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Two weeks in the war


On Nov. 12, the soldiers of the Northern Alliance on the way to Kabul found a wounded Taliban soldier cowering in a ditch by the side of the road. The helpless man begged for his life, but, as the New York Times photographer snapped away, the Alliance men dragged him along the road, pulled him to his feet, shot him in the chest, beat him with a rifle butt and grenade launcher, pulled his pants off leaving him naked from the waist down, then filled his corpse with bullets.

Another victory in the war against terrorism.

Thus our allies -- really our surrogates -- consummated their victory by routinely shooting the wounded, executing Taliban prisoners and those who tried to surrender, and looting the corpses and property of the liberated towns.

In a rare dissenting voice, New York Daily News columnist E.R. Shipp said in a Dec. 2 piece: Beware. Our allies are “shysters, thugs, thieves and debasers of women.” We ignore their atrocities at our moral peril.

Yes, I know war is brutal. But if we want to call it just, we must accept responsibility for whatever is done in our name, with our money and with our planes, tanks and guns.

As usual, the media have both published and buried our crimes.

Much coverage of the war is weak because the Bush administration has intensified the policy begun after Vietnam, tightened in Panama and Iraq, of keeping the press and the country in the dark. As John MacArthur wrote in The Nation Nov. 19, as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld turns Pentagon briefings into joke sessions, “the government is prosecuting its military campaign in near-complete secrecy, confident that journalists will salute without the slightest irony.”

For example, the Nov. 27 Rumsfeld and Gen. Tommy Franks briefing was interrupted 11 times by laughter and yielded little new information. Rumsfeld repeated the mantras: “tightening the noose,” “campaign far from over,” “tough work lies ahead,” against our adversary that has declared war on “our way of life.” To one feeble question about “some looting, some other things,” he replied blandly that this behavior was “not out of the ordinary.”

Oddly, as the press becomes more supine, said The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz Nov. 29, it has gained respect. A Pew Research Center survey said 77 percent of respondents rate coverage as excellent to good.

Perhaps the respect comes deservedly from the marvelous way, as the funerals and memorials continue and the Times publishes its sensitive mini-biographies, the newspapers have helped the nation grieve.

Perhaps because the TV networks and cheerleading tabloid headlines spin the news into propaganda.

The day after “Nightline” did a story on how careful and accurate our bomber pilots are, we killed three of our own men with a misdirected bomb. The tabloids have called the victims “heroes.” When the British Independent News reported Dec. 3 that U.S. bombs had killed a total of at least 170 Afghan civilians in two days, the United States said it was looking into it. The administration will reply that the figures are wrong, but will not say how many civilians we have really killed. We don’t even read estimates of how many Taliban we have killed.

Meanwhile the public has still not been inconvenienced by the war itself. Besides those killed and wounded by “friendly fire,” one American soldier has taken a bullet in the shoulder. One has killed himself with a bullet to the brain.

Affluent New Yorkers interviewed on the radio have said they contribute to the war effort by buying expensive SUVs and patronizing Broadway shows and restaurants to boost the limp economy.

The week that began with E.R. Shipp’s “Beware” column ended with Palestinians and Israelis killing more of each other, with our victorious allies in Kandahar fighting among themselves and the bizarre video of the mad bin Laden chortling over his crimes on TV. Initially reluctant to release the tape, the administration wanted to make its evidence public without putting the culprit on trial.

Meanwhile the weeks told the strangest and saddest stories of the war: the mysterious prison revolt, the young John Walker emerging from his hole, and the pre-Christmas disintegration of the peace process in the Holy Land.

* * *

First, the mystery: What really happened in the last week of November during the bloody prison-fort revolt at Qala-e-Jhangi, which left -- estimated from various sources -- between 400 and 600 prisoners dead, some with their hands tied and bullet holes in their heads? Amnesty International and the U.N. Human Rights Commission have called for investigations.

Press critic Danny Schechter, whose valuable Web site, mediachannel.org, surveys the world press, has pieced together from the BBC, the Times of London, the Independent, and The Guardian, a narrative that, in his judgment, suggests our complicity in a war crime comparable to My Lai.

The Taliban prisoners, mostly foreign soldiers, surrendered at Konduz, somehow expecting a fair trial. Inexplicably, a number of them were allowed to keep their weapons, and, on Saturday, Nov. 24, two blew up themselves and two captors with grenades. The next day prisoners, their hands tied, were herded into an interrogation with CIA agent Mike Spann and a colleague -- an interrogation that somehow exploded into a fight during which the other agent shot three prisoners dead and Spann, according to one of several accounts, was beaten, kicked and bitten to death. Things got worse. American advisers called in air strikes, and our planes bombed the fort for four days.

Schechter quoted the Independent’s veteran correspondent, Robert Fisk: “Most television journalists, to their shame, have shown little or no interest in these disgraceful crimes. Cozying up to the Northern Alliance, chatting to the American troops, most have done little more than mention the war crimes against prisoners in the midst of their reports. What on earth has gone wrong with our moral compass since Sept. 11?”

Next, the crazed, castaway face of 20-year-old John Walker appeared on our TV screens. We saw his father on Larry King and read his adolescent e-mails on Page 3. He knelt dazed, bound and silent during Spann’s interrogation. His gaze became a Rorschach test for our value system. Is he a “poor fellow,” as Bush says, a “rat” as the New York Post proclaims, or the product of his permissive Marin County, Calif., upbringing?

For Bill Maher, the now “patriotic” host of the late-night talk show Politically Incorrect, who was suspended for saying the Taliban pilots who crashed into the World Trade Center were not “cowards,” it was one more chance to indulge his hatred of Christianity. Joke: Walker had joined the Taliban because he wanted a “less rigid structure” than the Catholic church.

* * *

Defenders of Israel’s policy of assassinating Palestinian leaders suspected of terrorism offer Israel’s bomb-and-bulldoze retaliation as a model for American behavior: Israel has lived with terrorism and knows what to do about it, their logic goes.

But if the Hamas suicide bombers are immoral and insane, the Israeli assassinations are both immoral and stupid.

Look at the record. The daily bombings of Gaza, refugee camps, the West Bank, and Arafat’s headquarters and so-called “targeted” assassinations from helicopters have left a pile of Palestinian corpses -- many of them innocent bystanders.

News stories have reported the bombings as if they were justified retaliations and buried the dead children in paragraph 15. According to The New York Times (Dec. 4), Palestinians had killed 222 Jews, and Jews had killed 742 Palestinians.

If this were a basketball game, Israel might call that winning, but it certainly isn’t either justice or peace.

Taking a page from the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld book on bin Laden, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon apparently feels he has the authority to have Arafat killed. After all, if, in his weakness and “irrelevance,” Arafat is responsible for failing to control Hamas, and he deserves to die. Right? For weeks the Arafat-has-to-go columns in the American press have set the climate for the rocket that will take him out.

And in a recent understandable outburst, Arafat, reacting to reported American impatience with him, said that America, having given Israel the tanks, planes and guns to crush Palestine, had little credibility as a Mideast intermediary.

By the time this article sees print, both bin Laden and Arafat may be dead. If so, we will congratulate ourselves on another victory. But we will have become what we despised.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth’s new book is Dante to Dead Man Walking: 50 Essays on Spiritual Classics (Loyola Press).

National Catholic Reporter, January 11, 2002