Media signs on to the war for the hearts and minds of the world, and Muslims in particular

If you’re looking for specious reasoning, look no further than your daily newspaper. If it’s like the newspaper I read, the Toronto Globe and Mail, brace yourself for an assault of logical horrors, forensic tricks, and a sophist’s sleights of hand. Twisted reasoning, untenable inference, unsubstantiated claims, innuendo — it’s all there, a veritable clinic on how to produce folderol and make it seem credible.

Ever ready to jump into the breach to help administration officials deal with the danger of losing “the battle for the hearts and minds of the world in general, and Muslims in particular,” the Globe’s editorial writers have voluntarily signed on to the war on terrorism. Which means they’ve enlisted as propagandists, agreeing to question inconvenient facts, hide what “the public doesn’t need to know right now”, and eschew critical questioning even more vigorously than accustomed — at least until the war is over.

Today’s assignment: Deal with all those pesky claims that American and British bombs are taking out scores of innocent Afghans.

First, admit civilian deaths have happened, but then minimize the number, while pointing out the Taliban has a motive to inflate the number for “propaganda” purposes,  a time-honoured rhetorical trick. During the Gulf War a bomb that hit a marketplace and killed civilians led CBS News correspondent Dan Rather to remark: “We can be sure that Saddam Hussein will make propaganda of these casualties.”  You could be sure he’d try to bring the deaths to the attention of the West. Whether anyone in the West would hear about them was another matter.

Echoing Rather, the Globe writes that “Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers will milk” the toll of civilian deaths “vigorously.” You can hear the Globe’s editorial writers: “Aren’t they horribly unfair? Drawing attention to 16-year old Assudullah, who lost a leg and two fingers when a missile slammed into a building near his home. Pointing to Anab, whose head was severed, when a bomb struck her home. They know perfectly well these deaths and injuries were accidental.”

Were they?

US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, not as stupid as some journalists who seem to think you can bomb a country around the clock and not kill civilians, warned there would be civilian deaths. He knows that civilian casualties, while inconvenient, while undesired, while never wished for, are inevitable outcomes of bombing campaigns. They were in the Gulf War. They were in the war against Yugoslavia. Only a moron, or a propagandist signed on to the war “for the hearts and minds of the world, and Muslims in particular,” would say otherwise. Take your pick as to which one of these the Globe’s journalists are. Both perhaps.

And is it fair to say civilian deaths are accidental, when it’s admitted that civilian deaths are inevitable? You can’t fire a shot gun at an armed suspect mingling with people in a crowded room, and say the deaths of innocent bystanders were accidental. And nor can you say anticipated civilian deaths are accidental, if you know they’re inevitable.

Still, reason has no place in propaganda. Soon after the bombing began, a Globe reporter cast doubt on the Taliban claim that civilians had been killed. The claim was unverified, the reporter said. US and UK bombers were using precision bombs. And Washington and London said civilians weren’t being targeted.

He could have also pointed out, but didn’t, that the claims that US and UK bombers weren’t targeting civilians and were using precision bombs were equally unverified.

To be sure, a reasonable person would conclude it’s a pretty good bet the US and UK aren’t deliberately targeting civilians and are targeting as precisely as they can. Nevertheless, it is the nature of bombing campaigns that civilians get killed, and precision bombing isn’t always that precise, something anyone who paid even passing attention to the Gulf War and the war against Yugoslavia would know. Accordingly, claims that there are civilian casualties are not to be scoffed at, or denied.

It’s also true that the US has had few qualms in past bombing campaigns about targeting civilian infrastructure, with full knowledge of the consequence in terms of human lives.

U.S. Air Force General Michael Short told the Washington Post in 1999 that  NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia was aimed at causing misery for the civilian population to achieve a desired political end — the ouster of Slobodan Milosevic. “If you wake up in the morning,” said Short, “and you have no power to your house and no gas to your stove and the bridge you  take to work is down and will be lying in the Danube for the next 20 years, I think you begin to ask, ‘Hey, Slobo, what’s this all about? How much more of this do we have to withstand?'”

And Thomas Nagy, a business professor  at George Washington University, uncovered     declassified documents that show Washington knowingly violated Article 54 of the Geneva Convention which prohibits any country from undermining “objects indispensable to the survival of (another country’s) civilian population,” including drinking water installations and supplies.

During the Gulf War, coalition forces bombed Iraq’s eight multi-purpose dams, destroying flood control systems, irrigation, municipal and industrial water storage, and hydroelectric power. Major pumping stations were targeted, and municipal water and sewage facilities were destroyed.

Writing in the September 2001 issue of The Progressive, Nagy shows that Washington was aware of the civilian health consequences of destroying Iraq’s drinking water and sanitation systems in the Gulf War, and knew that sanctions would prevent the Iraqi government from repairing the degraded facilities.

This has led to the deaths, by UN estimates, of 500,000 Iraqi children, an inconvenient figure that Globe columnist Margaret Wente dismisses as “propaganda,”  without bothering to say why she thinks it’s propaganda. It’s just propaganda. End of story. That too is a time-honored rhetorical device.

Similarly, the Globe deals with the claim that 200 Afghan civilians were killed when a US bomb struck the village of Khorum, by saying “a figure of between two and three dozen appeared more likely,” without saying why. Again, having to back up your claims is one of those burdens journalists who have signed on to the war for the hearts and minds of the world, and Muslims in particular, have relieved themselves of. It’s so much easier that way.

And what if the death toll is lower? Are two dozen to three dozen deaths more acceptable than 200? As if anticipating the question, the newspaper says “it bears repeating that all the civilians killed in recent days would still be alive had the horror of September 11 never occurred,” a cruel and insensitive argument that seeks to pin the blame for the horrors of September 11th on the starving and wretched of Afghanistan. “Well, if they weren’t linked in some oblique and indirect way to Osama bin Laden,” the Globe seems to say, “they’d all be alive today.” This from the same newspaper that denounces in no uncertain terms the callous idiots who say that the 6,000 who died in the September 11th attacks would be alive today were it not for the blood-soaked history of U.S. foreign policy. The argument is the same.

The real problem, the Globe tells us, giving us a peek into the reasoning behind the propaganda campaign, is that if we get too wrought up over the deaths of the innocent, Washington may be pressured to call off the bombing, in which case the objectives of the attack will never be realized. “Hugely regrettable as those deaths are, they should not deflect attention from the current long-term goals of the military campaign,” which the Globe then forgets to specify, but seems to think has something to do with hunting down bin Laden.

Perhaps the Globe ‘s editorial  writers forgot to read their own paper. Just days earlier, it quoted White House spokesman Ari Fliescher saying , “this is not a war against Osama bin Laden. …If  Osama bin Laden was gone today, the war would continue tomorrow.”

Having missed that crucial quote, the Globe soldiers on, assuming that all those Afghans are dying because Washington needs to collar bin Laden. But there’s an obstacle to surmount. How do we know bin Laden is responsible? The Globe’s evidence is Abu Ghaith’s latest videotaped rant about, “the storms will not calm, especially the aircraft storm.” Says the Globe’s editorial writers: “If those words do not acknowledge guilt for the mass murders, by warning of more, nothing does.” If that’s true, then all the people, Christian, Atheist, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Arab, European, American, and Asian who have warned that the US and UK attacks on Afghanistan are going to provoke more terrorist attacks, have also admitted guilt. A prediction of future crimes by persons unspecified, is not evidence of culpability for past crimes.

Having thereby dispensed with the problem of civilian casualties — the Taliban is exaggerating for propaganda purposes, Washington and London are trying really hard to limit civilian casualties, the dead probably deserved it anyway, and we can’t afford to be distracted from the main goal of getting our mitts on bin Laden — the Globe then moves on to those  pesky people who warn that draconian anti-terrorism legislation borders on fascism.

Using  the  favorite school yard trick of “right back at ya” the newspaper charges that those who warn, as Ben Franklin once did, that he who gives up civil liberties for security, soon loses both, are themselves soft on fascism — Islamic fascism. Here again, the Globe conveniently pins the blame for the September 11 attacks on Muslims, of the fundamentalist, or fascist variety, as they’ve now become known, after Christopher Hitchen’s diatribe. At the same time, the Globe circulates every rumor and twist in the story of Mohammed Atta, prime suspect in the WTC attack, a man whose behavior — strip bar patron, customer of prostitutes, chain-smoker and imbiber of alcoholic beverages — seems to rule out any connections to Islamic fundamentalism.

But set your mind at ease about anti-terrorism legislation, the Globe tells us. “Most [people] will not be terribly inconvenienced. Instead, the cost will be borne by people who find themselves targets of police suspicion because of their ethnic background, radical political views or association with immigrant communities that have ties with groups deemed to be terrorist fronts.” In other words, unless your name is Mohammed, or Moustapha, if you don’t wear a turban, and you don’t think the abrogation of civil liberties borders on fascism, you have nothing to fear.

In Nazi-era Germany, “good Germans” had nothing to fear either. It was Jews, Gypsies and radicals who had to watch out. And Nazi-era Germany wasn’t fascist, was it? Nor was it expansionist, hell-bent on a massive build up of its military, which it was eager to press into service at the drop of a hat, or inclined to persecute and single out a minority group.

Mr. Steve Gowans is a writer and political activist who lives in Ottawa, Canada.

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