Fooled Again: Democracy, American-Style

In a recent message to Americans, Usama bin Ladin described American society as a mostly “vulgar” people who elect “evil” leaders.

How can one argue with this? The violence-saturated American airwaves and cinema do not argue against the vulgar part, and few honest people would dispute that a US regime that has waged an unprovoked war of conquest, killing thousands of innocent men, women and children along the way, is anything but evil.

Of course America’s incapacity for introspection makes bin Ladin’s observations a moot point. And that’s the worrisome part–”even the tiny US antiwar movement is critical mostly because American troops are dying, not because of the morally repugnant nature of the whole Iraq enterprise.

Take for example the massive deception that was used to sell this war in the first place. The mainstream media–”here in Canada as well–”were full partners in selling the outright lie that Iraq was dangerous and had to be dealt with. Anything Bush and Blair said was given full credibility and prominent play on television and in newspapers. The infamous Blair “intelligence dossier,” for example, was trumpeted as “The Case Against Saddam,” by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., Canada’s publicly-funded broadcaster. The story led the news in grand style and was played up to give the impression of solid proof of Iraq’s deadly weapons. There was no skepticism offered by the reporters–”and dissenting views, if they were presented at all, were given tiny, sideshow status.

This was just one example out of hundreds. In the months leading up to the invasion, viewers of the CBC and other networks, and readers of newspapers both in Canada and the US were subjected to a nonstop parade of stories detailing the ominous threat of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. Yet once the invasion actually started, the media executed a remarkable U-turn. All of a sudden, news reports were filled with stories predicting that Iraq’s army would crumble with practically no resistance. How could this be? What about all the Iraqi WMDs? Did not one reporter, editor or news anchor ask: “Wait a minute; how come the US and British now say, ‘this war is going to be a cakewalk,’ yet last week they were talking nonstop about the awesome threat posed by Iraq?” Apparently not. This remarkable contradiction slid right before the public’s very eyes, without so much as a hiccup in the “reporting” of the mainstream media.

Another remarkable contradiction of the mainstream media is the ongoing silence about civilian victims of the war. I remember one particular incident in the Canadian media that brought this issue into sharp relief. Again, it involved the CBC and its lead anchor, Peter Mansbridge, who, in the months leading up to the war probably did more than any other Canadian newsman to tilt the coverage in favor of the pro-war side. Mansbridge, while giving a free pass to the US and British WMD propagandists, took an unabashedly skeptical tack with Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s antiwar position. He gave prominent play to Chretien critics, who claimed Canada was making a big mistake in not supporting the US. The question of the CBC’s silence on civilian victims in Iraq was raised in a televised public forum hosted by Mansbridge, right around the time of the US invasion last spring. Members of the audience could ask questions of a panel of CBC reporters, and one dark-skinned young man politely asked why CBC news reports from the war zone never mentioned Iraqi civilian victims. Before any of the reporters could respond, Mansbridge jumped in: the CBC, he explained, had no way of verifying how many civilians were actually killed; there were widely conflicting estimates, none of which could be positively verified. Therefore, it would not be “responsible journalism” to try to put a number on civilian casualties. Of course the young man’s question was not, “why wasn’t a number given?” His question was much broader: why wasn’t the CBC saying anything about civilian deaths–”numbers or otherwise? Like this young man, many of us wondered: How could the civilian dimension not be a part of the story, when every day men, women and children were being blown up in their homes by bombs dropped from the air or gunned down on the street as they tried to flee a combat zone that had invaded their neighbourhoods?

The young questioner was right. In the weeks during which thousands of bombs and missiles were dropped on Baghdad, Basra and other major population centers, the CBC had made practically no mention of civilian casualties. It was as if they didn’t exist. In the rare instance where civilian casualties were even acknowledged, they were always briefly mentioned in the context of the greater story–”the coalition’s progress in its prosecution of the campaign. Reports would typically go into great detail about what Iraqi targets had been hit, what kind of fancy military hardware was used, and always accompanied by obnoxious sound bites from military spokesmen who described in flat, confident tones how these episodes of carnage were great tactical successes. One such story among hundreds stands out: the British bombing of a target in Basra in which it was claimed that “Chemical” Ali, a cousin of Saddam Hussein, was killed. It was a lie, as we found out months later when Chemical Ali surrendered alive and well. Only now do we find out that the only people killed in that raid were more than a dozen members of a prominent Basra family, of which several members live in Britain and are now suing the government for the massacre. If it wasn’t for this lawsuit and the stature of this family, we would probably never have heard any more about this “incident,” just as we have heard almost nothing about the thousands of other civilians who were cut down in similar “incidents.”

In another bombing raid in Basra, coalition spokesmen bragged of killing more than 200 local politicians who had gathered in a municipal building. The “operation” was trumpeted as a great success by the CBC, because the politicians were said to be members of the Baath party. Of course no one at the CBC bothered to ask whether such an attack on politicians–”low-level municipal politicians at that–”was even legal under international law. (It’s not. According to the Geneva Convention, politicians are considered civilians and political structures are not legitimate targets.) In each of these and other reports of allied military “successes,” civilian victims, if they were acknowledged at all, were mentioned mostly in the context of cannon fodder for the glorious coalition war machine. Even now, more than six months into the Iraq invasion and occupation, even as the scale of the civilian death toll is slowly emerging, the CBC refuses to report on civilian victims, even though there are hundreds of such stories, many of them unbearably agonizing and surely worth telling.

And even if we take at face value the network’s claim that it decided to keep quiet about Iraqi civilian deaths because it could not independently verify the numbers, this too would represent yet another remarkable U-turn for that same network. One doesn’t have to look very far to find a time when the CBC and the rest of the media felt no need to try to verify civilian deaths at all. It was in the run-up to the US-led bombing war against Yugoslavia in 1999, and the US was accusing the Serbs of indiscriminately killing civilians in a campaign against armed Albanian insurgents in Kosovo province. The CBC and the rest of the media brayed loudly and vigorously about an unfolding genocide, with as many as 100,000 Albanians killed. I remember watching in disbelief as CBC reporters at border crossings in Macedonia and Albania–”they had been kicked out of Kosovo when NATO started bombing–”literally screamed red-faced into the cameras about tens of thousands of civilians killed. Yet they had seen none of it, and had absolutely no way of verifying even a single incident. Funny how the CBC’s journalistic rules of “verification” didn’t kick in on that occasion. Eventually–”like the WMD stories that were later used to trump up the Iraq war–”these reports of massive civilian deaths were proved mostly bogus. When forensic teams from the UN went in to dig around, they found just over 2,000 dead, which included combatants from both sides. Hardly the genocide that the media had trumped up. Of course in that particular instance, the media were using civilian deaths as a way to promote a US-led war–”a very telling distinction.

So where is the outrage now about the dead Iraqi civilians? How come those same reporters who were so outraged about the killing of civilians in Kosovo are so sanguine about the killing of civilians in Iraq? I guess it all depends on who is doing the killing. If it’s the US doing the killing, then it must be okay, right? (It should be noted that the media kept silent on the civilian victims of US bombing in Yugoslavia too, which, by some accounts, killed more people than the civil war it was ostensibly meant to stop–”a civil war which many accuse the US of stirring up in the first place.)

We should note, however, that the CBC and other media didn’t completely abandon the story of civilian victims in Iraq. The civilian angle did make one miraculous comeback–”yet another remarkable media U-turn–”when stories about the mass graves of Saddam’s victims began to surface. As soon as the media accompanying the US army entered Iraq, they swarmed all over that particular story, milking it for all it was worth. Suddenly, all those reporters suddenly found their outrage about civilian victims, as if on cue–”and we were treated to several weeks of wall-to-wall TV coverage and newspaper editorializing about the “horrors” of the Saddam regime, as old bones were lifted dramatically from the Mesopotamian sands for the benefit of the TV cameras. Yet all the while, the freshly spilled blood of thousands of Iraqi innocents who died at the hands of Bush and Blair, was simply swept under the rug. Quite a pirouette by the ever-agile media.

Remarkable, isn’t it? How is it that the US and Canadian media can be so selective in their moralizing? How is it that civilians killed by Saddam or the Serbs are worthy of massive moral outrage, while civilians killed by the US are not even worthy of mention? Are the former people, while the others are not? By any honest measure, our “free” and “independent” media have a lot to answer for. The blatant propagandizing before the war (pick one). The disgusting cheerleading during the war (pick one). The complete silence on the civilian victims of the war (pick one).

And after all this, the media is now attempting to discredit the Iraqi resistance, which, by all accounts, enjoys broad popular support. A columnist in The Globe And Mail, one of Canada’s most trusted newspapers, recently decided to act as a mouthpiece for a senior official in the US-appointed Iraqi governing council, who is calling for the US to ratchet up the level of its violence, in order to defeat the resistance. “You have to kill them,” said the official, who himself was recently grazed in an assassination attempt. “You have to crush them.” The Globe columnist allowed as to how this get-tough approach sounded logical, but wondered how such brutality would jibe with the “democratic values” the Americans are trying to bring to Iraq. Apparently The Globe And Mail is unaware of the daily, indiscriminate shooting of Iraqi civilians by US troops–”not to mention the 10,000 or so already dead. It would be hard to imagine how rampaging US troops could possibly be any more brutal as they go about their bloody business of breaking into people’s houses and shooting anything that moves. But since the media have chosen to make the suffering of Iraqi civilians a non-story, it’s easy to see how calls for a tougher approach would seem to sound reasonable.

It never crosses this columnist’s mind that the widespread popular support for the Iraqi resistance carries far more legitimacy than the opinion of a US-appointed quisling who speaks only for his own interests. Yet this Globe And Mail columnist can–”with a straight face–”talk about exporting democracy. As if America is the fountain of democracy from which the whole world must drink–”even if it’s at the end of a gun barrel. And really now, what kind of democracy are we living in anyway, when people are systematically conned by a media that we are conditioned to believe is independent and objective? Isn’t this what happens when the rulers of a society succeed in devising a foolproof method by which they can get the people to do anything they want them to do? If you go to the countryside and visit a farm you can learn some interesting things. You can see, for example, how a small farmer manages to control a bull that weighs twenty times as much. The secret is to put a small brass ring through the bull’s sensitive nostrils, and attach a rope to it. Now apply a little pressure on the rope and the bull will surely go in whichever direction you pull his nose.

Welcome to democracy, nose ring-style. And if you don’t like it, tell it to the gun barrel.