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Barry Crimmins

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Unnatural disaster Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Unnatural disaster
Gripping and heart-rending footage of grief-stricken Chinese people desperately awaiting word of loved ones missing in last week's earthquake provided an opportunity for American news anchors to editorialize. For once, their remarks made sense. Again and again the talking heads said words to the effect of, "You can't help but be moved when you see such an enormous tragedy." At one point, I heard Lou Dobbs refer to the "earthquake in China," rather than "the Communist Chinese earthquake." Even demagogues tone it down at such moments.

When we see the aftermath of disasters, political and cultural differences become insignificant because human commonality overwhelms every other possible consideration. The shrieks of anguish from people who have lost loved ones in a catastrophe are not one bit different in China than they are in Myanmar or Thailand or even New Orleans. The pain brought by the sudden and cruel theft of those dear to us, and compounded by the loss of home and community, is almost impossible to fathom. Anyone who has a heart can't help but be moved to feel both compassion for devastated victims and gratitude for their own intact lives.

I got to wondering what those same news anchors would say if they began showing unexpurgated tape from Iraq and the anchors had to ad-lib remarks about actual footage from the killing ground. Would they make the same humane connections as they do when natural disasters strike?
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They should. In any other violence-torn locale from Baghdad to Darfur to Ground Zero NYC, the exact sort of misery that we see exhibited after natural disasters besets the violently-victimized people. Only it's worse because such violence is man-made and the grief it brings is often accompanied by rage.

When the news cameras focused on the harrowing aftermath of the heinous  terrorist atacks on 9/11, the nation and world arose to decry the barbarous acts. But then Americans fell victim to the natural but thoughtless urge to "make someone pay." George W. Bush harnessed that emotional impulse, seasoned it with xenophobia and racism, and used it to attack Iraq, a nation in no way responsible for the terrorist assaults on the USA. Five years later, that country has been leveled again and again by a man-made tsunami of violence. At every turn, Bush tells us we must continue to seed Iraqi clouds so that Hurricane Insane remains stalled over that devastated nation to continually pelt it with cloudburst after cloudburst of blood.

Bush and his handlers have rigged things so that Americans rarely see so much as a soldier's flag-draped coffin, much less the grisly footage of the maimed and massacred on the ground in Iraq. The real danger to war's popularity comes when a warring nation realizes just what it is inflicting on fellow human beings and the Bushists know it.

Occasionally the networks show the aftermath of "terrorist" assaults in Iraq but not so often because eventually they would provoke too many questions -- questions such as "Why?" And we're almost never shown the carnage inflicted upon the Iraqi people by America and its allies. When we were shown a few still photos of prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib Prison, most people were aghast. We should have been equally aghast at how slowly the American media broke such a huge story -- a story that was "out there" and known about long before it was reported. Most of the photos remained unseen until they were published in Australia long after Abu Ghraib became a household name. As soon as the story did break, Bush apologists began questioning the loyalty of any media outlet that would carry such information. They said it would be used to fan the flames of anti-American hatred in Iraq and "put our troops in danger."

One problem with the apologist counterattack -- with prisoners coming and going from the prison, it was no secret to Iraqis what was taking place inside. Another problem is that it is a reporter's job to tell the truth and therefore the truth should be where a reporter's only loyalty rests. And obviously when it comes to putting troops in danger, the devalued dollar stops with George W. Bush.
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By embedding the media into the military even before this war started, the government created the kind of conflict of interest that no legitimate journalist should ever abide. In George W. Bush's with us or agin' us world, reporters conscripted to serve beside soldiers were likely to disclose fewer of the more unsavory details of the soldiers' activities. Things like unprovoked massacres of civilians. Nobody likes a fink and nobody likes to be one. It is also not that smart to bear witness against people upon whom your life often depends -- heavily armed people upon whom your life depends, at that.

War turns everyday life into inescapable calamity. The earth never stops quaking, the tornado is always touching down at the edge of town. There can be no sustained recovery effort because the danger never, ever ends. The only hope of stopping this brutally backward lunacy is to convince people that we must make the human connection with everyone, everywhere. All of us -- presidents, news anchors and regular folks alike -- must understand that victims of war suffer just as much and are just as sympathetic as victims of natural disasters. Our national might should be employed in preparation for, and response to, natural catastrophes rather than for manufacturing disasters so that they may be inflicted upon members of our human family.

updated: 11 years ago