A Brit’s Hard Look at Sgt. Robert Bales

Rarely do foreign journalists’ brutal criticism of American actions or policies get space or time in our mainstream news media. That’s too bad. What passes for comment and debate here is a pretty constipated exercise.

Rarely do foreign journalists’ brutal criticism of American actions or policies get space or time in our mainstream news media. That’s too bad. What passes for comment and debate here is a pretty constipated exercise.  

That’s why I subscribe to small, partisan journals and value the Internet’s cornucopia of English-language foreign news and commentary. 

Beirut-based Robert Fisk, Middle East veteran correspondent for London’s left-of-center Independent newspaper, is a persistent and sometimes persuasive critic of American policy and actions abroad. His commentaries are available free at independent.co.uk but rarely are reprinted or quoted in this nation. 

Fisk refused to join the pack and infer that some sort of crackup led U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales to kill Afghan villagers. He noted that no sooner had Bales returned to his outpost “than the defence experts and the think-tank boys and girls announced that he was ‘deranged.’ Not an evil, wicked, mindless terrorist — which he would be, of course, if he had been an Afghan, especially a Taliban — but merely a guy who went crazy.

“This was the same nonsense used to describe the murderous U.S. soldiers who ran amok in the Iraqi town of Haditha. … Are we supposed to believe this stuff?

“Surely, if he was entirely deranged, our staff sergeant would have killed 16 of his fellow Americans. He would have slaughtered his mates and then set fire to their bodies … There was a choice involved. So why did he kill Afghans? We learned yesterday that the soldier had recently seen one of his mates with his legs blown off. But so what?

“The Afghan narrative has been curiously lobotomised — censored, even — by those who have been trying to explain this appalling massacre in Kandahar … But blow me down if they didn’t forget — and this applies to every single report on the latest killings — a remarkable and highly significant statement from the U.S. army’s top commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen.

“ … Allen told his men that ‘now is not the time for revenge for the deaths of two U.S. soldiers killed in Thursday’s riots.’ They should, he said, ‘resist whatever urge they might have to strike back’ after an Afghan soldier killed the two Americans. ‘There will be moments like this when you’re searching for the meaning of this loss. There will be moments like this, when your emotions are governed by anger and a desire to strike back. Now is not the time for revenge, now is the time to look deep inside your souls, remember your mission, remember your discipline, remember who you are.’ “

Fisk continued, “Now this was an extraordinary plea to come from the U.S. commander in Afghanistan. The top general had to tell his supposedly well-disciplined, elite, professional army not to ‘take vengeance’ on the Afghans they are supposed to be helping/protecting/nurturing/training, etc. He had to tell his soldiers not to commit murder. 

“ … I suspect that Allen had already been warned by his junior officers that his soldiers had been enraged by the killings that followed the Koran burnings — and might decide to go on a revenge spree. Hence he tried desperately — in a statement that was as shocking as it was revealing — to preempt exactly the massacre which took place … Yet it was totally wiped from the memory box by the ‘experts’ when they had to tell us about these killings. No suggestion that General Allen had said these words was allowed into their stories, not a single reference — because, of course, this would have taken our staff sergeant out of the ‘deranged’ bracket and given him a possible motive for his killings. As usual, the journos had got into bed with the military to create a madman rather than a murderous soldier. Poor chap. Off (with) his head. Didn’t know what he was doing. 

“ … Of course, one can say that the French in Algeria were worse than the Americans in Afghanistan — one French artillery unit is said to have ‘disappeared’ 2,000 Algerians in six months — but that is like saying that we are better than Saddam Hussein. True, but what a baseline for morality. And that’s what it’s about. Discipline. Morality. Courage. The courage not to kill in revenge. But when you are losing a war that you are pretending to win — I am, of course, talking about Afghanistan — I guess that’s too much to hope. General Allen seems to have been wasting his time.”

This is not classic anti-war anger. Fisk’s talking about professional soldiers and war crimes. No military is exempt. Mainstream U.S. news media, unthinking or unwilling to risk audience anger, generally avoid such candor. Unless we search out other voices, we are limited to how American news media spin it.

Curmudgeon notes:

• Reporters use “alleged” to accuse people without convicting them: “the alleged killer,” or, “the alleged Ponzi scam genius.” The hope is that the alleged whatever won’t sue if acquitted. Somehow, “accused” seems too harsh. Adding “alleged” to a crime story is about as useful as adding “Sunday” to Easter.

My favorite is an Enquirer reporter who referred to “the alleged bullet wound” in a person who was shot to death.
So far, no one has suggested that Staff Sgt. Robert Bales was fantasizing when he admitted being the gunman who killed 16 or 17 Afghan civilians in their village and wounded another six. The army accepts his confession even if the “why” remains unclear. So why call him the “alleged” killer?

The same is true of George Zimmerman, who says he shot teenager Trayvon Martin  in Sanford, Fla.. There is no question in anyone’s mind that he shot the kid. The question is whether the killing was legal under Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. So why is Martin an “alleged” killer.

• A related silliness involves the common misuse of “murder” for “killing” or “homicide” by journalists who should know better. It’s not “murder” until a court convicts someone of murder. All we know is that it’s a homicide, the killing of one person by another, if it’s not an accident or suicide.
• Mallary Jean Tenore at Poynter.org dug into this fudging the facts in her online blog. She said, in part: “We used the word ‘murder’ in the headline of a story I wrote about journalists’ coverage of Martin and George Zimmerman, who shot him. Some readers pointed out, though, that it’s premature to say Martin was the victim of murder . . . We’ve since added an editor’s note to our story and based on the reporting for this post, we changed the headline to say ‘killing.’ Time Magazine also used ‘murder’ in the headline of one of its stories about Martin. After I contacted Time to find out about its decision to use that word, Daniel Kile, executive director of public relations, sent me a note saying that Time has updated the post and added this note: ‘The original version of this story used the word “murder,” which has judicial dimensions. We have substituted the word “killing” for the death of Trayvon Martin’.”

Tenore added that the AP Stylebook says a homicide only becomes a murder once someone is convicted and it says,  “Unless authorities say pre-meditation was obvious, do not say that a victim was murdered until someone has been convicted in court . . . Instead, say that a victim was ‘killed’ or ‘slain’.”

• Not to be outdone, thedailybeast.com ran a story on other “stand your ground” killings around the country. Except that in one case, the reporter described how “the murder weapon” was discarded. The shooter’s trial for murder ended in a mistrial. That means there was no murder or murder weapon.

CityBeat colleague Kevin Osborne reported that some of the Enquirer veterans are taking the early retirement offer rather than wait to be fired in continuing cost-cutting. At least two are stars: politics reporter Howard Wilkinson, who probably will resurface as a baseball writer or broadcaster, and photographer Michael Keating, whose images are so distinctive that my wife and I rarely are wrong when we open the paper and say, “That’s a Keating photo.” Others taking early retirement include editors who spent years trying to make me and other reporters look good. You rarely see their names in print. Their departure will impoverish the paper as surely as Howard and Mike’s.

• Maybe some local radio hosts should begin to use “alleged.”  More than one says former Bengals cheerleader Sarah Jones is indicted “for having sex with a student.” No, she was charged with having sex with a student. “For having” convicts her; it states the allegation as a fact. Almost as bad is faux outrage among broadcasters  for whom this case provides endless speculation and titillation.  

• Santorum’s need to attack the Grey Lady to prove his manhood is between scary and pitiful. Of course, the New York Times is a frequent punching bag for Left and Right, but the former senator was angry over a question by Times reporter Jeff Zeleny while campaigning in Wisconsin. Their exchange was all over the Internet. “Quit distorting my words,” Santorum raged. “It’s bullshit.” And should anyone still doubt his virility, Santorum then told Fox News, “If you haven’t cursed out a New York Times reporter during the course of a campaign, you’re not really a real Republican . . . “  

• Wingnuts needn’t read a book or see a movie to join an orchestrated attack its content. It’s sufficient that some trusted media or religious source tells them its satanic, diabolic, anti-family, unAmerican or whatever. That was obvious in the 100 complaints about host Peter Sagal’s pope jokes on NPR’s weekend “Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me!” After the squall died, Sagal told Jimromenesko.com, “I’m sure many of those who wrote in were our actual listeners and were genuinely offended, but we’ve noticed that we get an sharp uptick of angry emails whenever one of the media-watch blogs complains about us, as you’d expect.”

• If police are concerned that their practices are caught on ubiquitous cell phone cameras, a case from England should give them further pause. A young black man says he was physically and verbal abused after being arrested. What sets him apart is his decision to record the voices of police on his cell phone.  London’s Guardian has the recording on its web site. One officer  admits he strangled the man because he’s a “cunt.” Another tells him, "The problem with you is you will always be a nigger, yeah? That's your problem, yeah." After an initial decision that the admitted strangling and racial abuse didn’t warrant discipline, the Crown Prosecution Service decided to review the allegations . . . and recorded evidence.

• Trayvon Martin’s death didn’t become a national story until his parents and other advocates framed a story that the news media could grasp and turn into something larger.  With skilled manipulation, it took on a life of its own, nourished by ever-greater news coverage. Given how little national attention - up to and including Obama - is given to epidemic black-on-black homicides, it’s instructive to see how this killing has become a racial symbol.

* But what race is George Zimmerman, the man who shot and killed Trayvon Martin? We’re told one parent was Anglo and one was Hispanic. The problem begins with the inability of many news media to distinguish between ethnicity (Hispanic) and race. Hispanic come in various colors, from white to black, with a lot of brown, as do African-Americans. Then there is the need of the news media to cast this deadly encounter in racial terms although, from photos online and in print, it would appear that Martin and Zimmerman are both “persons of color.” The catch is that this brown-on-black doesn’t fit the storyline that so many voices and media want to see in this killing.

• NBC broadcast a false and damning version Zimmerman’s 911 call before the confrontation with Martin. NBC has apologized. NBC initially quoted Zimmerman saying, “This guy looks like he’s up to no good. He looks black.”
But that’s not what the tape shows. On it, Zimmerman says,  “This guy looks like he’s up to no good. Or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around, looking about.” And the dispatcher asks, “OK, and this guy — is he black, white or Hispanic?” That’s when Zimmerman replies, “He looks black.”

• Finally, many news media are admitting the youthful photo of Martin was years old, as was the brooding photo of his killer.  More recent photos now are being used . . . except where someone has a point to make by using the older photo(s).

• Another hoaxer has shown the credulity of many  news media. The difference is Tommaso De Benedetti‘s embrace of Twitter and his appreciation of how competition has corrupted the old adage, “Get it first get it right.” Now, “It’s get it right if you can, but first, get it first.”  London’s Guardian said De Benedetti’s latest effort began with the death of the pope – tweeted to the world from an account that belonged to the pope’s number two. Tweets announcing the deaths of Fidel Castro and (Spanish film maker) Pedro Almodóvar followed. The Guardian said those tweets “flew around the rumour mill of social media.”

De Benedetti, a Rome schoolteacher, agreed, saying, "Twitter works well for deaths." He told the Guardian that his latest hoaxes arose from his desire to expose how unreliable social media can be as a news source. "Social media is the most unverifiable information source in the world but the news media believes it because of its need for speed," he said.  Here are five tweets quoted by the Guardian:

@CardBertone: His holiness Benedict XVI has passed away. We announce the news with great pain and consternation. 8 March 2012

@PresHamidKarzai: The attack agains Afghan civ is an act of war. 12 March

@presMarioMonti: The news of the death of Fidel Castro has been confirmed to me by EU vicepresident Olli Rehn. 6 March

@MinistroMontoro: The Spanish government announces the death of the director Pedro Almodovar. 23 March

@PresAssadSyria: Documents published yesterday by a Uk newspaper are hoaxes created agaist Syria and my family. 19 March

Politico.com reports that Obama asked news media to kill stories - including those online - about daughter Malia’s school trip to Mexico. They did. Dylan Byers reports that  the French news service “AFP reported that Obama's daughter was on a school trip along with a number of friends and 25 Secret Service agents. The story was picked up by Yahoo, The Huffington Post, and the International Business Times, as well as U.K. publications like the Daily Mail and The Telegraph and other overseas publications like The Australian. But on Monday night, the story had been removed from those sites. The AFP page for the story now links to a story titled "Senegal music star Youssou Ndour hits campaign trail," as does the Yahoo page. The Huffington Post page now links directly back to The Huffington Post homepage. The Daily Mail, Telegraph, and Australian stories now lead to 404 error pages, reading "page not found." The International Business Times story also links to the IBT homepage, though a version of the original story still exists online.”

He quoted an email from Kristina Schake, communications director to the first lady, that the request was consistent with the family’s desire to shield the Obama daughters from the news media. "From the beginning of the administration,” Schake said, “the White House has asked news outlets not to report on or photograph the Obama children when they are not with their parents and there is no vital news interest."

• Malia’s school trip reminds me of when a Minneapolis Star photographer and I went to northern Minnesota to cover Lynda Bird Johnson’s canoeing vacation.  Her dad, then President, was promoting Americans vacationing in America. I can’t tell you how happy or angry then-single Lynda Bird was at swapping Europe for Boundary Waters insects.  Secret Service agents - consigned to paddling and portaging through infamous black fly country - aggressively turned us away and quashed any thought of renting a canoe and following for a story with photos.

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