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June 14, 2006

Ignatius Typifies Media's Rush To Judgment Mentality

In today's Washington Post, David Ignatius excoriates the leadership at Guantanamo Bay for insensitivity in the wake of three coordinated detainee suicides:

When I hear U.S. officials describe the suicides of three Muslim prisoners at Guantanamo Bay last Saturday as "asymmetric warfare" and "a good PR move," I know it's time to close that camp -- not just because of what it's doing to the prisoners but because of how it is dehumanizing the American captors.

The American officials spoke of the dead prisoners as if they inhabited a different moral universe. That's what war does: People stop seeing their enemies as human beings and consign them to a different category. It was discomfiting to see this indifference stated so bluntly, and subsequent U.S. statements tactfully disavowed the initial ones.

We might call it the Guantanamo syndrome -- this process of mutual corrosion and dehumanization. The antidote is to get inside Guantanamo, to see the prisoners as individuals and begin to make distinctions.

Mr. Ignatius should follow his own advice. Has he ever been to Guantanamo Bay? What personal experience (other than writing a forward to a book written by a recently-released radical Islamist) does he have with Islamic jihadists, their ideology, or their behavior? Well, no matter. He is a pundit, you see. His comforting distance from messy reality lets him indulge his sense of outrage without the bothersome necessity of taking real world circumstances into account.

Ignatius derides the military's tendency to view jihadists "as if they inhabited a different moral universe", but two of the defining characterists of radical Islamists are their deliberate slaughter of innocent non-combatants and their continuing use of suicidal attacks on their enemies. Where exactly, one can't help but wonder, does deliberately killing innocents (not to mention suicide attacks) fit in the West's "moral universe"? His failure to "view the detainees as individuals" and "make distinctions" leads him to assume the detainees view the world through the prism of Western values, an act of cultural chauvinism that is hard to square with an ideology which views sawing the heads off still-living non-combatants as morally justifiable.

To press home to his readers the horrors of confinement at Guantanamo, Ignatius cites one Moazzem Begg, a former detainee whose account of his confinement conflicts jarringly with the conclusions we are meant to draw from it. According to Ignatius, Begg was in solitary confinement for two years:

"It is considered a sin in Islam to despair," he writes, but after he was transferred to a solitary cell at Guantanamo in 2003, Begg began to crack. The guards seemed obsessed with preventing suicide. Begg received an odd plastic blanket, for example, and later learned that it was a "suicide blanket" that couldn't be torn up to make a noose. When guards found paint chipped in his cell, they worried that he was trying to poison himself.

A prison psychiatrist explained to Begg that there had indeed been suicide attempts: "She told me there were people who'd lost all sense of time, reason, reality; people who had been kept in a solitary cell, completely blocked off with no window, eight foot by six, like mine, but with absolutely nobody to speak to, nobody. She said some of them just ended up talking to themselves." A despairing Begg writes at one point to his father back in England: "I still don't know what crime I am supposed to have committed. . . . I am in a state of desperation and I am beginning to lose the fight against depression and hopelessness."

What gives me hope -- not just for Begg but for all of us -- is that he never lost his humanity at Guantanamo. He talked constantly with his American guards, asking where they were from, what they wanted out of life. When guards made racist remarks, he shamed them by answering back in perfect English. He describes a guard named Jennifer from Selma, Ala., who painted her fingernails black and dressed like a Goth on weekends, and who once confided: "I don't know if they've ever accused you of anything. But I know y'all can't be guilty." Begg says of her: "She left me with a lasting impression. All Americans were not the same."

The inference is that despair stemming from unrelenting solitary confinement led the three detainees to take their lives in an act of desperation.

But Ignatius never questions the likelihood of three detainees, supposedly depressed beyond reason from unremitting solitary confinement, simultaneously killing themselves on a single night. Apparently despair floats through prison walls at Gitmo, penetrating even solitary confinement and allowing the hopeless to wordlessly coordinate their last desperate acts.

Ignatius' "proof" of the dehumanizing effects of solitary confinement, one notes, is a man who talked with his guards constantly, even having discussions with a prison psychiatrist and a guard which seem markedly uncallous and unguarded; almost as if these representatives of the United States were talking to... a human being, not an enemy detainee. The seeming contradictions between three detainees just happening to reach their breaking point on the same night and the image of prisoners so isolated and alone they abandoned the Koran's prohibition against despair and suicide trouble Mr. Ignatius not one whit.

In Ignatius' estimation, Islamic fundamentalism - an ideology which not only launched them on the path to detainment but which is authoritarian to a degree that seems strange to jaded Western eyes - is utterly irrelevant. He doesn't even bother to consider it. But what does the Koran say about suicide?

There is only one verse in the Koran that contains a phrase related to suicide: "O you who believe! Do not consume your wealth in the wrong way-rather through trade mutually agreed to, and do not kill yourselves. Surely God is Merciful toward you." (4:29) Some commentators believe that this phrase is better translated "do not kill each other." The prophetic tradition, however, clearly prohibits suicide. The hadith materials, which are the authoritative sayings and actions of the prophet, Muhammad, includes many unambiguous statements about suicide: one who "throws himself off a mountain" or "drinks poison" or "kills himself with a sharp instrument" will be in the fire of Hell. Suicide is not allowed even to those in extreme conditions such as painful illness or a serious wound. Ultimately, it is God, not humans, who has authority over the span of every person's life. There are some Muslims, most notably during the last several decades, who have engaged in suicidal military missions such as the truck bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 and the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington. The extremists cite passages in the Koran that promise paradise to those who die "struggling in the way of God." (2:154) They see what they are doing as active armed struggle in defense of Islam. Their death is thus viewed as martyrdom not as suicide. The overwhelming majority of Muslims view this as a misinterpretation of the Koran and Islamic tradition. Many also point out that the taking of innocent life – even in war – is strictly forbidden in Islam. This, too, makes the actions of Sept. 11 incompatible with Islamic teachings.

But the overwhelming majority of Muslims are not jihadis, nor are they confined to Gitmo. The detainees, like Moazzem Begg, were not ordinary Muslims. They were radical Islamists:

All three detainees had engaged in a hunger strike to protest their indefinite incarceration and had been force-fed before quitting their protest, base commander Navy Rear Admiral Harry Harris said in a conference call from Guantanamo Bay.

One of the detainees was a mid- or high-level al-Qaeda operative, while another had been captured in Afghanistan and participated in a riot at a prison there, Harris said. The third belonged to a splinter group, he added.

Once again, the fact that the three detainees had previously tried to end it all (what is a hunger strike, but the threat of suicide in order to achieve some goal?) is glossed over by Ignatius, as are the detainees histories. Neither the ideology that unites the three nor their past actions are allowed to interfere with the author's predetermined opinion that it was despair rather than concerted policy which led them to take their own lives. And neither Begg's admission that his captors “seemed obsessed with preventing suicide” (even sending him a prison psychiatrist) nor the fact that the three detainees had to be force-fed to prevent a previous suicide attempt alter his conclusion that their captors were callous and dehumanized jailers. Doubtless the force-feeding is just one more example of torture: truly caring jailers would doubtless have allowed the inmates to starve themselves to death.

Sadly, Ignatius is hardly alone in his rush to judge the military who, though they are constantly portrayed as sinister and even cruel, are after all human too; real people with families and emotions. People struggling with intractable problems Mr. Ignatius has never had to face.

Saturday's AZ Central featured the following cartoon from "Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Steve Benson.

eagle_globe.jpg A reader responds:

The "artist" has made the leap (as have most of the media) that these allegations are true and the Marines are guilty of some war crimes. I ask: Will this "artist" have the integrity to recant his position if these allegations prove to be untrue?

While satirical editorial cartoons are protected by the First Amendment, a fact I truly appreciate, I believe that this picture slanders the reputations of the millions of men who have, are currently and will in the future wear the uniform of the United States Marine Corps.

The public must not lose sight of the fact that it is extremely easy to malign the fine men and women in the military while the "artist" sits safely in his home.

But drive-by criticism of the military is fast becoming America's national pastime. The Marines are taking hits from all directions lately: they are brutal; too quick to marginalize Arabs and treat them as Other. Or, conversely, they are too sensitive:

Last week, military brass -- along with representatives from the terror-tied Council on American-Islamic Relations -- dedicated the first Muslim prayer center for the Marines as a symbol of the military's "religious tolerance" and "respect" for the faith the enemy uses to attack us. Already, plans are in the works to build by 2009 a bigger mosque at the Marine base in Quantico so Muslim service members can have a "proper place" to worship, and one that "honors their religious heritage," officials say, not realizing that the mosque can also be used by the enemy to build a Fifth Column inside the Marines.

The idea for the center came from Navy Lt. Abuhena Mohammed Saifulislam, a young, smooth-talking Muslim chaplain, who wanted a permanent place of worship -- and "education" -- for the growing number of soldiers who are interested in -- and converting to -- Islam.

Quantico has only 24 Muslims on base, so the mosque -- the first of its kind in the 230-year history of the Corps -- will also serve to introduce and draw other Marines to the faith. Large posters explaining how "Muslims love and respect Jesus" (but only as a minor prophet and not the son of God, which they view as blasphemous to Allah) line the inside of the white building. This is one way imam Saifulislam -- known on base simply as "Saif" -- bridges the faiths to reach out to Christian soldiers. Blacks are particularly susceptible to his pitch.

Apparently, whatever Saifulislam wants, he gets -- even at the terrorist prison camp at Gitmo, where he was first assigned after 9-11. There, he recommended that al-Qaida detainees be served halal meals -- including traditional dates and lamb -- prepared according to Islamic dietary law. The Gitmo menu now boasts 113 Muslim-appropriate meals for the benefit of finicky terrorist tummies.

That's not all. Thanks to Saifulislam's advice, our enemy now wakes to the sound of Muslim chaplains calling them to prayer instead of barking dogs or guards, who are now trained in Muslim sensitivity. Also thanks to Saifulislam, detainees can brush up on jihad by reading paperback Pentagon-issued copies of the Quran. They can even finger prayer beads and wear makeshift turbans and skull caps.

While at Gitmo, the Navy imam privately counseled al-Qaida prisoners in their native tongues of Urdu and Arabic. "I must give hope for them to cope," Saifulislam said. How thoughtful of him.

So, which is it? Are the military cold-blooded killers ready to fly into a murderous rage at the slightest provocation? This mind-numbingly idiotic slander is endlessly repeated by the mainstream media, notwithstanding the obvious logical difficulties posed by the simultaneous depiction of our troops as cold and calculating yet dangerously unstable: incapable of restraining their emotions. John Murtha's moral authority is unimpeachable. After all, Murtha is a former Marine who supports the troops by undermining their mission. And besides, and as we all know, the word of a Marine can be trusted... unless of course he's been accused by young journalism students and sources who are not quite what the media claims them to be.

Strangely, the investigative zeal and professional skepticism that lead both both pundits and journalists to endlessly scrutinize every Pentagon press release for contradictions are nowhere to be found when contradictions arise in their own statements. It's a shame. A little humility might, in David Ignatius' own words, allow them to view the military through a more realistic lens; one that "see(s) their enemies as human beings" instead of "consigning them to a different category"; one apparently without morals or human feeling. Who knows? They might even, one day, be willing to generously grant the military the same suspension of judgment they routinely extend to Islamic fundamentalists who deliberately target innocent men, women, and children.

What am I saying? That wouldn't be objective journalism, would it?

Posted by Cassandra at June 14, 2006 07:18 AM


Cassie, mi corazon, of course he won't retract on his cartoon.

It's a cover-up you see.

Remember - we're still hunting for the gunman on the Grassy Knoll.

No retractions required.

Posted by: John of Argghhh! at June 14, 2006 11:03 AM

I sent the following email to my local litter-box-liner of a, "newpaper:"

"I’m writing about the political cartoon penned by Steve Benson, depicting, “United States Massacre Coverup.” I have never seen such a dishonest, mischaracterization in my life. Even if the allegations thrown out against these PARTICULAR marines are true, it’s extremely disrespectful and inappropriate of Mr. Benson to paint this picture of the entire Marine Corps. How dare he."

I felt better, afterwards, though I'm still seething.

Posted by: JannyMae at June 14, 2006 04:46 PM

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