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, August 28, 2006

Journalists as legitimate war targets

Condemnation was virtually universal for the Gaza kidnappings of Fox News reporter Steve Centanni and photographer Olaf Wiig, both of whom were released unharmed yesterday. Michelle Malkin spent the week digging around for absurdly obscure figures ("Former Snohomish County, Wash., Democrat party official Mike Whitney") who she claimed were justifying the Fox kidnappings, and then -- using the tactics that made Ward Churchill and Deb Frisch household names -- wildly inflated their importance before labelling them "scum of the week."

Tactics aside, Malkin's core point was fair enough. Justifying the targeting of Fox News journalists in a war zone, on the ground that they are so biased in favor of the Bush administration that they are basically propaganda agents, is outrageous. It is in everyone's interests to ensure that journalists of all stripes are free to operate in war zones and report on what is happening without fear of being targeted, and there is no legitimate moral basis for celebrating attacks on them. For that reason, anyone publicly justifying the Fox kidnappings would be viciously stigmatized and probably permanently shunned.

But here is what John Hinderaker said last night in response to the report that the Israeli Air Force had fired a missile (they claim accidentally) at an armored vehicle in Lebanon (marked "PRESS") which was carrying journalists working for Reuters -- long the second-most hated news agency, after Al-Jazeera, for Bush lovers:

Given Reuters's coverage of the conflict in Lebanon, it would perhaps be understandable if the Israelis started firing on Reuters vehicles.

So, those who defend or justify the kidnapping of Fox journalists are "scum" who are to be shunned and despised. Those who defend and justify the shooting at, and seriously injuring of, Reuters journalists are what? The next guest on Howard Kurtz's CNN show.

All of this was preceded by the still unresolved, never-quite-investigated-or-denied report that President Bush had proposed to Tony Blair that the Al Jazeera headquarters in Qatar be bombed (the British government actually threatened newspapers with criminal prosecution to prevent dissemination of that report). The report that Bush wanted to bomb the Al-Jazeera headquarters had, in turn, "fuelled concerns that an [April, 2003] attack on the broadcaster's Baghdad offices during the war on Iraq was deliberate." On the same day that the Al-Jazeera office was bombed, two foreign journalists (one from Reuters) were killed when a U.S. tank in Baghdad shelled the Palestine Hotel, where many foreign journalists were staying.

The April, 2003 Baghdad air raid on the Al-Jazeera Baghdad office destroyed that office and resulted in the death of cameraman Tarek Ayoub. At the time, this is what media star Charles Johnson said about the fatal bombing of the Al-Jazeera office:

Was Al Jazeera deliberately targeted? Of course, their answer is “yes.” But remember that before the start of this war, the Pentagon issued a clear, unequivocal warning to journalists that their safety could not be guaranteed if they chose to remain in Baghdad. Al Jazeera not only chose to stay, they have been broadcasting a steady stream of Iraqi propaganda, anti-Americanism, and death pr0n (sic), including that hideous video of American POWs. Pardon me if I don’t weep over this attack.

So they stayed in a war zone despite knowing that it was dangerous and then broadcast biased stories. Therefore, the death of one of their journalists is nothing to "weep over." That same reasoning could be applied -- and sometimes is -- to justify attacks on any journalists in a war zone.

This post provides an excellent summary and time line of the unusually frequent confrontations between the U.S. military and Al-Jazeera, along with multiple comments from high-level U.S. officials suggesting that Al-Jazeera might be a legitimate war target. As the Guardian article (linked above) reminds us: "In 2001 the station's Kabul office was hit by two 'smart' bombs in an attack that almost wrecked the nearby BBC bureau."

All of this illustrates what very well might be the greatest and most tragic harm of the last five years -- namely, the way in which this administration's conduct and that of its most rabid supporters has drastically altered and demeaned the American national character. Like every other country on the planet, the U.S. has been imperfect, but celebrating attacks on unfriendly journalists were previously the province of uncivilized Gaza thugs and Al Qaeda psychopaths. The U.S. had credibility around the world to protest such behavior. No longer.

In light of all of these prior incidents and the deranged views of prominent administration supporters (it is "understandable if the Israelis started firing on Reuters vehicles"), what authority and credibility does the U.S. now have to protest incidents like the Gaza kidnappings? Previously, the U.S. had that authority because we largely refrained from tactics of that sort. But in the name of getting tough, getting our hands dirty, taking off the kid gloves, freeing ourselves from effete restraints -- and all of the other pseudo-tough-guy cliches tragically implemented as policy by weak and hollow neoconservatives -- we no longer refrain from those practices and, in many instances, have been using them enthusiastically and aggressively.

Moral issues to the side, one reason (among many) why it is so destructive to have become a nation which uses torture, applies "coercive interrogation techniques," abducts people in order to render them to human rights abusing countries, and justifies the targeting of war journalists is because we lose our authority to condemn those practices when used by others -- including when they are used against Americans, soldiers and civilians alike. Becoming a nation of John Hinderakers and Charles Johnsons -- those who are apologists for, even outright advocates of, "tactics" such as the deliberate targeting of journalists based on the content of their reporting -- has fundamentally changed the American national character in ways that are as dangerous and counter-productive as they are morally bankrupt.

My Ecosystem Details