Amaryllis Fox, once a clandestine counter-terrorism operative, shares views about manufactured ‘stories’ that echo the theory of peace journalism
A former CIA officer has gone public by talking about the lessons she learned during her 10 years as an undercover counter-terrorism operative.
Journalists would do well to take to heart those lessons, which are spelled out so straightforwardly by Amaryllis Fox. They are not difficult to understand but, for a variety of reasons, they have proved difficult to practise.
In the video above, which has been shared by Al-Jazeera’s AJ+ on Facebook, Fox points to the oversimplication of conflicts, notably that between Isis and the United States (and, by extension, the western world).
Why? Fox says the resulting good-guy-bad-guy portrayal (on both sides) of such a struggle is due to “stories manufactured by a really small number of people… who amass a great deal of wealth and power by convincing the rest of us to keep killing each other.”
Instead of fighting on that basis, she argues, “the only real way to disarm your enemy is to listen to them… If you’re brave enough to really listen to their story, you can see that, more often than not, you might’ve made some of the same choices if you’d lived their life instead of yours.”
Then Fox turns to what I believe to be the essence of a journalism that refuses to accept the stories manufactured by governments engaged in conflict: to get to the roots of conflicts.
She says: “If you talk to the people fighting on the ground, on both sides, and ask them why they’re there, they answer with hopes for their children, specific policies that they think are cruel and unfair.
“And while it may be easier to dismiss your enemy as evil, hearing them out on policy concerns is actually an amazing thing, because as long as your enemy is a sub-human psychopath who is going to attack you no matter what you do, this never ends.
That, is essence, is the plea of those who advocate “peace journalism”, a topic I lecture on each year to my City University London MA students.
But, as I say, there is a disconnect between theory and practice. How do we break the cycle? How can journalists talk to people “on the ground” in Syria and Iraq just now?
I would guess that Fox, and peace journalism practitioners, would say that if we had refused to accept the stories of US governments and their western allies back in 2003 – and during the years before that, going back at least to the 1990 Gulf war – the invasion of Iraq would not have occurred. Then there would be no Isis.
Despite the apparent intractability of the situation in Syria and Iraq just now, it is surely not too late to consider the value of Fox’s statements as a guide for how we, as both journalists and citizens, act in future.