Combatting an ‘unnatural peace’

Excerpt from preface to Attacks on the Press in 1995
Lewis Thomas, the biologist and essayist, speculated that the reason we Cro-Magnons got rid of the Neanderthals is that we could not bear their silence. His observation says as much about speech as about the absence of speech–that once people began to use words to express themselves, there could be no turning back, no anti-evolutionary tendency that would have us keep quiet again. Words are weapons against oblivion. If the species were ever to revert to silence, that silence would be deafening, because everyone would remember the time that we made a sound.

Journalism, at its best, sides with the Cro-Magnons. A tyrannical, oppressive government or group, having established silence somewhere, seeks to keep the unnatural peace by means of censorship, intimidation and murder; and the journalist seeks to break the silence with the truth. Their respective forces are ill-balanced; one side has guns, the other words. It is amazing to consider that, historically, the words have prevailed.

I do not mean to accord any special nobility to journalists as people. By speaking out, or writing out, they are simply doing their jobs. It is where they do these jobs that sets certain journalists apart. Many American journalists drop in on dangerous places like Bosnia or Rwanda, stay a few weeks and go home. For most of the people in whom the Committee to Protect Journalists is interested, the dangerous places are home….

In his great book, Language and Silence, the English critic George Steiner wondered if anyone would have cared what Hitler did to the Jews if the Nazis had not ventured outside the borders of the Third Reich. “There would have been numerous pundits and journalists,” wrote Steiner, “to assure us that rumors were exaggerated, that Dachau had pleasant walks.” He assumed that journalists would be too stupid or corrupt to break the silence with the truth, and, from time to time, that has been the case.

But today’s journalists are a pretty honest lot, for the most part. And they have been encouraged by organizations like CPJ, which reassure them that if they make a sound, the world will listen. Steiner also said that there are some horrors too deep for words. That may be true for art, but not for journalism. The unwritten or unspoken report is good news for killers, and eventually it leaves a wasteland.

The Committee to Protect Journalists did not create the journalists it seeks to protect. These people would tell their indispensable stories whether or not CPJ existed. And, in many if not most cases, CPJ cannot fulfill the promise of its own self-appointed mission. If the forces of silence want to do their dirty work, they will find a way, and then express ignorance of the event, or regret.

But if CPJ did not cry out against such acts, who would make the noise? And if no one sounded the alarm, who would try to prevent the fire next time? Everywhere journalists work, someone strives to keep them quiet in the interest of silencing the world. People have come too far for that.