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.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

No Dominion

By Barbara O'Brien

Righties wag their fingers at us and claim we liberals promote a “culture of death.” The nature of this “culture of death” seems a bit hazy, and wading through overwrought rightie rhetoric on the topic doesn’t clarify it much. But the more I think about it, the more I think there’s a real culture of death alive and well on the Right. Right-wing support for “preventive” war and capital punishment are obvious examples. The rightie culture of death, however, is a complex one, and their enjoyment of death depends a great deal on context.

Yesterday the New York Times published an article by David Carr comparing Iraq War photography to photographs of past wars. More specifically, he noted that compared to Vietnam, Iraq War photography is nearly devoid of dead American bodies.

FOR war photography, Vietnam remains the bloody yardstick. During the Tet offensive, on Feb. 9, 1968, Time magazine ran a story that was accompanied by photos showing dozens of dead American soldiers stacked like cordwood. The images remind that the dead are both the most patient and affecting of all subjects.

The Iraq war is a very different war, especially as rendered at home. While pictures of Iraqi dead are ubiquitous on television and in print, there are very few images of dead American soldiers. (We are offered pictures of the grievously wounded, but those are depictions of hope and sacrifice in equal measure.) A comprehensive survey done last year by James Rainey of The Los Angeles Times found that in a six-month period in which 559 Americans and Western allies died, almost no pictures were published of the American dead in the mainstream print media.

Photographing the dead on a battlefield goes back to Matthew Brady, whose 1862 exhibition “The Dead of Antietam.” shown in his New York gallery, displayed to shocked viewers the mangled corpses of Civil War soldiers. A New York Times review of the exhibition said that Brady had brought “home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war.” A quickie search at the National Archives turned up photographs of a dead American soldier in Europe, Word War II, and the dead of the Malmedy massacre, which has been in the news lately.

Even though the U.S. military vowed to keep tighter control on war coverage after Vietnam, Carr suggests the biggest reason there are few photographs of American war dead is self-censorship. Squeamish news organizations won’t publish such photos. They don’t seem to have a problem showing Iraqi dead, though.

But what interested me even more than Carr’s article was rightie reaction to it. They were outraged that anyone would even think about showing the bodies of dead soldiers. This guy describes war photographers ghoulishly looking for “potential Pulitzer-winning ‘money shots’” of dead Americans. And another guy wrote,

But why the need to put the bodies of others on display?

Is there something to be proud of in showing those pictures? And these are the same people who won’t show a decapitation because supposedly it’s too gruesome. That leaves one to you wonder if they don’t show those gruesome images because it doesn’t fit their anti-war agenda.

Ah, yes, beheading videos. Rightie bloggers just love beheading videos. They link to them fervently and demand loudly that all good Americans watch them. For example, in 2004 a blogger at Wizbang was incensed that leftie bloggers were not linking to the Nick Berg video. You know how it is — liberals hate America.

Last month, a particularly grisly video alleged to show the beheading of Iraqi journalist Atwar Bahjat turned up. The “money shot” blogger and many others described it in graphic detail. Another said,

Our own media feels the need to shield us from such brutality, even as they report daily on the US and Iraqi death count—or seemed almost to fetishize the torture photos from Abu Ghraib.

But presuming to protect us from the nature of our enemy, like many of the MSM’s other actions in framing the war on terror, is irresponsible—and either presumptuously paternalistic, or cynically calculating.

True, there is a fine line between “war porn” and the dissemination of information. But we nevertheless have the right to know who it is we are fighting.

Rightie bloggers wallowed in white-hot righteousness over the depravity of the murders, usually attributed to “terrorists,” although it was not at all clear from the video who the murderers were. But as my blogger buddy The Heretik noted, there wasn’t a peep from the rightie blogosphere when news stories reported Atwar Bahjat’s death in February. And he poked a stick at a rightie who discussed the difference between “war porn” and “the dissemination of information” — “dissemination of information”? or gratifying a “beheading of the month” fetish?

Unfortunately for the righties, it turned out the beheading video was a hoax. It showed not the horrific murder of a beautiful and virtuous pro-western Iraqi, but just the horrific murder of some guy from Nepal. The blogswarm dissipated quickly.

On the other hand, the death of Rachel Corrie is still viewed with great hilarity by many righties. She was dubbed “St. Pancake” and honored with a pizza-thon. “A pity that St. IHOP could only be run over once,” said one.

So far we’ve seen that showing victims of Islamic terrorism is good, although just about any atrocity committed by a Muslim will do. It’s “dissemination of information.” The more horrific the atrocity, the better. Beheadings should be shown on the evening news when children might be watching. But showing photographs of Iraqis being tortured at Abu Ghraib prison is not “dissemination of information,” but “fetishism.” And it’s bad, and reveals an un-American agenda.

But if Abu Ghraib photos are bad, photographing dead American soldiers must amount to obscenity. The righties, you know, demand protection even from an accounting of the number of dead. Recently this blogger documented the gut-wrenching experience of being forced to listen to an antiwar graduation speech (emphasis added):

He spent a good five minutes talking about how President Bush lied, there were no weapons of mass destruction, we need to bring our troops home, etc. (the typical rhetoric of the left). He even gave the number of U.S. casualties to date.

This poor oppressed child was forced to hear a number! The horror! I hope the boy gets his news from Sinclair Broadcasting.

The same people who supported the Iraq invasion from its misbegotten beginnings do not want to hear the numbers. They do not want to hear the names. They do not want to see the bodies. They will open their eyes only to funerals, where a flag-draped coffin will hide the fruit of their war-mongering from their sensitive eyes. They talk about supporting the troops, and honor and sacrifice, and I understand many look forward to the 2008 release of the film “No True Glory: The Battle for Fallujah,” starring Harrison Ford.

But they don’t want to hear the hard numbers. They don’t want to see actual bodies, even in photographs. Though they might blog about honoring fallen heroes, warmongers don't want to know who they were.

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