I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Pro-war censorship efforts

We’ve been hearing a lot lately from pro-war advocates that those who are opposed to the war are not merely misguided, but are actually engaging in some sort of immoral, traitorous act merely by expressing their objections to the war. Apparently, some people take this attempt to suppress anti-war opinion still one grotesque step further, by viciously condemning any factual reporting of what is taking place in Iraq where those facts conflict with the misleading image which pro-war advocates want to maintain.

In a truly amazing post, one extremely upset pro-war blogger rages against a photographic exhibit organized by students in a Ph.D. photography seminar class at the City University of New York (“CUNY”), an absurd controversy first manufactured by the New York Sun (subs. req'd). The exhibit which has prompted these outbursts displays actual, genuine photographs of dead Iraqi civilians who have been killed by U.S. troops as part of our invasion and occupation of Iraq, and the blogger, AtlasShrugs, believes that it is a “sickness” for anyone to mention or show that there are Iraqi civilians being killed by U.S. soldiers (an indisputable fact which I assume she acknowledges, but nonetheless still thinks should be suppressed).

It is worth examining this post and the basis for her anger because this type of thinking -- whereby it is suggested that we have a patriotic responsibility to actually ignore or at least keep quiet about any facts which reflect poorly on our war effort -- is becoming much more widespread. [Incidentally, I hope it is not poor sportsmanship that I found the post with which I am about to gently (or not-so-gently) disagree when visiting the blogs of my fellow finalists in the Best New Blog category, one of whom is Atlas, the author of this monstrosity).

Atlas wastes no time jumping right into the rage:

This is a sickness, a sickness of the mind. Back in the day I used to squint at the gore the daily newspaper might be offering up. These days I squint sideways as one might at a disgusting wound,when perusing the latest act the left is perpetrating against humanity in the guise of doublespeak.

So the subject of Atlas' post are the photographs showing dead Iraqi women and children. And she is raging against a “sickness of the mind” that is the by-product of "disgusting" acts which are being “perpetrat[ed] against humanity.”

But she’s not talking about the acts which resulted in the deaths of these Iraqi civilians. That doesn’t bother her in the slightest. What she’s furious about is that someone is mentioning these deaths and showing, with photographs, that they are real. That’s the “sickness” that is “disgusting.”

Atlas continues:

Today it is was academia (again), no I know what you're thinking Columbia.....uh uh. CUNY. Taxpayer funded CUNY . . . Why do I have to fund this sedition?

There is only one reason to point out that CUNY is “taxpayer funded” -- apparently, because Atlas believes that graduate programs which are funded by the government should only contain curriculum with pro-Government and pro-war viewpoints. Presumably, that's because manufacturing pro-government photogrpahic exhibits is what colleges -- and especially post-graduate institutions -- are for. . . . at least in North Korea.

Some more outrage:

"The project is about our complicity," said the class's professor, Geoffrey Batchen, a professor in art history at the Graduate Center, CUNY's doctoral granting institution. This is what is teaching your children, ladies and gentlemen.

“This is what is teaching your children”??? I think she’s reading from the wrong outrage script here – the one which people like Atlas read from when it gets revealed that the word “gay” got mentioned in a 6th grade class. That's when we hear: “This is what is teaching your children, ladies and gentleman.”

But we’re talking here about a Professor who is teaching students in a Ph.D program. The students are likely in their mid-twenties or older. I don’t think the cliched, worried rhetoric about “the children” is really appropriate here. And I think they’ll be OK if they get exposed to viewpoints other than their own. In fact, it wouldn’t be much of a Ph.D program if all they were allowed to read were the Collected Works of Richard Perle, and the only photographic exhibits they could create were ones showing Marines handing out lollipops to smiling Iraqi girls.

[NY SUN]: None of the vignettes contain information about the context of th especific American military actions and none mentions the existence of Iraqi and foreign insurgents. The students in Mr. Batchen's class wrote the biographical snippets using information they culled from anti-war Web sites,,, and the Web site of the Guardian newspaper.

[ATLAS:] In other words, no fact based sites - pure propaganda, Goebbels inspired sites. Imagine this photography exhibit is playing against the backdrop of gut wrenching witness testimony of the most heinous atrocities of Saddam Hussein's regime at his ongoing trial.Truth is indeed far stranger than fiction.

So, permit me to clarify here. Atlas wants graduate schools only to allow viewpoints that are supportive of the Government and of the war. She is outraged that photographic exhibits are permitted which diverge from the Government’s view.

And this is the same Atlas who is railing against “pure propaganda, Goebbels-inspired.”

I’d love for Atlas to answer this question: Does she think that German colleges in 1941 allowed their students to express all viewpoints, including ones which dissented from the German Government’s views and which opposed the Government's war effort (like CUNY does), or does she think that German colleges prohibited such dissent and punished anyone who expressed views which were critical of the German Government's role in the war?

Once she's done answering that, she may want to re-consider to whom the accusation of “pure propaganda, Goebbels-inspired” actually applies – to CUNY, or to those like Atlas who believe that only pro-Government and pro-war views ought to be permitted in academic institutions.

Putting Atlas (reluctantly) to the side for a moment, I’ve pointed out several times before that graphic photographs can convey the truth about an event in a way that mere words cannot, and for that reason, I believe that the media does a disservice when it refrains from publishing revealing photographs of important news events on the ground that such photographs are too gruesome or extreme to be able to print in good taste.

This principle applies to almost every issue. Seeing photographs of corpses left behind by terrorists can be extremely valuable in forcing people to confront, rather than avoid, the true threat posed by terrorists and the true limitlessness of their inhumanity. Viewing photographs of an aborted fetus can convey the human-ness of what is being killed in a way that mere words cannot. It may be more difficult to favor capital punishment if one has to see the results of that policy in the form of photographs of the electrocuted convict, or, alternatively, it may be more difficult to oppose capital punishment for violent criminals if one sees photographs of the victims whom they slaughter.

The U.S. Government has engaged in extraordinary efforts to sanitize this war by prohibiting photographs of the coffins of U.S. military personnel who are killed in Iraq. And there are lots of people like Atlas who want to do the same – that is, ignore and suppress the facts – with regard to the Iraqi civilians who are being killed in large numbers, perhaps (although not necessarily) in numbers which would be intolerable if people were forced to face them.

The photographs in question are indisputably genuine and they depict events which are undeniably occurring in Iraq. By definition, then, these photographs inform and enlighten. The only reason why pro-war advocates such as Atlas would be opposed to the depiction of realities in Iraq is because they fear that those realities undermine the misleading picture they want to depict in order to propagandize about the war.

Rather than trying to suppress the difficult realities regarding this war, perhaps they ought to face them and then see whether the war is something for which they still want to so enthusiastically cheerlead.

All wars entail deaths, including civilian deaths. And the mere fact that civilians die in a war is not dispositive proof that the war is unjust. But surely it is a factor which ought to be weighed when deciding whether or not a particular war should continue given the benefits and costs of continuing it.


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