[After a long hiatus, I have resumed my “change” series. This is the first part of a two-parter, the second half of which should be appearing tomorrow. You can find earlier posts by clicking on the “A mind is a difficult thing to change: my journey” category on the right sidebar. The post immediately preceding this one is here.]
In the most recent segment of this series, I wrote:
…the process [of change] was like doing a jigsaw puzzle. At first I only had a few pieces in my hands, and no real way to tell what the picture was going to look like. But bit by bit I started assembling it, and began to discern the outline of a new form as it was slowly being revealed. In the end, events that were happening in the present merged with a reassessment of the past, enabling the picture to emerge ever more clearly, piece by piece.
After the Afghan war was over, I felt a sense of relief that it had gone as well as it had, and a bit of puzzlement as to why the original predictions had been so different from events as they had actually transpired. I wanted things to calm down now, but my sense was that they wouldn’t be doing that for a long time, although I didn’t yet know where the next eruption would occur.
If you had asked me what my politics were at that time—spring of 2002—I wouldn’t have perceived that any change whatsoever had occurred.
I was still a liberal Democrat, just as I’d always been. Yes, I’d supported the Afghan War, and it had been led by Bush and a Republican administration. But hadn’t most Democrats supported it as well? Yes, there’d been some antiwar demonstrations. I was not part of them, but neither were most Democrats. The participants were a fringe group of mostly young college students, plus some old hippies who were either trying to recreate or to relive the heady days of the Vietnam protests. But these new protests had nothing like the breadth and depth of the antiwar sentiment of those days, of which I’d been part. I saw no connection.
I was peripherally aware that there had been increased violence between Israel and Palestine in recent years, but I also knew that area had been a mess for decades. Signs of hope had always been followed by a return to bloody exchanges that seemed to go nowhere. It had tired me out and I’d stopped following the details of the never-ending story all that closely. In a general sense I supported the “cycle of violence” theory of what was going on there, as presented in the mainstream media: first this act and then retaliation for it, and then revenge for retaliation, and on and on in an endless spiral.
But ever since 9/11 it had seemed even more vital to me to follow international stories of all sorts more closely, and it was much easier to do so with all the sources proliferating online. And so in April of 2002, when I turned on my computer and saw the sickening news that Israelis had massacred civilians in the Palestinian “camp” of Jenin, I read the details and was extremely disheartened.
The facts were horrifying: rotting Palestinian corpses, indiscriminate firing on civilians by the Israelis, widespread destruction of homes. I understood that the Israelis had been sorely pressed, and that house-to-house fighting against an enemy whose combatants hide among a civilian population makes it extremely difficult to avoid this sort of thing, but Jenin seemed to be, quite literally, a case of Israeli overkill.
The story built for days in the press. I read avidly, including many British articles. At no point during this period did it occur to me that what I was reading was not true. There was widespread agreement on the facts, horrendous though they were. I assumed the journalists writing about them had reliable sources and independent corroboration.
But gradually—very gradually—other evidence surfaced that seemed to contravene the original story.
Now, instead of hundreds of Palestinian civilians killed, many of them presumably women and children, the report was of victims who numbered somewhere in the forties and fifties. The Israelis said many of them had been killed by booby traps their own side had set. Unlike the earlier casualty reports, now there were few women and children involved, and most of the men killed were of fighting age. And finally even Amnesty International, and later the UN, said there had been no massacre in Jenin; almost all of the dead had been enemy combatants.
Since the UN was saying it, I knew it must be so. Not because I trusted the UN’s judgment so implicitly, but because the UN was not in the habit of giving Israel a pass on anything. But here it was:
…the U.N. report said 52 Palestinian deaths had been confirmed by April 18—the same death toll reported by Israel. It called the Palestinian allegation that some 500 were killed “a figure that has not been substantiated in the light of evidence that has emerged.”
Israel was not only vindicated in its actions but in its report as well. It turned out that the original figure given by the Israelis had been the correct one. I waited for retractions to occur in the newspapers that had been most vocal and graphic, and most critical of Israeli behavior. But coverage of this new information was curiously muted.
I could never remember reading a story this big, and that had been followed this closely by this many news outlets, that had turned out to be so incorrect. This was probably more of a reflection of my heretofore narrow-sourced reading of the news, and the difference between pre-internet and post-internet ability to compare stories, than the fact that this was actually a new press phenomenon. But it had never come to my awareness before in such a dramatic way.
The journalists’ informants had lied. Not only lied, but they had set up those reporters to be the deliverers of the lie, and the reporters had cooperated, either knowledgeably or negligently. That made us, the readers, the duped recipients of that lie. And, for a while, the lie had been doing very well—until it had been revealed as a falsehood.
Or maybe it still was doing rather well.
When I talked to friends about it, many of them seemed to remember the first part of the story but not be aware of the second part, the correction. Many were very surprised when I indicated to them that there had been no massacre in Jenin after all. Many doubted what I was saying (and, if you go to the comments section of the Amazon listing for the award-winning Palestinian film that gave this post its name, “Jenin, Jenin,” you’ll see that many people continue to believe the tale of the Jenin massacre.)
I began to wonder whether this sort of thing had happened before, and if so, when. I’ve never been a fan of conspiracy theories, but I was beginning to doubt that the media was quite as careful to print only substantiated, well-sourced facts as I had previously thought it was.
You may wonder at my naiveté. From the perspective of time, I wonder at it myself. But it’s not as though I had previously trusted newspapers completely or thought they never lied. But I had assumed that the ones with the best reputations—the NY Times, for example, regarded as a sort of sacred text in my school and my home while I was growing up—had used due diligence in trying to ascertain the truth to the best of its ability. In addition, I had assumed that if errors had been made, well-respected media sources would be—if not eager—then at least willing to give an extremely prominent place to a correction of a story of such major importance. I also assumed that next time they would be on their guard and not be so easily fooled.
Shortly after the UN report on Jenin was issued I began to hear rumblings about Saddam Hussein and Iraq, and the possibility of military action against him for violations of UN agreements and nuclear inspections. Although this was not really a surprise—rumors had been floating for some time—I was dreading a war there. Afghanistan was one thing; its connection with 9/11 was crystal clear. Iraq was a different story.
The buildup to the Iraq War was a long period of chess-playing with Saddam, the board being the UN and the media. It seemed to go on for way too long; if we were in fact going to invade, the length of this game could only go to Saddam’s advantage.
This is not the place for another discussion of the pros and cons of the decision to go to war in Iraq. I’ve done that numerous times before, and so I’ll only mention once again that the war seemed to me to have been multidetermined, and I agreed that Saddam should not be allowed to defy the terms of the Gulf War armistice and the WMD inspections.
This time the antiwar protests drew more people, and I understood why. Iraq was a larger and prospectively riskier undertaking than Afghanistan, and the reasons behind it seemed more discretionary and certainly less clearly connected to 9/11. Although I was convinced—once the UN failed to act, over many months—that the invasion was necessary and right (even if WMDs were never to be found), I could see why many others disagreed.
Once again, there was the relentless drumbeat of prognosticators saying that the war would last for years and cause millions of deaths. Even though I’d heard a similar prediction prior to the Afghan War and it had not come to pass, this time it was even more plausible. Iraq had a better army than Afghanistan’s, for example. And even if the war itself didn’t last very long, this could easily be due to the fact that Saddam and his supporters would probably have chosen the route of appearing to give up and surrender, going underground. This would mean fighting a long and unconventional war, very difficult to counter. Like Vietnam.
Vietnam. Its ghost was not just hovering in my mind; it seemed to be in the minds of most of the pundits, protesters, and politicians. I remembered Vietnam only too well. A searing personal experience for me because of a boyfriend who had served there as a helicopter gunner from 1968 to 1969 and had been wounded, it was also an event that had torn apart and scarred my generation.
I thought I knew a lot about Vietnam. After all, I’d lived through the turmoil it had caused in this country from my late adolescence to early adulthood. I had read the newspapers, I had watched the TV. I remembered.
One of the things I remembered were two famous photographs that had become icons of the suffering of the Vietnamese people during that war. One had been taken at the moment of a brutal field execution of a prisoner, performed by a South Vietnamese general without benefit of trial or judge:
Another was of a young South Vietnamese girl running naked down a road, her flesh burned by napalm, her mouth an agonized scream:
I wrote briefly about both of these photos in an earlier section of my “A mind is a difficult thing to change” series, including the following description:
Amazingly, the [first] picture appears to have been taken at very the split-second the bullet is exiting [the victim’s] head. The prisoner is young-looking and slight, even boyish, dressed in a checked shirt. He is facing the viewer and we see his face clearly and frontally, wincing, although the shooter is seen only in profile. The Vietcong’s hands are tied behind his back, and he seems terribly vulnerable. The entire photo conveys the idea of an innocent victim put to death by a ruthless and almost faceless executioner, as well as the brutality of war in general. There is no question that this photo, presented without much context, shocked people and engendered the belief that the South Vietnamese we were defending and dying for were no better than the Vietcong in their brutality. Probably even worse.
The [second] photo came a few years later, towards the end of the war, in June of 1972. It is the photo of a little girl running down the road, shrieking, her clothes blown off with the force of the blast (or burned off? torn off? who knew?) her burns visible on her naked flesh. She is surrounded by other children, some of whom are shrieking, mouths open as in the Munch painting , conveying wordless horror. The children are without their parents; the only adults in the photo are four blurry and helmeted soldiers in the background. The sky is dark with smoke. It’s a terrible evocation of the anguish that war inflicts on its most innocent of victims, children. A photo you couldn’t help looking at, and then you couldn’t help looking away from, and then you couldn’t help but remember it. By the time the photo was published, it was near the end of a war which had lost most of its support, but support eroded even further as a result of its wide dissemination.
The photos tugged at people at a deep emotional level, screaming, “War is bad. Stop it. Stop the madness.” Furthermore, they induced a deep feeling of guilt, making the onlooker somehow conspiratorial with the executioner and with those who had dropped the bombs––doubly conspiratorial, both as voyeur to unspeakable violence, and as a citizen of the country, the US, seemingly responsible for both acts.