Everybody's Got One
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Tuesday, March 25, 2003


David Warren notes that Western correspondents are now functioning as human shields in Baghdad, ensuring the survival of their environs and the government offices that serve them. In future conflicts, he hopes, our military planners will refuse this trap, and treat reporters who place themselves in harm's way as responsible for their own fates.

The most effective of these shields is the Western news reporters, well over 100 of whom are exploited by what remains of Saddam's regime, often with their complicity in buying safety for themselves. These targets include even the Defence Ministry (which is used as a press briefing centre), Iraq TV (still broadcasting Saddam's propaganda stunts and messages, picked up by Al-Jazeera and distributed through the Arab and Muslim world to whip up anti-American sentiment), and the Rashid Hotel (under which the Iraqis have built their most secure bunker. There may be another under the more humble Palestine Hotel in which the lower-paid hacks are sleeping).
It is thus the last time we will be seeing journalists with protected status behind enemy lines; for the Pentagon is learning from some of these tactical errors. ... In future wars, I expect, journalists will be told the facts of life in a less ambiguous way.
The larger question of human shields is still under debate. My own view is the one I think will prevail: that allied armies should more-or-less ignore such people, in the selection of targets. For the use of such cover is itself among the illicit weapons of the terror regimes, who will abandon the weapon only when it ceases to work. Those who agree to be used as shields, can hold themselves to account for their fates; those who had no choice are tragically unlucky. Unfortunately, the moral decline in the West has robbed many of clarity in the ethical questions raised by war.

Ah, but it's worse than mere unintended obstruction. Last night I heard an interview on Charlie Rose with Jon Lee Anderson from Baghdad, who was entirely concerned with threats from the anticipated brutal house-to-house fighting once the Americans begin to enter the city, or with the righteous anger of the Iraqi street tearing him and his fellow Western reporters apart in response to American aggression – almost as if he hopes to become another Fisk in Afghanistan. It completely failed to cross his mind that the Republican Guard or the remnants of Saddam's regime might also be a source of danger to him. The thought of chemical or biologiocal weapons were "like science fiction" to him – too scary and outrageous to be thought about. So he didn't, even on repeated questioning.

Ideology and a reflexive disdain for the West can't completely account for this. Moral decline, though apparent, is too broad a brush. There's a certain variant of Stockholm syndrome going on here, as well, where reporters knowingly or unknowingly become advocates for those they (re)present to the world. At some point, journalism needs to have the mask of objectivity – which fools no one except themselves and the choir they preach to – taken away.

Now's as good a time to start as any.

posted by Kelly | 1:44 PM link