Posts about Mideast

Making war look worse

This is a post I just put up on Comments is Free. The discussion there is already lively; if you feel moved to comment, please head over there….

Those bloggers have done it again: They’ve caught a fake used in a major media story.

After Reuters ran a photo last week of black smoke over Beirut, suspicious bloggers noted that smoke isn’t known to rise in incredibly symmetrical bulbous billows. That was clear evidence of Photoshopping, using a tool to “clone” one part of a picture so you can cut-and-paste it over other parts. Someone took this photo, added smoke and made it darker. You can see the before-and-after most clearly here.

The sleuth who proved the hoax was Charles Johnson, the man behind the controversial Little Green Footballs blog and the same man who uncovered the faking of the memos used in Dan Rather’s fateful – for Rather, that is – story about George Bush’s military service. In that case, too, Johnson took the original and the fake the showed how the deception was done by dissecting and overlaying the efforts at technical trickery.

Reuters, however, did not wait 11 days, as CBS did, to respond to the outing. Yesterday, it pulled the photo, apologised, and suspended the photographer, Adnan Hajj. The photographer was already controversial in certain blog circles for taking part in what some contended was a stage-managed presentation of the deaths at Qana.

One wonders why anyone, especially a photographer and journalist, would feel compelled to amplify war. No matter what side you are on, does anyone really need to make war worse?

This morning in New York, I watched a TV interview with the two police officers whose story as the last of too few survivors pulled from the World Trade Center has been made Oliver Stone’s new movie, which opens here Wednesday. Asked whether the movie conveyed their own horror at being trapped for 13 and 22 hours, they said that it couldn’t be made bad enough. Yet that surely did not stop Stone from trying. That is what artists often do when faced with tragedy: they struggle with how to make it bad enough. This is why Elie Wiesel has said that one must not bring theatre to Auschwitz or Auschwitz to theatre; one cannot make it bad enough and – as we have seen in countless movies and miniseries – efforts to make it worse only trivialize the tragedy by unnecessarily over-dramatizing it. And, no, I am not drawing a parallel in any way between any of these events, only between the efforts to amplify.

If this photographer were a dramatist, one wonders why he would see the need to Photoshop reality. Does blacker smoke make the damage worse? Is a dead child in Qana any more tragic if the scene around her is more photogenic?

But, of course, the photographer is not a dramatist. He is a journalist. And that makes the effort to goose up the news both more puzzling and more troubling. I suppose one could argue that these could be the acts of hacks hungry for Page One: it’s simple sensationalism. But I doubt that.

It seems more likely an act of agenda that fits into the current argument about proportionalism in the Hizbullah-Israel war. One side of the argument is, of course, that Israel’s security was violated by Hizbullah, and it has a right to defend itself and to assure that these attacks will stop by disarming or disabling Hizbullah. The other side of the argument we hear now is that Israel’s response is disproportionate, an argument I find puzzling in war, where the disproportion is in winning or losing (I have blogged on this here and here and here). If the effort is not to make war look worse but to make one side in it look disproporationate, then I suppose it makes sense to make the smoke bigger and blacker. It makes sense if that is your agenda.

It doesn’t make sense if what you’re trying to do is report the news.

The other subtext of this incident is one I hope is fading away: the supposed rivalry of blogger v mainstream journalist. There was quite the kerfuffle in the blog world this last week when the dean of the Columbia Journalism School, Nicholas Lemann, wrote in The New Yorker continuing that faux feud (read about it here and here). The professionals in this narrative supposedly say that they are the ones holding the standards.

But then along comes a case like the doctored Reuters photo, where the professionals are the ones violating any standards and the bloggers are the ones catching them at it. Where there’s smoke …

Photo fake: When will they ever learn…?

Charles Johnson — who helped expose the fake CBS memos that brought Dan Rather down — has done it again, showing how a Reuters photographer (clumsily) faked a photo in Beirut yesterday to add more smoke to the skyline. This time, it didn’t take the news organization 11 days to respond; Reuters pulled the photo, suspended the photographer, Adnan Hajj, and apologized just now. If you’re going to use the tools of technology to tell, you’d better learn that there are people out there who are better at the tools than you are. Count this as an ass, fact-checked.


With disproportionalism becoming the meme of choice in the discussion of the Israel/Hezbollah fight, it’s worth remembering these numbers (from Wikipedia):

* U.S. civilian deaths in World War II: 11,200
* UK civilian deaths in World War II: 67,800
* German civilian deaths in World War II: 1,840,000 (not including Holocaust genocide)
* Japanese civilian deaths in World War II: 600,000

And so what would the proportionalists have had us do? What is their argument? Should we have dragged the war and the suffering on longer because we were winning too quickly by killing too many, thus allowing more Jews to die in the Holocaust and more civilians to die by starvation and disease and more soldiers to die over time?
Should have stopped fighting when we were killing too many? Of course, in war, any death is a death too many. So what is the right number? What is the right proportion? Does proportionalism take into account the population of the enemies? So in the current case, whom do we put in this devil’s algorithm: the populations of Israel and Lebanon, or of Israel and Hezbollah, or of Israel and the Arab world, or of Israel and the Muslim world, or of Israel and the rest of the world? I guess that depends on whom you count as Israel’s enemies. How do you account for military putting civilians at risk by hiding in their midst? How do you account for cutting off the fighting by cutting off its support? Do you award bonus points to the guy who starts it all? What is a proportional war?

Or did they just learn this doctrine from Star Trek and its 500-year war?

Beaming to the surface with a landing party, Kirk and Spock are met by a young woman, Mea 3, who tells them that Eminiar VII has been at war with its neighboring planet, Vendikar, for over 500 years. Mea 3 takes them to the council chambers where they find banks of computers. Eminiar’s head council Anan 7 informs them that the two planets have learned to avoid the complete devastation of war because computers are used. When a “hit” is scored by one of the planets, the people declared “dead” willingly walk into antimatter chambers and are vaporized. Anan 7 further tells Kirk that his ship and all the crew aboard her have been declared casualties and will be executed. When Kirk flatly refuses, the landing party members are taken prisoner.

Fearing for Israel

I am coming to fear for the fate of Israel. Iran and Syria, through Hezbollah, are testing the world to see whether they can, in the dream of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, wipe Israel off the face of the map. And the world is not responding. Oh, we’re hearing calls for a cease-fire — which leaves Hezbollah still rewarded for its aggression — but even so, no one is stepping up to stand in the way of that fire. From much of Europe and the American left, we’re hearing talk about Israel’s “disproportionate use of force” in what I think is just the PC way to oppose Israel.

Hear David Rowan, editor of London’s Jewish Chronicle, in The Times of London:

Had Hezbollah’s two main sponsors cast any doubt on their determination to wipe Israel off the map, maybe the current military onslaught would have been less acceptable to the 80 or 90 per cent of Israeli voters who last week offered Olmert their backing. Yet for all Olmert’s bold pledges to “destroy every terrorist infrastructure everywhere”, if his military commanders continue to act with only American and wavering British governmental support, while showing the world too little apparent concern for Lebanese civilian deaths, the worry here is that he will only weaken further his nation’s strategic interests, and its longer-term security, as fashionable discourse from talk show to dinner party questions ever more openly Israel’s moral right to exist.

Let that last phrase echo for a moment: “fashionable discourse from talk show to dinner party questions ever more openly Israel’s moral right to exist.”

The reason Israel must exist is Europe. I am delighted to see Timothy Garton Ash say just that in an eloquent and wise column in today’s Guardian.

Yet observing European responses to the current conflict, I want to insist on Europe’s own strong claim to be among the earliest causes. The Russian pogroms of 1881; the French mob chanting “à bas les juifs” as Captain Dreyfus was stripped of his epaulettes at the École Militaire; the festering anti-semitism of Austria around 1900, shaping the young Adolf Hitler; all the way to the Holocaust of European Jewry and the waves of anti-semitism that convulsed parts of Europe in its immediate aftermath. It was that history of increasingly radical European rejection, from the 1880s to the 1940s, that produced the driving force for political Zionism, Jewish emigration to Palestine and eventually the creation of the state of Israel. . . .

Does it follow that Europeans have a special obligation to get involved in trying to secure a peace settlement in which the state of Israel can live in secure frontiers next to a viable Palestinian state? I think it does. . . . Even if you don’t accept this argument from historical and moral responsibility, Europe’s vital interests are plainly at stake: oil, nuclear proliferation and the potential reaction among our alienated Muslim minorities, to name but three. . .

How Europeans speak and write about the position of the Jews in the region to which Europeans drove them is also a matter of our own self-definition. We should weigh every word.

If we — Americans and Europeans, liberals and conservatives — allow Israel as a safe haven and as a nation to be destroyed, whether by ceaseless terrorism or by Iranian nuclear bomb, and if we allow the world to continue to be terrorized by the fanatics who now attack not only Israel but also other nations, then this will be the shameful legacy of our generation.

: LATER: I know it may be red meat to some of you, but see also John Podhoretz’ column this week on PC war:

What if liberal democracies have now evolved to a point where they can no longer wage war effectively because they have achieved a level of humanitarian concern for others that dwarfs any really cold-eyed pursuit of their own national interests?

What if the universalist idea of liberal democracy – the idea that all people are created equal – has sunk in so deeply that we no longer assign special value to the lives and interests of our own people as opposed to those in other countries?

What if this triumph of universalism is demonstrated by the Left’s insistence that American and Israeli military actions marked by an extraordinary concern for preventing civilian casualties are in fact unacceptably brutal? And is also apparent in the Right’s claim that a war against a country has nothing to do with the people but only with that country’s leaders?

Can any war be won when this is the nature of the discussion in the countries fighting the war? Can any war be won when one of the combatants voluntarily limits itself in this manner?

Could World War II have been won by Britain and the United States if the two countries did not have it in them to firebomb Dresden and nuke Hiroshima and Nagasaki? . . .

s this the horrifying paradox of 21st century warfare? If Israel and the United States cannot be defeated militarily in any conventional sense, have our foes discovered a new way to win? Are they seeking victory through demoralization alone – by daring us to match them in barbarity and knowing we will fail?

Are we becoming unwitting participants in their victory and our defeat? Can it be that the moral greatness of our civilization – its astonishing focus on the value of the individual above all – is endangering the future of our civilization as well?

Haven’t we learned that the other side — those extremists — use what’s best about us against us? Haven’t we learned that we have a common foe?

: And someone just told me to look up a column by Ron Rosenbaum, author of Explaining Hitler, that appeared in the New York Observer more than four years ago warning harshly of the second Holocaust. Here is a quote from an edited version that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle:

We have to examine the dynamic going on in the mind of Europe at this moment: a dynamic that suggests that Europeans, on some deep if not entirely conscious level, are willing to be complicit in the murder of the Jews again. . . .

And so there is a need to blame someone else for the shame of “European civilization.” To blame the victim. To blame the Jews. The more European nations can focus one-sidedly on the Israeli response to terror and not to the terror itself, the more they can portray the Jews as the real villains, the more salve to their collective conscience for their complicity in collective mass murder in the past. . . .

If Israel were to act with true ruthlessness to end the suicide bombings, they would tell the prospective bombers – who go to their deaths expecting that their families will celebrate their mass murders with a subsidized party and reap lucrative financial rewards courtesy of the Saudis and Saddam – that their families instead will share the exact same fate of the people the bombers blow up. That might put a crimp into the recruiting and the partying over dead Jewish children. But the Israelis won’t do that, and that is why there’s likely to be a second Holocaust. Not because the Israelis are acting without restraint, but because they are, so far, still acting with restraint despite the massacres making their country uninhabitable.

Rosenbaum wrote a followup column in this week’s March in the Observer.

: And now see Howard Kurtz contemplating why liberal bloggers seem to be saying so little about Israel.

The world’s bravest reporters

Australian Broadcasting’s Media Report radio show/podcast has a spectacular report this week on the brave reporters who are building Afghanistan’s own journalism, free speech, and free society despite very real danger. Listen here; read here.

The host, Gerald Tooth, begins with Tolo TV’s 6:30 Report, an investigative show that has “taken on war-lords, drug-lords, paedophile rings, corruption in the Supreme Court, and the country’s difficult relationship with Pakistan.” The show’s star reporter is only 23 and he is fearless. Masood Qiam is the real Gunga Dan. Some excerpts from the interview:

Qiam: You know, in Afghanistan, in the last four years, media progress is good, but we still have a lot of problems in the law, in media law. And in parliament we often come up against MPs, who despite making the law, don’t understand media law…. For example, when an MP slapped our cameraman in parliament, and when we asked him why, he said, ‘It’s my right to slap a cameraman, as an MP’. And this is an example of an MP that doesn’t know the law, or know how to behave with a journalist. Also there are many journalists who don’t know what their rights are when it comes to media law….

The MPs are already scared of Tolo TV cameramen because previously we broadcast footage of MPs falling asleep in parliament, and of another one picking his nose. So we were already unpopular.

That’s almost funny — imagine Tom DeLay slapping a reporter (I’m sure he has) — but, of course, the enemies of democracy in Afghanistan have worse weapons than fists.

But, of course, it is more serious than that. It’s about the essence of the law being formed in Afghanistan:

Qiam: I was called before the Supreme Court to answer a charge of defamation after we did a story revealing corruption within the court. While I was in court, they threatened me, and said if it’s proved that you have defamed the head of the Supreme Court, Maolari Shinwari, you’ll be jailed for two years, and it shocked me. . . .

Later in the interview, he talked about the efforts at intimidation that came as a result of the Supreme Court investigations, including demonstrations against the station:

Qiam: Because the Supreme Court head is the President of the Islamic Scholars’ Council, and that Council is in every part of Afghanistan, working with the mullahs, and when they saw the report about the corruption in the Supreme Court and the weakness of the head of the court, they’re angry, and they start to demonstrate against Tolo TV. And three or four times now the head of the Supreme Court has asked the President, Hamid Karzai, to stop Tolo TV. He thinks we’re against Islam, or we are against our culture, and that’s wrong.

Tooth: And you covered the demonstration?

Qiam: Yes, it’s a reality, and we have to broadcast the reality of what our people think about us, and whatever the problem, they have to know that.

Now there’s transparency. Qiam spoke more about intimidation and fear:

I’m not afraid of anyone, and I think this is necessary to make our society good, and for the progress of democracy and freedom of speech. . . .

There are two types of people in public life in our new democracy. There are those who are ready to be interviewed by us, and we are not afraid of them because they believe in media, and they believe in freedom of speech and they will never threaten us. Then there are people who are not ready to be interviewed by us, who have their fingers in corruption and drugs, and we’re afraid of those people because they’re very dangerous for the people, and also for the journalists. And they are the ones we worry about attacking us when our backs are turned.

This from a man who, Tooth says, has received death threats for every story he has aired. Says Qiam:

Threats against my life are not such a big issue. For 23 years I grew up here. I was here under the Communists and under the Mujahadeen, with the Taliban. For us, life is always full of risks. The most fearful thing for me is not death threats to us; yes, we are afraid of these people to some extent, but most of all as journalists, we’re afraid of the Parliament. In Parliament there are MPs who will limit our activities by issuing laws that will confine us into four walls and will stop us from asking open questions. And when we ask them about their intentions to bring in harsher media laws, they just give vague and evasive answers. So we’re afraid that they are planning to bring in laws that will completely limit our activities. That’s what hurts me, and I think that’s what’s dangerous for Afghanistan.

Let me explain again that threats like slapping and beating are not a real threat. It’s a threat, but not too serious for us. It’s not a serious threat that can stop us from working. But the most serious and frequent threat is to limit our activities by law.

My other fear is that the government starts to ignore our reports and not react to them. Ignoring our reports is the biggest way they can hurt us. This is the threat, this is dangerous for us, this is painful, when your job is not effective, this is dangerous. I think it’s going to be like American democracy, the media is free to say anything, but the government is deaf to them.

Note that last line well.

Tooth next talks to Malalai Joya, a 28-year-old woman and member of Parliament who stood up and told various of her fellow MPs that they were warlords who should be jailed. This is what led to the shoving match with Qiam’s camera crew, above. And then Tooth interviews Shukria Barakzai, 35, another MP and a journalist who started a weekly women’s magazine. Read or listen to it all and hear the raw nerves of journalism’s birth in a nation.