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Commentary: Hold our government accountable
By Joel Patenaude
Editor, Mille Lacs Messenger
September 28, 2001

On September 11, Joel Patenaude watched with the rest of us as airplanes were turned into missiles that hit the World Trade Center towers in New York, and the Pentagon in Washington D.C. He immediately realized that suspicion would quickly focus on Middle Eastern terrorists. For him, it was a reminder of the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Patenaude is now the editor of the Mille Lacs Messenger, but at the time, he was a reporter for the Middle East Times, an English-language newspaper in Cairo, Egypt.

In the dark days that immediately followed the Oklahoma City bombing, the international press published sketches and witness statements that the FBI spoon-fed to the media. Investigators said the initial evidence pointed to swarthy-looking suspects. In other words, Arabs.

So, when the perpetrator of that diabolical act of terrorism turned out to be the home-grown Timothy McVeigh, a white veteran from the Gulf War, I couldn't help but share the relief felt by my Egyptian colleagues and friends. The scapegoating of peace-loving Muslims across the globe would fade, but my skepticism of government-fed information grew dramatically.

Skepticism of government information was almost a job requirement as a reporter in Cairo. The Arab press frequently published wild anti-Israeli conspiracy theories, and rants about the lack of morality in America. This was allowed by Egyptian government censors because it distracted citizens from corruption and repression at home, which was not allowed to be reported.

Here in Minnesota, it's hard to imagine similar media manipulation. Yet the Bush administration, insisting that Osama bin Laden is responsible for the recent acts of mass murder, offers little proof. Told this is classified information, American journalists just nod and dutifully repeat government information - beating the drums of war on the government's behalf.

In this time of despair, and desire for retaliation, our leaders push us into supporting a war against the most elusive of enemies. Of course, something must be done. But a prolonged battle to wipe out terrorism is frighteningly open-ended, and could easily turn into a costly and divisive quagmire. The McVeigh case reminds us that our government can lead us in misguided directions.

So, the question remains - will we as Americans, with our much vaunted rights to free press and free speech - seize this crucial moment to hold accountable the authorities who will wage war on our behalf? The fate of innocent people, at home and abroad, depends on the answer.

Joel Patenaude is the editor of the Mille Lacs Messenger. Reach him at