Politics & Policy

Newsweek‘S Dilemma

The difference between regretting a story and retracting it is more than merely semantic.

In the uproar over the Newsweek report on life at Guantanamo, insufficient attention has been paid to the devotion felt for the Koran by believers. We did learn that this respect by Muslims for the book has been honored by the American military, which went further than anyone has been called upon to go for centuries to guard against blasphemous treatment of the Bible. A copy of the Koran was given to all “detainees” at Guantanamo, as also a special cloth with which they can protect the book from ordinary abrasions of prison life, including tactile contact of it by non-believers, this being deemed profane. This special regard sometimes caused conflicts of interest, as when a detainee opportunized on the special sanctuary given to the book in order to conceal forbidden goods, e.g. surreptitious communications and, of course, dope, and money, and weapons.

A second undeliberated aspect of the affair is the disposition of hostile elements — at Guantanamo, in Pakistan, in Iraq, and in Afghanistan especially — to foment anti-American sentiment. Sometimes there are very reasonable grounds for stimulating anti-American protests, as when the Abu Ghraib pictures were released a year ago. What happened in that prison shocked not merely the Muslim world, but also the non-Muslim world. The United States could have done not much more than in fact it did. We might have discharged a general or two. We stopped short of that but did arrest those immediately involved, several of whom are in jail and will be there for a few years. That is atonement.

In the alleged matter of the Koran and the toilet, there was no immediate intervention by military authorities, quite the opposite. For one thing, stories of desecration of the Koran had been circulating for two years, and were apparently met with an appropriate skepticism. The same military that provides swaddling clothes to protect the Koran is not likely simultaneously to engage in a deliberate profanation of the sacred book. So much did this attitude prevail — that allegations of desecration were implausible — that when the Newsweek article appeared, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at first dismissed the suggestion that anti-American rioting in Pakistan and Afghanistan was traceable to reported U.S. practices at Guantanamo. It wasn’t until the White House reacted to evidence that riots were being ascribed to the Newsweek article that a direct connection was made, and U.S. mortification set in. Scott McClellan of the White House adopted a shrewd line in his protest. It was that since such a desecration by U.S. military was unthinkable, therefore the reporting of it had to be false!

This then moved the camera’s eye back to Newsweek. For some very tense hours there, management attempted to be informed by, and to abide by, the resources of the English language, which assigns different meanings, sometimes only slightly different, to different words.

Newsweek began by reporting that an “error” had been made. An unnamed U.S. official had reported the desecration to investigative reporter Michael Isikoff. He, in collaboration with the magazine’s national security correspondent, deemed the source reliable, and therefore produced the story, which the magazine printed. Subsequent investigation persuaded the editor, Mark Whitaker, that there were insufficient grounds for believing that the desecrations had been done. He therefore disavowed the story, regretting that it had been published.

But that wasn’t enough for the critics, who now included dignitaries close to pro-U.S. chiefs of state in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They clamored for more than Newsweek’s regret. They wanted a “retraction.” Newsweek hesitated here, on the reasonable assumption that just as the magazine was wrong to proceed to publish the story without sufficient foundation, it would be wrong, without sufficient foundation, to take an Orwellian step into “retracting” it. But, understandably, the magazine yielded the point, even though the difference between regretting a story and retracting it is more than merely semantic. Newsweek was not being asked to take the position that because blasphemy is wrong, a report that it had taken place was derivatively wrong. The author of the story, Mr. Isikoff, might have been reminded of the skepticism with which he was met when, seven years ago, he said that the president of the United States was having sex with an intern.

The underlying difficulty derives from the fact that infamous people are capable of infamy — that the United States military could include, in Guantanamo, a soldier or two who behaved not as they should, but as other U.S. soldiers did in Abu Ghraib two years ago.


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