Car bombs, lies and videotape

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Anyone who begins his claim for two hours of your attention (Car Bomb, C4, Sunday and July 27) by telling you governments were lying to us when they said nuclear weapons were the real threat, loses my sympathy early. When the claimant is a former senior CIA officer, you tremble for our security. Nuclear weapons, and other means of mass slaughter, have been since their existence an existential danger – and are all the more so now, when their possession is sought both by millennialist terrorists and aggressive, authoritarian states. To start a serious programme with the false populism of the media guru – “they have told you lies: now here’s the way it is” – is justified only when the lies were real and the truth incontrovertible.

Neither is the case with the two-parter presented by Bob Baer, though had he been better advised on his opening pitch, it could have claimed unalloyed importance. Car bombs are not far from their grisly centenary, if – as Baer does – you date the first from the blow against American capitalism struck by the Italian anarchist Mario Buda, who hid his dynamite in a wagon making deliveries in Wall Street in September 1920, killing 40. More than a quarter of a century later, they were rediscovered by Israeli terrorists connected with the Stern gang, and used to kill 28 Arabs in Jaffa in 1948. The Palestinians learnt and struck back quickly, with a bomb intended to kill Israel’s patriarch, David Ben-Gurion. It failed, but killed 60 Israelis anyway.

Baer found two of the Israeli gang behind the Jaffa bomb, and the sister of the leading Palestinian bomber: all were chilling in their urbane acceptance of what has since been called collateral damage. “Look,” said one, relaxing in honoured old age on a Tel Aviv balcony, “we never wanted to kill women and children. It happened. You can’t avoid it.”

And so on to a half-century of not avoiding it – as Sicilian Mafiosi, American terrorist fanatics of left and right, the IRA and al-Qaeda did not only not avoid it, but, in the last instance of these, sought it. Baer believes that the IRA’s 1993 Bishopsgate bomb that destroyed a considerable part of the City of London, and a subsequent vast explosion that wrecked central Manchester, were crucial in bringing the British government to make a deal that now sees one of the leaders of Irish terrorism as deputy prime minister of Northern Ireland. This contradicts the more widely held view that the IRA’s weakness in face of massive infiltration and loss of weaponry supplies brought the organisation on to the parliamentary road. Both could, in a measure, be right – and at least Baer’s judgement is saner than his opener. Incontrovertible, and the main conclusion of his piece, is that the most expensive of these world changing acts cost no more than a few thousand dollars. Advanced, networked, free market, consumerist democracy is a fragile flower.

So is advanced, networked, free market, consumerist communism – as John Sweeney’s Panorama (BBC1, Monday, 8.30pm) on how the Chinese authorities have not lived up to their prime minister’s promise that foreign journalists coming for the Olympics would find no barriers to their inquiries, showed. So fragile that Sweeney’s minders stopped victims of the Sichuan earthquake talking to him about their view that schools collapsed because their construction was poor, and censored a man whose legs were cut off by a tank during the Tiananmen Square crackdown from talking about it. I call it “John Sweeney’s Panorama” because Sweeney is of that school of TV reporter who believes that he is the story and that bad things in China (in this case) happen first to him. Had he put himself behind the camera, his boldness in revealing the official paranoia that lurks below the pageantry of the Olympics would be better displayed. What is it about TV documentaries that makes those who report for them a bit crazy?

Those of us who have been hopelessly captured by Bonekickers (BBC1, Tuesday, 9.00pm) know about craziness. This, the penultimate in the series, had the team of archaeologists summoned to France to puzzle out that a first world war tank, buried in the Flanders mud, was the key to a British war crime. Surviving an attempt by a crazed British officer (not, yet, a documentary maker) to shoot them to cover up the crime, the fabulous four go on to discover the remains of Joan of Arc, crucial to the crime.

This coming week’s episode is the last in the series: I urge readers to petition the BBC for another. I wrote last week that Bonekickers is what post-modern TV looks like. To curtail it now, when it has pushed into areas of dementia, ham acting and fabulous stereotyping (the French and German archaeologists of this past week’s episode had vays of making you leff, n’est ce pas?) as yet untapped, would be to choke off a piece of British brilliance that could rank with American gameshows and the Dutch Big Brother – world-changing events.

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