Six years ago today three reporters were killed by American attacks on independent media sources in Baghdad covering the war. At the time the Pentagon said that only embedded reporters were safe, and this was simply the danger of being in a war zone. The next day, the US pulled down the statue of Saddam Hussein to symbolize the end of the regime, and the attacks on Al Jazeera and other Arab media sources were forgotten.
In time we learned that these were indeed deliberate attacks targeting media the US felt was undercutting the American mission by spreading “enemy propaganda,” and that the reporters were killed by a pre-meditated military strike. The “propaganda” these stations were allegedly spreading was to show that the war was not clean. They veered from the American script of the US coming in as heroic liberators to defeat the evil regime and help the thankful civilians. They showed dead Iraqi children, American POWs (footage from Iraqi TV) and the large number of civilians who had been caught up in “shock and awe.”
As it became clear to the US that the Iraqis were not exuding gratitude, and that we were being seen as an occupying force, the Secretary Rumsfeld blamed al Jazeera. The Arab media were whipping up anti-American sentiment with these images — with the truth. If they were silenced, then the US could control the story line and shape reality. But that didn’t happen. Al Jazeera and other Arab media sources continued to report on real conditions in Iraq, and it soon became obvious that the problem wasn’t that people were being whipped into an anti-American fervor by Arab media, but that the Iraqis didn’t like the American invasion, and they didn’t need the television to show them how Iraqis were being killed, injured and humiliated by the American forces. They had no love for Saddam, but the level of violence, the looting after the war, and the treatment they received from suspicious Americans after the insurgency begun caused them to sour on the US. It wasn’t the media that ignited the insurgency, or pushed the Shi’ites to form anti-American and anti-Sunni militias.
Six years ago today, the lie underlying the Iraq war was made evident, even though it would take awhile for it to sink in. The US thought it could script this war, control the message, and therefore shape the outcome. It did not understand the culture and the problems involved in trying to actually make Iraq some kind of model democracy. And, as the script started to unravel with negative Iraqi reaction to the American presence — no flowers and chocolates — they refused to rethink their premises and instead killed some reporters and tried to intimidate those people out there trying to bring the real story to the public. Truth was dangerous to the American goal, truth did not fit the script. The effort was to silence getting the human side of the war to the public: that war is not clean, sanitary, or like a hollywood movie.
Think about what this means. Our leaders deliberately killed journalists covering a war. It was not an accident. They did this to try to control what the public saw, perhaps really believing that al jazeera and other Arab stations were biased. Of course, the American media was biased as well, but biased in favor of the war. That bias was acceptable. Since then we’ve learned that Vice President Cheney may have had “roving gangs of assassins” at his disposal, killing people in foreign countries without answering to either the CIA or Congress. Add that to the use of torture and the indefinite detention of people suspected to be terrorists or terrorist sympathizers, and probably the biggest casualty of the Iraq war was American integrity and honor.
We can get it back. We elected President Obama because most Americans think he may be the kind of leader to restore what was squandered in the last eight years (or even the last sixteen). But first and foremost, whether one supports Obama’s policies or not, no matter what party one belongs in, or what ones’ views are on foreign policy and even the Iraq war, we should all reaffirm our core values. We should be ashamed that our leaders chose to target foreign media sources — how do we react when Islamic extremists target or kidnap our journalists, after all? We should be ashamed of torture, investigate claims of assassination teams acting above the law, and stop detentions where we can’t show just cause and undertake legal proceedings. We need to reaffirm our core values, shared by Americans from all parts of the political spectrum.
April 8, 2003 was a day of shame. Three journalists were killed for trying to get out the story, we worked against free speech and a free press. It appeared to be quickly forgotten the next day as Baghdad “fell.” I think it’s important to make sure we remember this event, and its meaning.