The U.S.-Al Qaeda conflict appears to be showing some signs of slowing down, at least temporarily, as Barack Obama and Osama bin Laden agreed on terms for a cease-fire, putting a momentary halt to years of struggle between the two enemies that have left tens of thousands of innocent Afghani civilians dead and untold others wounded. Obama agreed to sign the agreement at the urging of the European Union and the United Nations, which have been increasingly vocal about the mounting tensions between the two sides and the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.
The United States rained bombs on Afghanistan beginning in the fall of 2001, leaving thousands of Afghanis dead and wounded and an untold number of homeless refugees, according to U.N. sources. The vast majority of the dead and wounded are civilians, including women and children. Citing Taliban support of Al Qaeda, the U.S. sent in ground troops in 2001 and has occupied the war-torn nation for over 7 years. Diplomats have been urging leaders from both sides to negotiate a cease-fire for years, but the United States has refused even to meet with bin Laden or to halt the hostilities, citing the likelihood of a second attack on the U.S. No attack, however, has come during that time.
The U.S. attack on Afghanistan and multi-year occupation came in response to an attack on the U.S. by 19 Al Qaeda fighters in 2001. Critics have charged that the countless number of Afghan civilians dead, wounded, or left without homes represents "a disproportionate attack of unprecedented magnitude," a U.N. spokesman stated. Hawks in the U.S. were stunned at the announcement of the ceasefire, arguing that no peace can be made with a group whose avowed goal is to destroy the United States.
Sound familiar? Perhaps from the pages of The Onion?
The story, of course, is fictitious. But the syntax and style should be highly familiar to anyone who has followed recent events in the Middle East, in which Israel launched a large-scale offensive against Hamas, following 1000-plus unprovoked Hamas rocket attacks increasingly deep into Israeli territory since Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005--rockets largely launched from crowded civilian neighborhoods or schools so that any Israeli response would lead to large-scale Palestinian civilian deaths, particularly of children.
The syntax and style of the "news report" above are jarring from the first sentence of the first paragraph, which uses the phrase, "the U.S.-Al Qaeda conflict," a term no American journalist would even think to use to describe the American response to the attack on its territory on September 11, 2001 that led to an unabated war against Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. Terms like "children slaughtered" or "humanitarian crisis" are never used in the same sentence with "American offensive" or "American military operations," and the term "American aggression" is never used to describe what most consider the prototype of a just war in Afghanistan (although one that has been badly mismanaged and back-burnered because of the Bush administration's decision to go to war instead with Iraq).
The structure of the second paragraph is equally jarring but should be familiar to readers of media reports about Israel for three decades in media outlets ranging from the New York Times to NPR to the BBC. Reports on Israel's attack on Hamas in Gaza during the last three weeks have routinely reported the number of dead in Gaza since the Israeli offensive began (now over 1100) without clearly stating the percent who were combatants, let alone the number killed from targeted attacks on rockets fired from schools, densely populated areas, etc. -the same strategy Hezbollah used in Lebanon two years ago to galvanize world opinion against Israel after its unprovoked attack on Israel.
Compare this to coverage of U.S. government press releases proudly touting the killing of any high-ranking Al Qaeda official or successful attack that leaves several Al Qaeda militants dead. No one would ever count these individuals among "the dead and wounded" in Afghanistan or anywhere else without clearly differentiating Al Qaeda militants from civilians. Most Americans accept our nation's right to destroy those whose avowed aim is the destruction of the United States. Nor do our media dwell on civilian casualties and describe in gruesome detail the images of children caught in the crossfire in Afghanistan. Indeed, U.S. media never showed images of children killed, maimed, or orphaned by our incursion into Iraq, when doing so would have been appropriate journalism aimed at making Americans aware of the costs of the war to Iraqi civilians.
In contrast, U.S. journalists from all the major networks and cable stations frequently show images of crying children holding onto their dead mothers in Gaza, and NPR and the BBC constantly expose their viewers and listeners to sounds of crying children and wailing women in the background of reports in Gaza. The background sound and images are clearly designed to arouse sympathy for the people who chose Hamas as their democratically elected representatives, a group that endorses techniques such as suicide bombings against civilians and has remained steadfast in its determination to "exterminate the Jews" and eliminate Israel. Aside from the fact that most nations declare war on nations or groups that explicitly call for their destruction, readers might imagine that "exterminate the Jews" is a phrase that would carry some unpleasant emotional resonance for many in Israel.
The third paragraph of the "story" illustrates a very familiar but disturbing tendency in U.S. and Western news reporting on Israeli responses to attacks from terrorists harbored (or in the case of the Palestinians and the Lebanese, democratically elected) in neighboring lands, to break with the normal narrative structure of a story. A story is generally told in chronological order, describing what happened first, then the response to what happened, followed by the outcome. Instead, when Israel responds to an attack, however large or small, reporters routinely begin with the death and destruction caused by the Israeli counterattack (which is usually the headline), followed, if at all, by a brief mention at the end, almost like a disclaimer, that the Israeli attack came in response to an attack that killed or wounded some number of people on a bus, at a disco, etc.
I realize this piece will fall on many deaf ears, having observed the brains of partisans as they read information threatening to beliefs woven together by the rock-hard mortar of emotion. Facts don't matter much to those of us with strong feelings, even when we think they do, and this is a topic that evokes strong feelings on both sides. Nor do I claim to be immune to such effects, having found myself on both sides of this issue at different points in time. But for those who have not yet decided whether the better analogy for Hamas vs. Israel is David vs. Goliath or Al Qaeda vs. the U.S. , I should be clear that I do not intend by any statement here to absolve Israel of blame where blame is due. Just as the Palestinians have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity, the Israelis have made some very foolish decisions based on their own internal politics and the demands of their own religious extremists, such as creating settlements that could only be justified by those who heard voices from God singing "this land is our land" in Hebrew. And the timing of this war is closer to the Israeli elections than many of us find comfortable.
Perhaps the heart of the issue that leads partisans on each side to offer competing assertions about whose attacks are provoked or unprovoked is the difficulty determining precisely who ultimately owns the disputed territories claimed by both Israel and the Arabs who renamed themselves Palestinians a few decades ago (although I see no movement in the U.S. to give our land back to those we know for certain owned and occupied it before the arrival of white settlers from Europe less than 400 years ago, a far less ambiguous case). Unfortunately, the disputed land deeds are millennia old. In retrospect, perhaps it might have been much easier and more just after World War II if the U.S. and Britain had simply moved the Germans to what is now called Israel and given the land we call Germany to the remaining Jews the Nazis hadn't yet gotten around to slaughtering. If so, today we would no doubt be referring to the German-Palestinian conflict, as the people forced off their land in 1948 to make way for the creation of the state of Israel would have had to make way instead for the creation of a Middle Eastern Deutschland, and we could all feel virtuous protesting the "disproportionate response" of the Germans to Arab and Islamic terrorists launching rockets into their territory and blame the ferocity of the response on the "German character" that led to Dachau and Auschwitz.
As a parent, there is nothing more horrifying than sounds or images of dead, burnt, or orphaned children. Perhaps the next time commentators find themselves compelled to write about the "disproportionate force" used by the Israelis in response to missile attacks launched by Hamas or Hezbollah into Israeli cities and towns with increasingly sophisticated weaponry, they should ask themselves the simple question Barack Obama essentially asked months ago when questioned about his stance on the Israel-Palestinian conflict: If someone were sending bombs into your homes that could kill your children, what would you do? Unfortunately, that's now, once again, a question that can be asked on both sides of the Gaza border. It's why we need an engaged American negotiating presence in the region again after years of astonishing indifference and inaction--and why everyone, regardless of which way their brain tilts on this issue, should be excited at the prospect of President Obama and his Secretary of State (perhaps with an assist from a second Clinton with some experience in the region) making better use of Camp David again.
Drew Westen, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at Emory University, founder of Westen Strategies, and author of "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation."