper's Moscow bureau chief. Our interview was
recorded yesterday at the end of his brief trip to the US.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Dr. Robert Jay Lifton discusses nuclear uncertainty and
global terrorism
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is a time of tremendous nuclear uncertainty and fear because of India and
Pakistan, and because we face the threat of terrorists using a nuclear weapon
in the US. My guest, Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, is a psychiatrist who has written
extensively about the psychological impact of living in a world with nuclear
weapons. He's the author of books about nuclear war, cult groups, Hiroshima
survivors and Nazi doctors. His latest book is called "Destroying the World
to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence and the New Global
Terrorism." Lifton is currently a visiting professor of psychiatry at
Harvard Medical School and Cambridge Hospital. We've been checking in with
him from time to time since September 11th.

You know, I was just reading an article in The New York Times this week about
what the reaction is in Pakistan to the possibility of nuclear war, and the
director of the Federal Department of Civil Defense was quoted as saying--when
asked about the advice he'd give the public to prepare for war, he said, "I
think everybody should pray. I think Almighty Allah will help us. We will be
saved, God willing." The article went on to talk about the fatalism in
Pakistan, with people saying things like, `We're Muslims. When it's time to
die, we'll die.' And the writer said this religious fatalism is being echoed
around the city, in offices and shops, at restaurants. What goes through your
mind when you read about this?

Dr. ROBERT JAY LIFTON (Author, "Destroying the World to Save It"): You know,
fatalism is a stance that is given us by all religions. It's not only
Islamic, but where fatalism is put forward prior to using a nuclear weapon and
in relation to possibly using it, that's scary, because then it becomes a kind
of defense mechanism. It's related to a form of numbing, and above all, what
you feel from Pakistan and India and from ourselves and the rest of the world
as well is a lack of the visual truths of what these weapons will do to human
beings, a lack of calling forth what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for
instance. One sees all that nowhere. One sees references to them here and
there, but never evoking the visceral dimension of what really happened there.

And that statement about fatalism also reminds me of another quote in The New
York Times recently from a retired Pakistani general in which he said, "I
don't know why people are getting so excited about nuclear war. You know, you
can die in a traffic accident or you can die in nuclear war. What's the
difference?" And in an way, there's an absurd semi-truth to that for an
individual person, but it totally blocks out what happens to the world, what
happens to humanity with the use of a nuclear weapon.

GROSS: The impression I get is that a lot of people in India and Pakistan and
perhaps a lot of their leaders as well aren't that educated about the actual
effects of detonated nuclear weapons.

Dr. LIFTON: Well, that's right. Every indication is that people in India and
Pakistan don't really know much about or don't really think much about what
those weapons really do. One has to add that in our own population, there's
also a somewhat limited knowledge and a limited tendency to think about it,
but perhaps not as limited as in India and Pakistan.

And in that sense, when they're posturing and threatening and talking about
the possibility of war or nuclear war, there's very little reality in it.
There's very little actual element--there's very little of what actually would
happen in relation to particularly a nuclear war. It's kind of abstract,
vague talk about, `Well, we have to stand up for this or for that, and anyhow,
our people are religious or fatalistic, and whatever happens will happen,'
without really taking in what actually would happen, which is overwhelming,
which is vastly destructive on a scale never really equaled before, and which
would be of the most catastrophic nature, not just to Indians and Pakistanis,
though to them more than anyone, but to the rest of the world. A nuclear war
in India and Pakistan could threaten the future of civilization. It's that
extreme, so all that is really left out of what one perceives or doesn't
perceive in relation to nuclear war.

GROSS: My guest is Dr. Robert Jay Lifton. He's currently a visiting
professor of psychiatry at Harvard University. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is psychiatrist Dr. Robert Jay Lifton. He's written
extensively about cult groups, apocalyptic violence and the psychological
import of living in a world with nuclear weapons.

What scenario do you imagine if India and Pakistan do start a nuclear war?

Dr. LIFTON: What scenario? Well, there are several scenarios, and they're
all dreadful. There would be some kind of so-called exchange of weapons, and
even if there were a single exchange, which one cannot be sure of, the
radiation would waft all over much of the world and there would be radiation
effects on just about every part of the globe. But that isn't the worst
scenario because there could be not just a single exchange, but a continuous
exchange in which more than one weapon would be used by each side, assuming
there's the possibility of each side mounting a second or third weapon, which
could very well be the case, because, you know, weapons are protected better
than people.

So the scenario could be, in some degree, so-called limited nuclear war with
dreadful consequences throughout India and Pakistan and much of the world or
it could be worse than that, where the nuclear war would be great enough that
civilization would be threatened. And for those reasons, the reaction not
just of the United States or of India and Pakistan but of the world in general
has been inadequate and insufficient given the dimension of danger. Why
hasn't there been declared a world crisis, a special meeting of the Security
Council of the United Nations? Why isn't the secretary-general out there in
India and Pakistan with the encouragement of the rest of the world to help
prevent nuclear war?

GROSS: At the same time that we're bracing ourselves for the possibility of a
nuclear war in India and Pakistan, we're bracing ourselves for the possibility
of another terrorist attack in the United States. In fact, we've been told
that there might be some kind of, like, dirty bomb, some kind of small nuclear
bomb that might be detonated here by terrorists. Our government has basically
told us that another terrorist attack is inevitable, although they can't
predict what form that attack would take. And I'm wondering what you think
the psychological impact is for us of hearing that another terrorist attack is
inevitable.

Dr. LIFTON: It's important for the government to tell us about real dangers,
but simply saying, as the secretary of Defense did, that the use of weapons of
mass destruction by terrorists against us is inevitable is simply frightening
to the population because it lacks the necessary combination that leadership
should have, namely a combination of candor and hope. There's little hope
there, and it sounds like an edgy or anxious statement of our leadership and
perhaps a defensive one as they were being criticized for not acting sooner or
in a more effective way prior to September 11th just before they made those
statements.

So Americans then tend to be rather frightened and confused and don't feel
guided or helped through this tremendously disturbing time, but rather simply
threatened without any avenue of hope or escape.

GROSS: Dr. Lifton, any final thoughts you'd like to leave us with?

Dr. LIFTON: I do feel we're moving into a somewhat new phase on the part of
the American people in which there are doubts and questions almost for the
first time on a large scale about the effectiveness of what's being done to
prevent terrorism. There are doubts about whether what our leaders are doing
will really protect us, and that makes Americans uneasy, because there was
earlier a kind of `war fever' which occurs whenever a country declares that it
is fighting a war. People rally behind and they bring great enthusiasm to
that war. Now there's a drawing back and something approaching
disillusionment as we wonder about the war on terrorism and what it's really
doing to protect us and whether it has destructive elements of its own.

GROSS: Dr. Lifton, thank you so much for talking with us.

Dr. LIFTON: Thank you.

GROSS: Dr. Robert Jay Lifton is currently a visiting professor of psychiatry
at Harvard University. His latest book is "Destroying the World to Save It:
Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence and the New Global Terrorism."

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

43:32

'Lord of the Flies' with teen girls? 'Yellowjackets' actor leans into the role

Melanie Lynskey spoke with Fresh Air producer Ann Marie Baldonado about coming up as an actress in the '90s and 2000s, when she was typecast as the best friend. Now she's the lead in the Showtime series Yellowjackets.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue