Blaming democracies first
Published May 24, 2004
Twice this week, the world has witnessed situations in which democracies at war with terrorists -- the U.S. military in Iraq and the Israeli Army in Gaza -- have launched raids against military targets in which civilians also suffered harm. As more information comes out about both actions, it seems increasingly clear that both the United States and Israel were legitimately acting to stop terrorist activity. Unfortunately, some of the early press reports suggest that some journalists instinctively tend to blame democratic governments rather than the terrorists when noncombatants die as a result of actions taken on the battlefield.
In Iraq, the American military has come under fire following a strike carried out by air and ground forces early Wednesday near Mogr el-Deeb, a town near the Syrian border. Locals claimed that the Americans struck a wedding party, killing more than 40 civilians, and that the dead included more than two dozen women and children.
In Britain, the Sunday Herald ran a story titled "Iraq: The Wedding Party Massacre," depicting the American military action as a strike against innocent revelers. The British newspaper the Independent ran a story yesterday citing the incident as proof that U.S. troops are "deliberately and indiscriminately shooting civilians." Pictures from the scene, the Independent claimed, are "worse than those of the humiliation and torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison. These show chunks of flesh ... scattered across a scene of devastation."
The problem (virtually ignored in the aforementioned stories) is that the U.S. military has found plenty of evidence suggesting that what the American military struck was a "rat line" -- a gathering on a trail used by terrorists infiltrating from Syria in order to kill Iraqis and coalition forces. It found items including rifles, military binoculars and battery packs that could be used to detonate roadside bombs -- which have killed and maimed hundreds of American soldiers. Also located there were terrorist training manuals and machines used to forge Iraqi identification cards.
Although major American news outlets generally have done a responsible job thus far of reporting on the Mogr al-Deeb strike, the same cannot be said of stories on Israel's campaign to destroy terrorists' weapons-smuggling tunnels in densely populated civilian areas in the Gaza town of Rafah. Major American newspapers like The Washington Post, for example, have emphasized the physical destruction caused by the fighting in Gaza, while ignoring or burying information that would put the story into proper context -- like the fact that the terrorists bribe local residents to allow weapons tunnels to be built under their homes.
Without such essential information, stories from the battlefield become propaganda -- the antithesis of real reporting.