Whatever else can be said about the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison, the forces arrayed against theU.S.-led coalition have welcomed the episode as a bonanza. Which forces? We don’t mean the vaunted “Arab street”—everyone is still waiting for that Godot—but rather the phalanx commanded by The New York Times, CNN, the BBC, Newsweek, and their satellites and support staff. The kingdom of the fourth estate contracted in one brow of grateful outrage and titillated horror as the photographs of naked Iraqis decorated the nightly news and front pages of newspapers everywhere. “The prisoner scandal has shatteredU.S.credibility in Iraq and the Arab world,” Reuters crowed, “as well as dented President Bush’s re-election expectations in November elections.”
Perhaps. But we recall that it was Steven Jukes, the head of global news at Reuters, who decided shortly after 9/11 that his distinguished news agency should nix the word “terrorist,” at least when it came to Arabs blowing up American property or murdering people. “We all know,” Mr. Jukes wrote, “that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter and that Reuters upholds the principle that we do not use the word terrorist.”
Right. How … punctilious. We thought about Mr. Jukes’s linguistic scruples as we watched the press dither about how best to describe the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners. “Humiliation”—probably the most accurate term—made a brief appearance. But it was quickly retired because it didn’t make the perpetrators look bad enough. The lackluster “mistreatment” made a brief showing, as did “abuse,” especially in the phrase “sadistic abuse.” But after a few weeks the clear favorite was “torture.” After all, everyone knows Saddam tortured hundreds of thousands of people. So when a handful of low-lifes mistreat their charges, the media calls it torture, thus insinuating the desired moral equivalence between Saddam’s thugs and the U.S. army.
Of course, they don’t say that it was only a handful of low-lifes perpetrating the outrages. And they certainly don’t dwell on the difference between feeding people into a plastic shredder and sexual humiliation. Indeed, when other news—the videotaped decapitation of Nick Berg, for example—threatens to displace the story, they redouble their efforts. If we are Seymour Hersh, we write a story for The New Yorker attempting to implicate the Secretary of Defense in the episode. Hersh opened his essay with the claim that
The roots of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal lie not in the criminal inclinations of a few Army reservists but in a decision, approved last year by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, to expand a highly secret operation, which had been focussed on the hunt for Al Qaeda, to the interrogation of prisoners in Iraq.
The New Yorker published Hersh’s essay under the rubric “Fact.” But is it factual? According to a Pentagon spokesman, Hersh’s claims are “outlandish, conspiratorial, and filled with error and anonymous conjecture.” But then outlandish, conspiratorial, and error-filled conjecture is familiar territory for Seymour Hersh. A commentator at the website RealClearPolitics recalled the essay Hersh published in The New Yorker last March, about a week into the war with Iraq.
“It’s a stalemate now,” the former intelligence official told me. “It’s going to remain one only if we can maintain our supply lines. The carriers are going to run out of JDAMS.” Much of the supply of Tomahawk guided missiles has been expended. “The Marines are worried as hell, they’re all committed, with no reserves, and they’ve never run the LAVS”—light armored vehicles—“as long and as hard” as they have in Iraq… . “The only hope is that they can hold out until reinforcements come.”
The 4th Infantry Division—the Army’s most modern mechanized division—whose equipment spent weeks waiting in the Mediterranean before being diverted to the overtaxed American port in Kuwait, is not expected to be operational until the end of April… . “All we have now is front-line positions,” the former intelligence official told me. “Everything else is missing.”
Last week, plans for an assault on Baghdad had stalled, and the six Republican Guard divisions expected to provide the main Iraqi defense had yet to have a significant engagement with American or British soldiers. The shortages forced Central Command to “run around looking for supplies,” the former intelligence official said.
Hersh’s piece was published about a week before U.S. forces rolled into Baghdad in one of the swiftest, least bloody, and most brilliantly coordinated military assaults in history. You see why his informant is a “former intelligence officer.” We hope he has found a more appropriate line of endeavor.
Seymour Hersh’s fantasy about Donald Rumsfeld’s collusion in the abuse of Iraqi prisoners is not the only piece of journalism misidentified as fact. As the scandal heated up, the appetite for publishing incriminating photographs outstripped the supply—well, it outstripped the supply of authentic photographs. No problem. The Daily Mirror, a rabidly anti-American British tabloid, published faked photographs of members of the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment abusing prisoners. When the fake was exposed, Piers Morgan, the Mirror’s editor, tried to shrug it off. When he refused to resign, he was sacked.
They do things differently in Boston. When it was revealed that The Boston Globe (which, incidentally, is owned by The New York Times) published a photograph erroneously described as depicting sexual abuse in Iraq, it was put down as a “miscommunication among staffers” and “a breakdown of checks and balances.” “We are not firing anybody,” said Martin Baron, the Globe’s editor. The Globe’s ombudsman rebuked the paper but went on to say that the idea that publication of the faked photograph provided evidence of the paper’s anti-Americanism or desire to “bring down Bush” was “off the mark.” Was it? Had they exercised normal editorial caution, the Mirror and the Globe would have checked up on those photographs; they would have discovered they were fakes. But they didn’t exercise normal editorial caution. Why? Mark Steyn got it exactly right:
Because they wanted them to be true. Because it would bring them a little closer to the head they really want to roll—George W. Bush’s. If you want to see what the Islamists did to Nick Berg or Daniel Pearl or to those guys in Fallujah or even to the victims of Sept. 11, you’ll have to ferret it out on the Internet. The media aren’t interested in showing you images that might rouse the American people to righteous anger, only images that will shame and demoralize them.
Yes, what happened at Abu Ghraib was deplorable. U.S. officials, beginning with the President, have publicly apologized. Even as we write, the perpetrators are being court-martialed. The army has instituted new safeguards to make sure that there is no repetition of the abuse. And what about the chaps who incinerated those four contractors in Fallujah? Or the people responsible for hacking off Nick Berg’s head on videotape? Or the men who murdered Fabrizio Quattrocchi in April? Film of that episode was “too graphic” even for al-Jazeera to air. But who has time for those details when the effort to impugn America is going strong?
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 22 Number 10, on page 1
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