03 May, 2007

Reversing Cause and Effect - Virginia and Iraq



Two days after a gunman shot dead 32 students and staff at an American
college, Virginia Tech, on April 16, a series of car bombs killed more
than 200 people in Iraq causing one of the highest death tolls since the
war began. In a single attack, 118 people died in a car bomb explosion in
the Shi'ite neighbourhood of Sadriya. Channel 4 news noted: "Such ghastly
numbers do also put the tragedy in Virginia into some sort of perspective."

But in fact this was not the case for most journalists. Indeed an unspoken
question hung over media reporting that week: Why did the deaths of
American students and staff matter so much more to the British media than
the deaths of six times as many Iraqi men, women and children?

Whereas the carnage in Iraq disappeared from media reports the following
day, the killings in Virginia continued to receive saturation coverage all
the way to the end of the week. An April 25 media database search found
that the killings in Sadriya had been mentioned in just 12 British
national media press articles, while Virginia Tech had been mentioned in
391 articles. In the US press, Sadriya was mentioned in 16 articles --
mentions of Virginia Tech exceeded the capacity of the search engine,
recording "More than 3,000 results."

Attempting an explanation, BBC radio presenter Jeremy Vine suggested that
the difference with Virginia Tech was that "it happens every day" in Iraq.

But this is surely to reverse cause and effect -- the slaughter in Iraq is
able to happen every day because it elicits minimal political or media
concern. Can we even conceive of the level of reaction if Virginia
Tech-scale death tolls occurred in the US or UK every day, as they do in
Iraq? The coverage would be vast, as would be the media and political
pressure for something to be done to stop the killing.

But in the media reaction to events in Iraq there is barely a hint of the
desperate need for a change of course, for some kind of initiative to
solve the problem. There is almost no serious discussion of how British
and American troops might be replaced by a genuinely international
peacekeeping force, or of the need for peace talks between the various
warring factions in Iraq. One would think such options were completely
impossible. For the press, they are unthinkable. Instead, the sending of
an additional 20,000 US troops -- the famous "surge" -- is complacently
presented as a positive and hopeful initiative, even though the US
military accepts the consequences for the civilian population are certain
to be grim.

Ignoring atrocities

The frequency of atrocities in Iraq cannot be the cause of media
indifference for the simple reason that the indifference existed from the
very start of the war. On March 28, 2003, 62 civilians were killed by an
American bomb in the Al Shula district of Baghdad -- one of the first mass
killings of the war. Newsnight's coverage of the atrocity on the BBC that
night was limited to a 45-second report - less than one second per death.
Unlike Virginia Tech, we did not learn about the family backgrounds, hopes
and dreams of the Iraqi victims -- we did not see their photographs or
watch interviews with their bereaved families.

I asked George Entwistle, then Newsnight editor, why his programme had
only spent 45 seconds on the tragedy. He responded: "As a current affairs
programme we lead on a news story where we think we can add analytical
value; i.e., can we take it on? We didn't feel we could add anything."

No doubt something of "analytical value" would have been found if the
victims had been British or American.

George Bush said the US was "shocked and saddened" by the killings at
Virginia Tech. He added: "Schools should be places of safety and sanctuary
and learning. When that sanctuary is violated, the impact is felt in every
American classroom and every American community."

Mainstream commentators failed to ask the glaringly obvious question in
response: What about the Iraqi schools and colleges that should be places
of safety and sanctuary and learning?

Last December, a conference in London organised by the Council for
Assisting Refugee Academics, reported that since the war began in 2003,
hundreds of Iraqi academics have been kidnapped or murdered -- thousands
more have fled for their lives.

The cost of doing business

In January, the Iraqi Ministry of Education reported that just 30 per cent
of Iraq's 3.5 million school-aged children were attending classes. Earlier
this month, a survey by the Iraqi ministry of health found that about 70%
of primary school students in a Baghdad neighbourhood were suffering
symptoms of trauma-related stress such as bed-wetting or stuttering.

The reality of the Western attitude to Iraqi civilian casualties was
exposed by a military investigation published last summer into the
November 2005 massacre of 24 civilians, among them 11 women and children,
in Haditha, western Iraq. The report was never made public because of
ongoing criminal investigations of three Marines on murder allegations and
four officers who allegedly failed to look into the case.

Maj. Gen. Eldon A. Bargewell's 104-page report on Haditha, obtained by the
Washington Post last weekend, found that officers may have deliberately
ignored reports of the civilian deaths to protect themselves and their
units from blame. Bargewell commented on the culture of killing:
"Statements made by the chain of command during interviews for this
investigation, taken as a whole, suggest that Iraqi civilian lives are not
as important as US lives, their deaths are just the cost of doing
business, and that the Marines need to get 'the job done' no matter what
it takes.These comments had the potential to desensitize the Marines to
concern for the Iraqi populace and portray them all as the enemy even if
they are noncombatants."

Bargewell added: "All levels of command tended to view civilian
casualties, even in significant numbers, as routine and as the natural and
intended result of insurgent tactics."

Camilo Mejia, a US infantry veteran who served briefly in the Haditha area
in 2003 commented on the Haditha massacre: "I don't doubt for one moment
that these things happened. They are widespread. This is the norm. These
are not the exceptions."

Tragically, the military indifference to Iraqi civilian casualties is
reflected in the media. The latest revelations from the Bargewell report
have so far received two mentions in the entire national US press. They
have received no mentions at all in the British press -- a media that so
often prefers to talk in terms of US-UK "mistakes" and "unintended

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posted by u2r2h at Thursday, May 03, 2007


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