Humanity is first casualty of war
"Why should we hear about body bags and deaths and how many, what day it's gonna happen? It's not relevant. So why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?"
— George W. Bush's mother Barbara on ABC/Good Morning America, March 18, 2003
Last Wednesday, as the shocking images of the charred and battered bodies of four American security professionals in Falluja were streaming into newsrooms, British writer Roy Greenslade was telling Ryerson University students about how, when reporters hold back on the horrors of war, they serve neither the public nor the truth.
"When my country is wrong, then my country's people have a right to know," he said. "And I would maintain that whatever the consequences for morale might be."
Which is why there should have been little or no hesitation over those gruesome pictures from Falluja. And yet, in network and newspaper conference rooms everywhere, there was a debate over whether to depict all the horrifying details.
As it happened, most news organizations, even Arab ones, expected to exploit the humiliation of America, balked at showing the barbecuing and bashing of the bodies — and that was the right choice. The real story was not in the mob's brutal actions per se, but in its taunting triumph — and the fact that there was absolutely nobody there to stop it.
That was the frightening truth: that the chaos and carnage continue in Iraq, unabated and uncontrolled, despite $120 billion, 150,000 troops, and thousands of destroyed lives.
It's so screwed up that, still, most of what hits our screens and newspapers comes out of Baghdad briefings by U.S. officials or their appointees.
As CNN's Walter Rodgers confessed to Aaron Brown on Wednesday, he travels with "an armed security guard at all times" and dares not venture out at night.
You can bet no Western journalist would have gotten out of Falluja alive. The New York Times' Jeffrey Gettleman, in an online report which included some of the grislier photos, reported that Falluja "was so dangerous that we conducted our interviews from the outskirts of the city and then sent in one of our translators."
Indeed, a close examination of the Falluja photo credits revealed only Arabic names.
Brave guys, since Arab journalists, especially if they work for the Al Jazeera or Al Arabiya networks, have a nasty habit of getting arrested, beaten or killed — by the Americans.
Not that their counterparts in the U.S. media much care, as evidenced two weeks ago. That's when American journalists sat meekly in their chairs taking dictation as Secretary of State Colin Powell gave a news conference in Baghdad about "staying the course" in Iraq. Meanwhile, 30 foreign reporters walked out in protest over the shooting deaths of two Al Arabiya journalists.
Anyway, by last Friday, the media deliberations and discussions over the Falluja images had left no newsroom navel ungazed and no journalism professor un-interviewed. This "Somalia moment," as the St. Petersburg Times had dubbed it, resulted in more mainstream media self-examination in one day than the entire attack on Iraq had in a year.
Such a fuss really when there's already a standing operating procedure. A double standard operating procedure.
The record shows that, if the victims are white and/or Western, their deaths (and humiliation) are usually shielded from our tender sensibilities.
Don't kid yourself. News organizations have been on the receiving end of grisly photos since the invention of the camera. But there's never any debate over whether we will show the blood-spattered body of a murder victim here, or, as we have been known to refer to them, the "Krispy Kritters" left in a house fire or 40 car pile-up. We just don't do it — not unless we're the sort of lurid crime tab that has now even died out in its last bastion, Quebec.
But, if the victims are not one of us, if they live far away or have no names or cultural commonalities, they're fair game. Hence, it's perfectly acceptable, if not mundane, to show piles of skulls in Rwanda or a skeletal and swollen-bellied African baby on the verge of death while a vulture struts in the background.
Last year, when the bombs were crashing down on Iraq, and houses were flattened, their inhabitants incinerated, the very same networks and newspapers that proclaimed their high moral ground and concern for reader sensibilities last week refrained from running pictures of the civilian casualties.
To do so would have been ... what? Unpatriotic? Bad for morale? Risky to ratings? Harmful to advertising sales?
What few tragedies we saw were those cleaned up for the cameras, made acceptably heart-rending, as in the case of 12-year-old Ali Abbas. Where were the images of the death scene that was his home where he lost 15 relatives, including his parents, and both his arms, to a U.S. missile?
Even the heartbreaking Hallmark photo of him was rejected by many news editors because, get this, the kid wasn't smiling.
Two months ago, the Israelis posted online a graphic five-minute video showing the unedited aftermath of a suicide bombing on a Jerusalem bus. Body parts and flesh are shown in the twisted wreckage in which a dozen people died.
When it was posted, Gideon Meir, a senior foreign ministry officer, explained: "We decided this was the only way for us to bring our message to the world."
It was bold — but it was the right thing to do.
Here's why: The biggest lie in war is not that truth is the first casualty. Humanity is.
There should be no shirking from making that plain.
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