I am watching my brothers and sisters in the media slowly turn. Media bias, as Chomsky knows, is rarely a conscious effort or a grand conspiracy. More often, it is the automatic infusion of assumptions and beliefs by low-level copy editors and wire desk writers. But the result is just as nefarious as if it had been a vast conspiracy.
Like the burgeoning Oil-for-Food program scandal at the U.N., which has produced copious paperwork, damning quotes, and yet has not been given a drop of ink in major U.S. outlets like the "Philadelphia Inquirer."
Or this. On a recent Saturday, Islamist terrorists tried to blow up the Khawr Al Amaya Oil Terminal near Basra. They launched three suicide boats toward the docks, in the type of attack that had succeeded against the U.S.S. Cole and, more recently, a French oil tanker. But this time, the U.S. Navy was on the job. The port patrol intercepted the suicide squads. Two Coast Guardsmen and five Navy sailors aboard a rigid hull inflatable were preparing to board a dhow that had approached the terminal, and the bad guys, a la Flight 93, blew themselves up when caught. A couple of brave sailors died, as did a U.S. Coast Guard member. Yet the day was saved. Damage to the oil rigs at the port was minimal. Exporting of billions of barrels of crucial oil -- crucial to the rebuilding of Iraq -- resumed within hours.
So what headline did the Associated Press (and thus dozens if not hundreds of American newspapers) put on this story? "U.S. Thwarts Major Terror Strike?" "Quick-Thinking Sailors Defeat Bombers on High Seas?"
Nope, try this:
"Two U.S. servicemembers killed when boats explode near Iraqi oil facilities"
Just another bad day in Iraq, I guess.
I'm getting that helpless feeling again, like on Sept. 11, when events spin out of control so fast my brain can't process how bad it's become before things get even worse. It makes you want to retch. It makes me want to hand each of those prisoner-abusing a**holes a loaded Magnum and shut him or her in an empty room. They'd know what to do. Trying to keep some semblance of journalistic detachment amid all this is nearly impossible.
It is possible both to burn with personal shame and rage at the fools Abu Ghraib, who threw away so much for so little, and at the same time to remind other people to keep the reaction to their criminal folly in perspective. The incident itself is one thing; the way it has been received around the world is another. If my son burned your house down, I would be furious at him. If you then tried to kill him (and me) because of what he did, I would defend us vigorously. That doesn't mean I condone his crime, I merely reject your reaction to it. Here's a good example of perspective, by a voice from the Middle East that is no American lackey:
Absolutes are appealing, but in imposing them, moralists must consider two points: That only a system which responds to censure through amelioration can eventually set lawful standards of behavior; and that some of Washington's more zealous Middle Eastern critics often avoided applying a universal ethical yardstick when considering what took place under Saddam -- even as the US today accepts their moral privilege to condemn its actions in Abu Ghraib.
There is no justification (let alone a politically expedient rationale) for a host of recent American undertakings in Iraq - whether the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners or the bombardment of civilians in Falluja. However, there is also no excuse for denying that what we have seen in the past week in the US has been the thrashing about of a democratic system that feels disgraced by the behavior of several of its citizens, and that intends to rectify matters.
The Egyptian playwright Ali Salem told me recently that the true indignity of the Iraq war was that it was not Arabs who had overthrown Saddam Hussein. He was right. As Arabs examine the photographs from Abu Ghraib and read about American misconduct there, they might reflect less on what this says about the US, which usually ponders its worst excesses, than what it says about their own systems, where such images could only have been glimpsed over the carcass of an overthrown regime.
Any time the U.S. attempts a positive change in the world, those who don't like it will retort that we just think we're special, and thus privileged to boss other nations around. They can always go and find that marginal, but (thanks to the Internet) visible, section of the American people that truly believes in its heart of hearts that God Blessed America.
I support the war and the rebuilding of Iraq, and I have no illusions about God or Americans. Whatever "morality" has to do with waging war -- any war -- is a damned slight matter. The United States didn't go to war in 2001 because its people are more moral than those across the ocean, or because God is on our side. We went to war because we were brutally mugged by an enemy who killed almost entirely non-combatants, and got more of them than Pearl Harbor, Gettysburg, and the Lusitania sinking combined. As I said before, it's about 3,000 of our fellow citizens, slaughtered in our cities and fields.
Our side went to war because we were attacked, not by a nation-state, but by a vicious movement that festered in a retarded civilization. Part of the cure for that is to give the people in that civilization some hope and purpose, other than the hope of destroying America and the purpose of sailing airliners into tall buildings. What's better than those things? How about the hope of actually running your own country, and building your own future.
Democracy, transparent institutions, an answerable judiciary, an uncorrupt police force, the rule of law, free expression, religious liberty -- these are not god-given perfections, but centuries of human history have taught us that they're the best available way to live collectively. They're not American inventions -- not one of them. Americans haven't been always good at applying them in our big, messy nation.
So what? If only perfect nations could act, none ever would. We won our independence with the help of a French fleet and a Dutch loan. Were the Dutch and the French pure at heart? Did they have a self-interest in seeing Britain lose its colonies? Should the American colonies have accepted British rule rather than using these world powers as a skyhook into freedom?
France, after its Revolution, sowed the seeds of liberty and freedom across Europe -- Italy, the Rhineland, Spain, Poland. The French conquered many peoples, and were vastly unpopular after their liberations turned to occupations. They ended up getting chased back to France. But the seeds took root. The ideas, not the armies, were the purpose, and the result.
Are we at least as moral a nation as the France of 1800? Yes, and more. There's no blood of the Reign of Terror reeking from our hands (though I am sure you won't have to go far to find some Chomskyite to make an absurd "McCarthy=Robespierre" moral equivalency argument). If enough people in Iraq want their freedom -- want it even more than they want to send the Americans home -- we can give them the room to take it. We'll give them the tools, if they have the hearts. That's why we're there. Is it in our self-interest to do so? Hell, yes, unless you fancy another 9-11 every year for the next century.
We're not in Iraq because we're better than anyone else in the world. (Stronger, yes). We're there because we're exactly like everyone else in the world: we want to keep living, with dignity and rights. And if we can help other people get that, and help ourselves at the same time, that's a pragmatic choice, as well as a noble one.
It's the anti-Iraq crowd that is obsessed with American exceptionalism. Without realizing it, they've turned their straw man into their main argument. "You aren't allowed to do anything, because you're not perfect." And it ends up destroying the rest of the world for the sake of America:
"The war in Iraq is bad because it was unilateral and pre-emptive, and because it was begun under false pretenses. Therefore, if reconstruction of Iraq succeeds, and the country emerges as a stable and flourishing democracy, all those poisons at the root of the war will be justified and encouraged. America will be justified and encouraged. It is more important that the Iraq poject fail -- and be seen clearly to fail -- because if it does, morality and justice will prevail again, America will be discouraged and shamed, and the world will be restored to its right order."
All that matters is teaching America a lesson, influencing the outcome of the next election in the States, and containing the "evil" neocons. Average Iraqis? Not even a blip on the radar screen of that crusade. The future of Europe or India America be defeated by Islamists in the Middle East? Nobody gave that a thought.