Thursday, March 22, 2012

Fisk and Safi on the Afghan Massacre and Media

Below, see two pieces on the media coverage of the recent Afghan massacre. In the first piece, Fisks suggests that frustration and revenge may be more common among the US soldiers, instead of exceptions among few individuals, because of losing the Afghan war. But the media presented the massacre in exactly the latter terms, as exceptions. I would add that the soldiers could also be driven by revenge just because of it, and a sense of national superiority and tribalism, for these attitudes are strongly cultivated in their military training. Also see Omid Safi's piece quoted below with my comments.

Madness is not the reason for this massacre
Robert Fisk, March 17, 2012,

I'm getting a bit tired of the "deranged" soldier story. It was predictable, of course. The 38-year-old staff sergeant who massacred 16 Afghan civilians, including nine children, near Kandahar this week had no sooner returned to base than the defence experts and the think-tank boys and girls announced that he was "deranged". Not an evil, wicked, mindless terrorist – which he would be, of course, if he had been an Afghan, especially a Taliban – but merely a guy who went crazy.

This was the same nonsense used to describe the murderous US soldiers who ran amok in the Iraqi town of Haditha. It was the same word used about Israeli soldier Baruch Goldstein who massacred 25 Palestinians in Hebron – something I pointed out in this paper only hours before the staff sergeant became suddenly "deranged" in Kandahar province.

"Apparently deranged", "probably deranged", journalists announced, a soldier who "might have suffered some kind of breakdown" (The Guardian), a "rogue US soldier" (Financial Times) whose "rampage" (The New York Times) was "doubtless [sic] perpetrated in an act of madness" (Le Figaro). Really? Are we supposed to believe this stuff? Surely, if he was entirely deranged, our staff sergeant would have killed 16 of his fellow Americans. He would have slaughtered his mates and then set fire to their bodies. But, no, he didn't kill Americans. He chose to kill Afghans. There was a choice involved. So why did he kill Afghans? We learned yesterday that the soldier had recently seen one of his mates with his legs blown off. But so what?

The Afghan narrative has been curiously lobotomised – censored, even – by those who have been trying to explain this appalling massacre in Kandahar. They remembered the Koran burnings – when American troops in Bagram chucked Korans on a bonfire – and the deaths of six Nato soldiers, two of them Americans, which followed. But blow me down if they didn't forget – and this applies to every single report on the latest killings – a remarkable and highly significant statement from the US army's top commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen, exactly 22 days ago. Indeed, it was so unusual a statement that I clipped the report of Allen's words from my morning paper and placed it inside my briefcase for future reference.

Allen told his men that "now is not the time for revenge for the deaths of two US soldiers killed in Thursday's riots". They should, he said, "resist whatever urge they might have to strike back" after an Afghan soldier killed the two Americans. "There will be moments like this when you're searching for the meaning of this loss," Allen continued. "There will be moments like this, when your emotions are governed by anger and a desire to strike back. Now is not the time for revenge, now is the time to look deep inside your souls, remember your mission, remember your discipline, remember who you are."

Now this was an extraordinary plea to come from the US commander in Afghanistan. The top general had to tell his supposedly well-disciplined, elite, professional army not to "take vengeance" on the Afghans they are supposed to be helping/protecting/nurturing/training, etc. He had to tell his soldiers not to commit murder. I know that generals would say this kind of thing in Vietnam. But Afghanistan? Has it come to this? I rather fear it has. Because – however much I dislike generals – I've met quite a number of them and, by and large, they have a pretty good idea of what's going on in the ranks. And I suspect that Allen had already been warned by his junior officers that his soldiers had been enraged by the killings that followed the Koran burnings – and might decide to go on a revenge spree. Hence he tried desperately – in a statement that was as shocking as it was revealing – to pre-empt exactly the massacre which took place last Sunday.

Yet it was totally wiped from the memory box by the "experts" when they had to tell us about these killings. No suggestion that General Allen had said these words was allowed into their stories, not a single reference – because, of course, this would have taken our staff sergeant out of the "deranged" bracket and given him a possible motive for his killings. As usual, the journos had got into bed with the military to create a madman rather than a murderous soldier. Poor chap. Off his head. Didn't know what he was doing. No wonder he was whisked out of Afghanistan at such speed.

We've all had our little massacres. There was My Lai, and our very own little My Lai, at a Malayan village called Batang Kali where the Scots Guards – involved in a conflict against ruthless communist insurgents – murdered 24 unarmed rubber workers in 1948. Of course, one can say that the French in Algeria were worse than the Americans in Afghanistan – one French artillery unit is said to have "disappeared" 2,000 Algerians in six months – but that is like saying that we are better than Saddam Hussein. True, but what a baseline for morality. And that's what it's about. Discipline. Morality. Courage. The courage not to kill in revenge. But when you are losing a war that you are pretending to win – I am, of course, talking about Afghanistan – I guess that's too much to hope. General Allen seems to have been wasting his time.


Below, also see Omid Safi's piece on the Afghan massacre. Omid Safi compares the media coverage of the Afghan massacre to the coverage of the 2009 Fort-Hood-shooting (by a person from Muslim background). Safi limits himself to criticizing the media's double standards. He also hopes that, "future investigations would demonstrate that Hasan’s actions were indeed the actions of a lone person, not part of a broader campaign."

I feel that he could have made a more incisive argument there, questioning if the Fort Hood issue should be seen as a "Muslim" issue at all. Furthermore, he could have scrutinized the pressure and politics that compell American Muslims to respond to Fort-Hood-like events in an apologetic way. In other words, why is it that American Muslims as a collectivity feel threatened and compelled to issue apologetic statements (to the general Americans) anytime someone does something in any part of the world.

Also, are there good and bad Muslim causes from an Islamic perspective, some of which may have resorted to violent struggle as their mode of resistance? Would the American Muslims support the good resistance causes that involve killing of oppressors -- for instance, that in Palestine and Lebanon? And how would that synchronize with the moral compass that Safi presents at the end of his piece? Could such a compass also de-legitimize the legit movements (in addition to removing the messy history from the equation in each case, putting the oppressor and oppressed, powerful and powerless, all on the same level)? (On these critical questions, also see: Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: Cracking the Media Code from

There may be a lead in the MLK quote that Safi refers to while describing his moral compass. To quote MLK in full: "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." The "content of character" may be a way to add the needed distinctions to Safi's moral compass. How do we judge the good and bad character and from whose perspective and with what assumptions and politics would be the key questions.

When Americans Kill vs. When Muslims Kill
by Omid Safi, Mar 19, 2012

The news from Afghanistan over the last few weeks has been heart-wrenching, devastating, and infuriating. An American soldier named Robert Bales (on the left in the image below) walked into the midst of an Afghan civilian community, and shot 16 people dead, including 9 children and 3 women.

The shooting in Afghanistan has eerie echoes of the Fort Hood Shooting from November 5th, 2009, when an American Muslim military member, Nidal Malik Hasan, opened fire inside a military base, and killed 13 people.

And yet the media coverage of the two episodes has been diametrically opposed. When Americans kills, it is portrayed as an aberration, an act of a tormented and troubled individual. When Muslims kill, it is covered as a signal of a communal, global genocidal tendency. Let’s go over some details.

Here is how Fox covered the shootings by Major Malik Nadal in the Fort Hood shootings:

The murders at Ft. Hood are about the radicalization of individuals by an extremist ideology -- jihadism -- which fuels acts of terror.
The main question we should be asking is when did Hasan become radicalized and who indoctrinated him?

Fox’s “analysis” was written by Walid Phares, the same person that Mitt Romney had picked as his Middle East foreign policy adviser. The very same person who has been identified as a major Islamophobes, and involved in massacres in Middle East.

Phares and Fox News take great pains to point out that Nadal’s actions are not about one individual man, but part of a grander Islamist war against America. Here is what they say:

Instead it is part of a wider ideological war, generated by radicalization and inciting individuals to perform such acts.
"Lone wolf" or not, organized or not, fully self-aware perpetrator or not, influenced by overseas radicals or not, this massacre of servicemen has moved America from stage to another.

Of course future investigations would demonstrate that Hasan’s actions were indeed the actions of a lone person, not part of a broader campaign.

In short, when a deranged Muslim kills Americans, Fox News tells us that it is “the largest terror act since 9/11,” and "it's jihadist evil and terrorism." When a deranged American kills Muslims, such as the actions of Robert Bales in Afghanistan in February 2012, Fox News and its subsidiaries behave in an entirely different fashion. We are offered the following litany of explanations and justifications:

*There was alcohol involved.
* it is an isolated act of a “troubled” person that in no way shape or form reflects on the noble ideals of America or Americans.
*The soldier was housed in the “most troubled” base in America.
*He was on his fourth tour of duty, and neither he nor his family wanted to go back.
*he simply “snapped.”
*He was experiencing martial difficulties.

The headline from Fox news read: “Money, career woes reportedly plagued Afghan Killing Suspect.” The first sentence of the article reads: “Bypassed for a promotion and struggling to pay for his house, Robert Bales was eyeing a way out of his job at a Washington state military base months before he allegedly gunned down 16 civilians in an Afghan war zone, records and interviews showed as a deeper picture emerged Saturday of the Army sergeant's financial troubles and brushes with the law.”

In short, the assumption that when we Americans kill, it is an aberration from our good nature. Even if the act is abominable, it is said to be purely an individual act totally disconnected from any larger institutional or political context. However, when Muslims kill, it is a sign of a world-wide, evil ideology of jihad and terrorism.

I have searched in vain to find a commentator in the United States that grasps the above double standard, and have not so far seen that insight in a mainstream American press. The only place I have seen it is in the UK, by Robert Fisk: Fisk correctly points that that most Western journalists use descriptions like how Robert Bailes was “"Apparently deranged", "probably deranged", "might have suffered some kind of breakdown" (The Guardian), a "rogue US soldier" (Financial Times) whose rampage was "doubtless [sic] perpetrated in an act of madness" (Le Figaro).

It is these types of double standards that are at the heart of the hypocrisy of our current situation vis-à-vis Islam and Muslims. What we should be saying is simply this: the life of each and every person in the world, civilian or military, American, Afghani, Palestinian, Israeli, Iraqi, Iranian, male or female, rich or poor, gay or straight, carries exactly and identically the same intrinsic value. Just as Dr. King taught us that the measure of a character is not connected to the color of our skin, we should be demanding that the measure of a human life is not connected to the nationality of the victim or the assailant. All human lives are sacred, all are sacrosanct. And all violations of human lives are equally morally repugnant.

Taking that type of an approach would restore a sense of dignity and honor to our standing in the world community, and it would allow us to recover the moral dignity that we have squandered over the last ten years.


About Omid Safi: Safi is a bona fide scholar on Sufism and used to be part of the (now defunct) Progressive Muslim Union (PMU) of North America. He emphasizes compassion, love, and theological plurality drawing from the resources of various sufi traditions. On PMU-NA, see (with a pinch of salt):

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