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Between the Lines

May 17, 2004

The beheading: should we show it or not?

An excellent question. I've been asking myself this about the Nick Berg video since I first heard about it, but so far I haven't even been able to sort out how I feel about it myself, much less what TV networks and newspapers ought to do.

On the one hand, there is no question that Berg's horrific death is in a different realm from what happened to most prisoners of the U.S. I say "most" because at least one Iraqi detainee apparently was beaten to death. I doubt he enjoyed his last moments on earth either. In addition, the deaths of two detainees in Afghanistan are being investigated as homicides (I've seen no description of the circumstances in which they died).

So what should we do? Show the Nick Berg pictures precisely because they are so horrific so that no one has any doubt about the nature of the particular group of thugs who slaughtered him? Or do we err on the side of decency and presume that anyone who can read can figure it out? And what if there turns out to be a tape of that beating death? Show it or not?

I've been asking myself these questions but myself hasn't been responding very coherently. I just don't know the answer and I'm glad I don't have to make the decision.

This is where I hand it off to Jay Rosen, a New York University professor, who has put together a long, but excellent piece that examines this argument from just about any perspective you'd want. On one side, there's blogger Evan Coyne Maloney's observation that, "One day the media was telling us we had to see the pictures from Abu Ghraib so we could understand the horrors of war. But with Berg's beheading, we're told we can't handle the truth." On the other there's editor Tom Mangan, who says, "Call me a liberal, a coward, a traitor, I don't care. I draw the line at decapitation." And much in between.

Rosen's real point, though, is more important than the immediate question of dealing with the Berg beheading.

"Even the smartest people in the major news media--and this is especially so in television news--have not really determined for themselves or explained to us exactly what their role should be in the worldwide fight against terrorism," Rosen writes. 'Cover it responsibly and well' doesn't begin to provide an answer. For it must have occurred to people high up in the network news divisions that the videotape of the beheading was made not only for Bush but for them, in their professional capacity. That is a fact they have to live with, and think about, whether or not they show us the gruesome act.

"We are a long, long way from coming to grips with the fact that political violence worldwide incorporates media coverage worldwide. Terrorism can be many things, but it is always an attempt at communication; and a free press in an open society 'completes' the act. So it's not true that Al-Qaida kidnapped and beheaded an American. Al-Qaida kidnapped and beheaded an American and videotaped it in order to shock and sicken us when we found out. It's not easy to decide what to do with that if you run a news network. But there is no option not to decide. There may have been a time when news judgment and political judgment could be kept safely apart, but that was an era unlike our own."

Posted by tbrown at 04:28 PM


Rewriting the Geneva Conventions

"As you have said, the war against terrorism is a new kind of war. The nature of the new war places a high premium on other factors, such as the ability to quickly obtain information from captured terrorists and their sponsors in order to avoid further atrocities against American civilians. … In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions."
-- Alberto Gonzalez, chief White House counsel, in a memo to President Bush, Jan. 5, 2002

There has been little doubt from day one that the abuse of Iraqi prisoners was the work of more than just a few "bad apple" privates and sergeants at a prison in Iraq. We're beginning to get some insight into the train of events that allowed prisoner abuse to become more than an isolated occurrence. A reasonably full picture will take longer to emerge, but some things are becoming apparent:

-- President Bush knew of, and approved, the broad policy that ultimately led to the situation at Abu Ghraib. Gonzalez's memo, obtained by Newsweek, points to that. His motivation seens to have been one that would be hard to argue with: a desire to prevent further attacks on the scale of 9/11 by obtaining more timely intelligence from Al Qaida suspects. It seems likely that the policy included an OK for techniques that might be considered torture under the Geneva Conventions. (Newsweek says, however, that it is unlikely that Bush and other high officials knew specifically what was done to prisoners.

-- According to Seymour Hersh's article in the current issue of The New Yorker, when it became apparent that the post-war insurgency in Iraq was the work of more than a few "dead-enders," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld authorized the expansion of interrogation techniques initially intended for breaking Al-Qaida suspects to ordinary prisoners in Iraq. The proposal came from one of his deputies, Stephen Cambone, undersecretary of defense for intelligence. The Pentagon released a "denial" that really didn't deny anything (Billmon dissects it here).

Hersh, let's recall, is the reporter who brought to light the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, in which more than 500 Vietnamese, many of them women and children, were killed. He has consistently been ahead of the pack on much of the policy and politics underlying the Iraq war, and the Pentagon's blustery response to his story indicates he's on target again.

-- Abu Ghraib appears to have become part of the broader U.S. system of squeezing prisoners for any useful intelligence they might have, not a deviation from it. The questionable techniques initially were intended for use on "illegal combatants" sent to the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay. The abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib seems to have accelerated after Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the Guantánamo commander, paid a visit and suggested the prison be "Gitmoized" to focus more on softening prisoners up for interrogation. Miller is now in charge of all U.S. prisons in Iraq.

Douglas Jehl of The New York Times reports today on another example of the scope of U.S. actions that may be incompatible with the Geneva Conventions: "About 100 high-ranking Iraqi prisoners held for months at a time in spartan conditions on the outskirts of Baghdad International Airport are being detained under a special chain of command, under conditions not subject to approval by the top American commander in Iraq, according to military officials. The unusual lines of authority in the detainees' handling are part of a tangled network of authority over prisoners in Iraq, in which the military police, military intelligence, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, various military commanders and the Pentagon itself have all played a role. Congressional investigators who are looking into the scandal over the abuse of Iraqi prisoners say those arrangements have made it difficult to determine where the final authority lies." These prisoners are being held for up to 23 hours a day in total isolation in small, windowless cells. (Free site registration may be required.)

The conditions under which Iraqi prisoners, not to mention those thought to be Al-Qaida members, are held appears to be a matter of little concern to many Americans, particularly in the wake of the horrible, videotaped death of Nick Berg. But what we do to others does matter.

One of the prime justifications for the war in Iraq was that Saddam Hussein was a monster and that we're not; that Saddam ran a despotism of singular cruelty and that we were going to bring Iraqis the fruits of freedom and democracy. At this point, this is virtually the only defensible justification for the war (weapons of mass destruction having proved chimerical and no significant links between Saddam and Al-Qaida having been demonstrated). If we actually do care about putting Iraqis on a path to a better existence than they had under Saddam, we need to act like it.

It also matters that we at least try to abide by the Geneva Conventions, which were established in large part to help protect our own troops.

Finally, it matters that we treat prisoners within the broad provisions of the Geneva Conventions if we hope to get any significant international assistance in managing the New Iraq -- which it increasingly looks like we're going to need.

Posted by tbrown at 03:56 PM




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