Monday, May 03, 2004

Iraqi prisoner abuses

I know I'm not given to commenting on this sort of thing, usually because I read nothing about it to begin with. But procrastination encourages you to open doors you wouldn't ordinarily, and so I stumbled across the WSJ's compilation of global reactions to the abuse of prisoners in Iraq. I didn't expect to read beyond the first couple of excerpts, as I figured they would simply be stories that revile the Americans' behavior to a greater degree than our own papers, and I think those are pretty bad. This LA Times article is case in point. Now one can argue that this story has an entirely different objective than those that are cited here, and as such qualitatively reflects that by making use of emotion and narrative almost exclusively, rather than commentary. I never read this stuff, so I don't know. (Brendan, you're the one with the degree in journalism, help me out here.) However, there is no question that the LA Times... disagrees, shall we say... with these recent revelations, even in this story which is supposed to be unbiased. Having grown up with that, it's no surprise I'd think that if we're hard on ourselves, the rest of the world must be harder, but going by these examples (again, a convenience sample hardly representative of journalistic trends at large), it's not so. One would think this would be a polarizing issue given how other countries feel about our involvement in Iraq, and no doubt there are plenty of stories with an "I told you so" feel to them. But these are far more understanding of the actions perpetrated at Abu Ghraib. The Australian doesn't make excuses, but points out that in the larger scheme of things, the situation could be worse: "There is, in other words, no analogy whatsoever with the methods of Saddam: our system contained the means for these abuses to be discovered, acted upon and exposed to public scrutiny."

Arab News, from Saudi Arabia, which I would expect to represent this the way the LA Times has, instead writes "There is an argument that this demonstrates that even at the moment when the US faces its greatest military humiliation since Vietnam, the basic values on which the US itself is based, of law and decent behavior, are still in place." Granted, they qualify the positive statement, but all of it is like that and is, I think, a good example of unbiased reporting.

Le Monde is standing by us: "You can't just throw stones at the coalition. Its Iraqi opponents are also carrying out their blind attacks. And the torture is, alas, a contemptable but usual by-product of conflicts and repression. No country is exempt, including France, for those who forgot the dark hours of the Algerian war."

The Asia Times Online, Hong Kong (headlined 'Who Let the Dogs Out?' hehe.): "If you are shocked and appalled by what they did, it is those who let the dogs out who should be investigated. They have only one question to answer, and it is not "Did you order the maltreatment of Iraqi prisoners?" The question is, "Is this a just, necessary war?" If it is a just war, you may swallow your horror, because this is how wars are waged."

And the one that echoed my own sentiment best, from The Observer, London: "You take soldiers, trained to kill, send them to a foreign land where they understand nothing and where they see their comrades killed or wounded, and then expect them to show restraint and constant decency. Is that realistic?"
That doesn't excuse some of the horrors I've heard about, of course, but it is one of the first questions I asked myself when I thought about it. The rest of the excerpt goes on to say that the answer to that question is yes, and that if measures weren't in place to insure that before, they sure as hell will be now.

Clearly this is not a representative sample: I only took the parts I liked. And the reason I liked all of these was that they offered perspective on the situation, which I feel so much of American journalism lacks. Sensationalism loses a good deal of steam when people are not convinced that the issue has immediate bearing on their lives, and so you see news organizations continue to compromise their quality in a futile attempt to stem the falling numbers of subscribers and evening news devotees. What I'm getting at is that these papers are willing to take a step back and ask their readers to evaluate the issue for themselves, where I find many of the stories I read in the LA Times (hmm, maybe I should switch papers) are unwilling to take that step back because the second they do, they'll lose the reader and they won't return. Hence the reliance on emotion and narrative, which can only lead the reader to one conclusion: whatever side the story's being told from is right. In this case, the prisoners. I'm not excusing the actions taken by some of the prison guards, but it stands to reason that if you send thousands of troops to Iraq and sustain over 1000 casualties and who knows how many more injuries and near misses, many of those soldiers are going to be living in fear, and come to hate the men they hold responsible for that, and prisoners of war falls nicely into that category. I think it's an inevitability that, out of such a large population, a few are going to take advantage of the power they have over the prisoners to take out some of their own fear and anger.

I'm sure many others felt the same way, such as the commanding officers who may have turned a blind eye and allowed it to continue. So given that sliding scale, which sentiment do you ultimately prefer in the papers: perspective or uniform vilification? I guess then, you need both: either bring perspective to your condemnation or make a definitive judgment based on the facts.

And here I can't write a 5-7 page double-spaced paper.

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