Of Mice and Men — A Case of Misplaced Outrage

In early May 2007, CNN and Fox News, two of the US’s most influential television outlets carried a story from the Palestinian territories about a children’s television program on a hitherto obscure Hamas controlled station. The show, titled "Tomorrow’s Pioneers" featured a Mickey Mouse look alike by the name of Farfour that extolled the virtues of daily prayers and milk to young Palestinian children, and, controversially and perhaps provocatively called on them, among other things to “ return the Islamic community to its former greatness, and liberate Jerusalem, God willing, liberate Jerusalem, liberate Iraq, God willing, and liberate all the countries of the Muslims invaded by the murderers." Farfour, al-Aqsa’s Mickey Mouse wannabe also made it a point of ridiculing the US and Israeli heads of states as well as Condoleeza Rice by asserting repeatedly “ we will win”, in doing so insinuating that their occupied nation was at war not just with the occupation itself but with the world’s last remaining superpower itself.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the children’s show was amplified and made to resonate in a manner that probably went beyond the seditious Farfour’s squeaky voice. Video clips from the program were broadcast on the pro Israeli website MEMRI ( Middle East Media Research Institute ), Youtube, as well as being reported on heavily by mainstream American television stations including CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. To understand the horror and indignation that al Aqsa’s cartoon elicited among the cream of America’s journalists, one could hear CNN’s Paula Zahn gushing her indignation at the "outrageous” program, or listen to Headline News’s outspoken Glenn Beck devoting it an entire segment of his rabidly right wing show. One could see Fox News cringing in self righteous horror, or watch MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, covering the story like no other from the Middle East.

On the face of it, the US media’s outrage and disgust over a children’s cartoon may seem a little outlandish and detached from reality when brought into some historical perspective. Children’s issues in the Middle East have seldom been big news on US television networks, and even when stories about crises and calamities in the region affecting the most vulnerable segment of society do break out, deep and insightful coverage in the mainstream media have been decidedly the exception to the rule.

A case in point –” on May the 12’th 1996, the venerable Madeleine Albright, then the US’s UN Ambassador under the Clinton administration was asked by CBS journalist Leslie Stahl what she thought of the fact that according to statistics, some half a million Iraqi children under the age of 5 had perished as a result of UN sanctions. Ms Albright’s response was nonchalant as it was chilling – “It is a difficult question. But, yes, we think the price is worth it.” Her words betrayed a sense of stunning indifference and almost unimaginable cruelty, and yet, as India’s crusading social activist Arundhati Roy pointed out five years later in the aftermath of the carnage of the September 11’th attacks, the US government never bothered to chide Ms Albright for her unconscionable assertion, much less cause her to lose her job. Ms Albright was, within six months of making her statement promoted to the portfolio of Secretary of State and continued to represent the United States, it’s government and policies, irrespective of whether her statement represented the official US view on the silent humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Iraq courtesy of the UN sanctions. Her assertion that the deaths of hundred of thousands of children was a price worth paying for keeping in reign an adversarial dictator never resonated particularly loudly in the mainstream media, even if it was quoted and misquoted umpteen times as a reminder of the sheer blitheness of US policies.

One may be inclined to question what was it about the al Aqsa cartoons that rendered them so provocative and vicious, what was it about Ms Albright’s comments that made them so convenient to be tossed aside into the dustbin of collective memory? How is it the CNNs, FOX News and MSNBCs of the mainstream US media find it so hard to fathom the lampooning and ridiculing of a military occupation and yet treat with selective amnesia words of indifference by their political establishment to human suffering on an immense scale? Why is it that even the most provocative and factually misleading information repeated, resonated and regurgitated on the cable news channels is given a pass when unproven while rhetoric of anger, frustration and resentment amongst a people deprived of virtually every semblance of freedom and dignity is conveniently maligned as a manifestation of extremism and radicalism ?

The al Aqsa cartoon show was given extensive –” cynics may be inclined to argue –” selective media coverage, paradoxically, or perhaps not paradoxically at all, at a time when the utter desperation of Palestinians in the occupied territories had reached almost unbelievable heights. According to a World Bank report released the very day prior to the media reports of the al Aqsa cartoons hitting the headlines, the defunct Palestinians economy, already crippled by decades of military occupation, was being dealt a death blow by Israel’s extensive network of roadblocks and checkpoints, not to mention it’s infamous, if euphemistically named "Security Fence," that in the report’s own words “almost totally ignores the daily needs of the Palestinian population." Within two days of the cartoons attracting howls of outrage from across the US political and media spectrum, Maha Katoumi, a 30 year old Palestinian woman from Nablus lost her baby after being shot at by Israeli forces in the Ein Beit Ilma refugee camp. And in a statistic likely to elicit even less horror than Ms Albright’s infamous 1996 remarks on Iraq’s children’s silent toll, a non profit organization dedicating itself to highlighting the plight of Palestinian children, Remember these Children, reported that in 2007 alone, some 15 Palestinian children in 2007 alone had been killed by the Israeli army, bringing the total number of children killed by the occupation since the onset of the second intifadah to close to a thousand.

The chances are, those who base their view of the world and it’s developments through the warped prism of the mainstream media will never have heard of Maha Katoumi, much less her unsung dreams for her unborn child. Of the hopes and dreams, lives and ambitions of the thousand or so Palestinian children whose lives were cut short by the occupation. Of the soaring heights that an untold number of Palestinian entrepreneurs, professionals, and academics could have reached were their lives, indeed very existence not throttled by the vice like grip of the bondage they endure. Or of the fact that according to one Oxfam report released in April 2007, a staggering 46 percent of all Palestinians in the Occupied Territories were unable to meet their basic food needs and that nearly a million Palestinians were now living on less than a paltry 50 cents a day. But yes, they are likely to have heard of a presumptuous Arabic speaking Mickey Mouse with the gall to ridicule the US and Israeli government and inciting Palestinian children against an occupation whose deleterious, often devastating implications they are unable to escape even if they wished to.

Therein lies the issue of proportionality and of misplaced outrage. Proportionality in that the mainstream media chooses to selectively, if conveniently ignore the sheer magnitude of human suffering in an imprisoned land while feigning outrage over a relatively trivial children’s skit. Misplaced outrage in that the wrath of the mass media is not directed against the untold injustices of occupation, the extrajudicial killings, the humiliating checkpoints, the wanton land confiscations, the bulldozing of homes and deliberate scorched earth tactics ostensibly justified in the name of "security," the seemingly endless cornucopia of horrors of military occupation, but rather against a cartoon.

Those who choose to approach the subject of the US media’s coverage of the al Aqsa cartoon skit could be forgiven for wondering, perhaps in all naiveté, where was the American outrage over the deaths of hundreds of unarmed Palestinian children over the past seven years, in many cases caused by arms and munitions provided at the expense of US taxpayers? To speak of nothing of those of half a million Iraqi children under the crushing weight of economic sanctions, casually played down as "a price worth paying." Where was the indignation over the draconian discrimination faced by Palestinians in the occupied territories and Israel itself reminiscent of the worst days of apartheid and Jim Crow? And where is the questioning of the violations of dozens of UN General Assembly Resolutions by the Israeli occupation? Do the mainstream media wish to send the message that occupation, house demolitions, roadblock, extrajudicial executions, land confiscation, aerial bombardment with F 16, arbitrary arrests and torture are all acceptable and fathomable as part of foreign policy dictates, with the proviso that no children are ever indoctrinated to hate and resent what they cannot indeed help hating and resenting as a result of the horrors unfolding around them.

Both in the aftermath and prior to the al Aqsa cartoons grabbing headlines (some would say deflecting attention from the real issues) media analysts have been quick to condemn what they see as the "indoctrination” of Palestinian children by the Palestinian media and education system. Here is the rub –” the accusation is a correct and justified one, but the accusation would be more appropriately directed at the occupation itself rather than an education system and media that is itself shredded –” as is the rest of Palestinian society.

But even when one sets aside that common sense and the unwritten code of free expression both entitle ridiculing an occupation, the question that relatively few have dared to ask is this –” just what is it about Israel, despite it’s overwhelming military superiority that makes it so insecure in the face of criticism over it’s occupation. That the occupation and it’s supporters need a pretext as flimsy as a children’s cartoon in order to vilify a people already deprived of all semblance of freedom reflects not just intolerance towards anything that smacks of non violent dissent but also a determination to blame the victim at any cost. And whatever the nebulous boundaries of artistic freedom, surely the ridiculing of an occupation, even by a cartoon character need not be considered outside the bounds of legitimate discourse.

What can one say? Bring on the Mickey Mouse Wannabes –” one can rest assured Condoleeza Rice, Ehud Olmert, and indeed the behemoth that is the occupation itself are all powerful –” and indeed fallible to endure a much needed dose of childish lampooning every now and again.