In World War II, a passer-by, lost in London’s main official thoroughfare of Whitehall, stopped a military officer and asked him which side the Defense Department was on. The officer thought for a moment and then said: “Well, it’s hard to be sure, but our side, I hope.”
In the last week the coverage of Iraq by the U.S. media has exhibited at least four separate failings:
1. Selective Agonizing. Ever since the Abu Ghraib photographs emerged, the media has shown them on every possible occasion, accompanied by reports and editorials on America’s shame and the world’s revulsion. That is fine by me. The photographs are shocking evidence of shocking behavior–Jerry Springer meets Saddam Hussein–and we should be ashamed they occurred under American auspices But they are not the only story in the world.
Objectively considered, the U.N.’s “Oil-for-Food” scandal is a far bigger story, implicating not one international statesman but about two dozen, and involving not the abuse of suspected terrorists but the starvation of children. Interestingly, the media has been happy to forget it entirely in all their excitement over Abu Ghraib.
Then again, worse rape and brutality than those displayed in Abu Ghraib are known to occur daily in America’s prisons without arousing any media interest at all. Indeed, the newspapers sometimes join D.A.’s in calling for crooked CEO’s to be sentenced to ten year’s hard sodomy. Maybe these jocular remarks about homosexual rape were among the influences that led the Abu Ghraib guards to abuse their victims. Big mistake. This gloating sadism is only a joke when suspected Republicans are the likely victims.
And the photographs of prisoner abuse are not remotely as shocking as the pictures of Nicholas Berg being beheaded by Islamist terrorists. You might imagine that the beheading of an innocent American would be replayed endlessly on the networks and the front pages. But the media suddenly discovered taste. The Berg murder was briskly reported and then confined to the memory hole. And the media hunt for Rumsfeld–that Berg’s beheading had briefly interrupted–resumed in full cry.
As a Spanish writer commented this week: “Tears are shed only from the left eye.”
2. Taking Dictation from Terror. Before we leave Berg, we should note that a vast number of news outlets reported as a fact that he was murdered “in retaliation for” the Abu Ghraib abuses. That was the terrorists’ own justification, of course: They shrewdly judged that the American and Western media would eagerly publish the headlines they had dictated. And they were right. For the “retaliation” explanation transfers the blame for Berg’s death from the actual murderers onto George W. Bush and the U.S. As the sharp-eyed Australian blogger, Tim Blair, pointed out, however, the terrorists abducted Berg about two weeks before the Abu Ghraib scandal surfaced. Was that abduction in retaliation for something else? Or were they simply gifted with astonishing foresight? Incidentally, the media’s behavior in this case–in addition to being bone-headedly biased–is a rare genuine example of “blaming the victim.” But not a single editor seems to have been restrained by the fact.
3. Willing Gullibility. Two newspapers–the Daily Mirror in Britain and the Boston Globe in the U.S.–have published fake photographs of British and American soldiers abusing prisoners. In the British case the fakes were quickly detected once they had been published, and in the American case, they had been detected before the Globe published them. Neither the media’s vaunted “skepticism” nor simple fact-checking on the internet were employed in either case by the papers. The fakes were, in the old Fleet Street joke, “too good to check.” There was a rush to misjudgment. As Mark Steyn argued in the Chicago Sun-Times on Sunday, the journalists wanted to believe that they were real because they hunger to discredit the Anglo-American intervention in Iraq.
Indeed, they still want to believe that the fakes were real–the disgraced Mirror editor claimed to have told the truth on the day the fraud was conclusively established. And since he was fired, he has become a heroic figure in British journalistic circles hostile to Blair and the war. He may be a liar, they feel, but he’s our liar. Or as they would probably put it, the “truth about Iraq” is more important than the facts. You know, at a deeper level.
4. Galloping Inferentialism. The media’s main interest in the Abu Ghraib scandal over the last week–what postmodernists call its principal “narrative”–has been its pursuit of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as an accessory to torture before the fact. Some reports have been, in effect, prosecution briefs for the theory that he either knew about or (better still) actually authorized the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American guards. And since the evidence for this theory is scanty, to say the least, reporters employ the highly dubious technique of building inference upon inference to make the case.
Take, as an example, the widely republished Washington Post report asking “Was Abuse Ordered?” This begins with the case of a Syrian jihadist who was subjected to intense pressures to instill fear into him so that he would give up intelligence data for the fight against the Iraqi insurgents. It then speculates that because a military intelligence officer was involved in this interrogation, this “suggests a wider circle of involvement in aggressive and potentially abusive” techniques by senior officers. It goes on to argue that the Abu Ghraib “abuses could have been an outgrowth of harsh treatment” techniques authorized by the Pentagon. And it finally postulates that “although no direct links have been found between the documented abuses and orders from Washington, Pentagon officials…say that the hunt for [intelligence] data…was coordinated during this period by Undersecretary of Defense Stephen Cambone…long one of the closest aides to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The coincidence in timing….”
Let us review the evidence in this trial by inference. It “suggests” that “potentially” abusive techniques were used that “could have been an outgrowth” of methods that cannot be “directly linked” to Rumsfeld unless the “coincidence” that his aide was in charge of collecting intelligence at the time is the smoking gun.
In opposition to this towering inferno of inferences, there is an actual fact: the statement of one of the abuser guards that the higher-ups would have stopped the abuses if they had known of them. And as the old maxim goes, an ounce of fact is worth a ton of inferences.
5. Hunting the Snark (or Criminalizing Antiterrorism.) What makes this journalistic pursuit of Rumsfeld all the more suspect is that even if all these inferences were borne out by later evidence, they would not convict the Defense secretary of any known crime or misdemeanor. He would have authorized harsh techniques, not in themselves abusive but only potentially so, that others wrongly took to be permission to humiliate and abuse prisoners under their control. There is no crime in that–nor even any major error. Senior Pentagon officials knew that the harsh interrogation techniques they did authorize–for instance, hooding prisoners, interrupting their sleep over several days, and exposing them to cold temperatures–were open to abuse. That is why they stipulated very precisely what the techniques should be–not allowing any physical brutality or sexual humiliation. Why they limited the use of such techniques to those few cases where crucial intelligence was likely to be gained. And why they insisted on the prior permission of the senior U.S. general in Iraq for their use.
Of course, most editors and reporters probably take the view that inflicting even this limited and supervised stress to frighten suspects is impermissible. A Washington Post editorial, for instance, argued that no intelligence gain could possibly compensate for the national embarrassment of having a U.S. secretary of State publicly defend such techniques before the international community.
That is certainly arguable. And in general governments should not carry out acts they are unprepared to defend in public. But is it wholly and always persuasive? Suppose, for instance, that inflicting psychological stress and instilling fear into a terrorist suspect seemed likely to help prevent the beheading of another innocent American like Nick Berg? Or to avert another catastrophe such as September 11? Or even to halt a nuclear attack on an American city? Would we not feel that in such cases the end of saving lives justified the means of inflicting psychological stress?
These are serious moral questions–and serious practical questions when the U.S. is waging a war on terror. They cannot be wished away by pious references to the Geneva Convention. And the media’s attempt to transform serious consideration of these painful dilemmas into a gung-ho criminal prosecution of Rumsfeld is both a partisan disgrace and a shameful evasion of difficult realities.
Let us finally examine the tally sheet. Selective agonizing, taking dictation from terror, willing gullibility, galloping inferentialism, and criminalizing anti-terrorism–not a short list of media failings for a single week. And when all the mistakes are on the side of opposing the liberation of Iraq, and none of the mistakes favor the U.S. or Britain or Bush or Blair, it tells you something. Namely, which side they’re on. Or “tears are shed only from the left eye.”