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Massacre Story Sparks Both Outrage and Reflection

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Amid the worldwide horror and revulsion over nine Afghan children and seven adults evidently murdered by a US soldier, it was remarkable how, in the wake of the shootings, the Afghan media were so restrained in their coverage.

'Restrained' is a relative term, of course. Outrage ran high, inevitably and appropriately, but it didn't reach by any stretch the fury and mayhem -- on national TV and radio and in slews of newspapers -- that greeted the U.S. Army's inadvertent burning of Korans in February ... all of it incendiary fuel for the deadly protests that followed.

After the Kandahar massacre, both the state-run and the increasing number of privately-owned media outlets took pains to carry Allied commanders' promises of a thorough investigation and prosecution of the perpetrator. TV services like Channel One, Tolo TV and Shamsad TV that are increasingly reaching the country's non-reading rural population, as well as the emerging urban middle-class, all emphasized U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's assurance, during an airplane briefing to reporters, that the killer could face the death penalty.

This contrasted with last month's coverage of the Koran-burning -- and indeed the earlier outrage over American marines urinating on dead Taliban bodies, and the so-called "Kill Team" soldiers, who perhaps significantly came from the same Washington State base as the current accused shooter, murdered Afghans for sport. In these instances, official American expressions of regret were largely brushed aside in the understandable hue and cry.

Some western observers have been tempted to ascribe a cultural significance to the (comparative) calm this time around. An ex-British Army man, Mark Urban, who's now a defense and diplomatic editor at the BBC, expressed the belief that when it comes to deaths, Afghans (especially if they are not of the community immediately affected) "just did not seem to care."

Urban spoke of a distinction that he sees as important, labeling it as "violence, real or symbolic," by which he meant that Afghans take more seriously the latter kind of violence. He claimed: "in that fractured, querulous society, religion and certain aspects of traditional culture ... remain the great touchstones for generating fellow feeling or indeed outrage." (As if, incidentally, outrage in Western society doesn't similarly get sparked by "symbolic" attacks -- remember the perceived threat to the "hallowed ground" of New York's World Trade Center from a proposed Islamic Cultural Center nearby?)

Such sweeping judgments as Urban's, repeated as they've been across American and British outlets this week, sound to me like a repeat or variant of the old rich-world fallacy. Crudely characterized, it says: "These third-world societies don't value individual life as we do."

As a reporter who's covered massacres of civilians by military men from Northern Ireland to Southern Africa to South Asia (Pakistan, in fact) -- and in consequence followed the lasting agonies suffered by the populations left alive -- I want to insist yet again that this is simply not true.

(Anzala Khilji's compelling photograph for the New York Times gives clear visual testimony to that, showing 60-year-old farmer Abdul Samad phoning President Hamid Karzai about his eleven relatives, all killed by the rampaging American.)

What is probably true is that some careful political calculation is going on. Afghan societies may indeed have some different values from ours, but the country has a commentariat these days, not unlike the U.S., and among its politicians there's a degree of representativeness that obliges thoughtfulness as well as emotional rhetoric.

There's no doubt that opinion leaders like editorialists in the Faryad-e Qalam newspaper of Mazar-e-Sharif in the north to even the commentary-writers of Rana Radio in Kandahar itself want to see control of their own country in Afghan hands again, and sooner rather than later -- but there's also great concern that the American and NATO withdrawal should be a well-ordered one.

What an enormous, heart-stopping story like the Kandahar massacre can possibly result in is a reflective determination on the part of both occupiers and occupied to examine just what, exactly, they want after ten years of warfare.

It's certainly becoming even clearer for Afghans. And one lesson is being clarified for Americans too -- a sharply focused specific conclusion within the broad picture of a world power having disastrously overreached itself.

The Al Jazeera news network, which has certainly developed a body of knowledge through ten years of America's 21st century wars, carried on its website an especially telling analysis from Princeton University international law professor Richard Falk.

"When War Turns Pathological ..." ran the headline on Falk's piece, "Get Out."

Citing conflicts through history, Falk explored how American public support for a war inevitably drains whenever our government has (as in Afghanistan) "placed young Americans in intolerable situations of risk and enmity ... [with] ... "historically high suicide rates in the lower ranks."

Falk's main claim was that events like the Kandahar massacre are not so-called "aberrations" at all, but rather "pathological reactions of men and women caught up in a death trap not of their making." He pointedly recalled how the early 1970s phenomenon of "fragging" came about and "the White House finally speeded up the American exit when it became evident that soldiers were murdering their own officers."

It may well not come to that with our forces in Afghanistan. But Falk raises a challenging question -- just when does a war, in that arresting phrase, "turn pathological"?

For many of us, both soldiers and journalists, it can happen pretty early ... a long time before ten years have elapsed.

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Read more of David Tereshchuk's media industry insights at his weekly column, The Media Beat, with accompanying video and audio. Listen also to The Media Beat podcasts on demand from Connecticut's NPR station WHDD, and at iTunes.