For me, it always comes back to the media and the moral values implicit in throwaway news stories -- the ones we barely notice as we move through our day.
"A series of missile strikes killed at least 19 suspected insurgents Saturday in Pakistan's tribal borderlands, signaling that the new year would bring no respite in a relentless campaign of U.S. attacks employing unmanned aerial drones to target militants."
What a smooth glide these words from the Associated Press, reprinted in news outlets throughout the English-speaking world, give us over the terrain of life, death and geopolitics. The story's payload isn't simply information, but dissociation: The reader, or news consumer, is not expected to feel more than a mild jolt at such words as "killed" and "target" or smell the smoke on the ground or see a face or sense the heartbeat of a dying "militant" or ponder the sanity of assassination by robot-delivered missile or question the pristine and righteous accuracy of a U.S. military operation or worry about the strategy of social disruption that it serves or wonder how any of this is keeping us safe.
No. This is news-as-spectacle, the ultimate effect of which is to reinforce the reader's powerlessness.
As we consume such news, all we're required to understand is that the game of who should live and who should die is being played in the lawless tribal territories out there beyond the gated communities and shopping malls where we live our lives. The dangerous militants and "suspected insurgents" who could (who would love to) crash our malls, kick over the displays of scented soap and blow themselves up while we're shopping are being contained and methodically taken out well before they can wreck Western civilization.
The media can spread ignorance not merely by reporting inaccurate information, but by purveying even accurate or partially accurate information in a context devoid of the least moral intelligence.
Some of us are chilled by the advent of drone warfare -- yet one more technical advance in the depersonalization of killing -- but as I think about the sort of reporting that evinces no curiosity about such warfare, that simply and bloodlessly disseminates its results, I realize that "drone reporting" has been going on for a long time.
This is reporting more or less free of human perspective, which abstracts life and death and subordinates it to the strategic agenda of one side; and, in my view, allows our wars to continue. If routine war reporting were enveloped in a serious moral context -- beginning, at the very least, with curiosity about the identity of the "suspected insurgents" who keep getting killed -- the reality of America-as-superpower and the brutal way we advance our interests would generate so much outrage we would have to change our behavior. This is what eventually happened during the Vietnam War, thanks to the universal draft (not the reporting), which brought the hell home in an immediate way.
As the new year begins, I feel no urgency greater than that of addressing our moral numbness, so I take a moment to add context to the drone reporting quoted above. Why are we still bleeding billions of dollars in the war on terror? Why is the world's only superpower unable to dominate and control one of the poorest, most devastated regions on the planet? What exactly are we accomplishing?
"To one degree or another, we have been on the Soviet path for years and yet, ever more desperately, we continue to plan more surges," Tom Engelhardt wrote recently at TomDispatch. "Our military, like the Soviet one, has not lost a battle and has occupied whatever ground it chose to take. Yet, in the process, it has won less than nothing at all."
And former State Department official Matthew Hoh, who resigned his high-level post in Afghanistan in 2009 in protest of the war, asked last month in a Nation interview with Barbara Koeppel: "Is there acceptance among Americans that we are engaged in a generations-long conflict against a terrorist group that only has 1,000 or 2,000 followers around the world? And that it requires us to spend hundreds of billions of dollars, and have hundreds of thousands of Marines and soldiers deployed worldwide in a perpetual war? It's absolute madness."
The rickety foundation of our military strategy is part of the larger context of the news of 19 dead suspected insurgents. So is the utter meaninglessness of the term "suspected insurgents," which, considering that claims of civilian deaths are never investigated, is just language applied retroactively to whomever we happen to kill (nearly 1,000 Pakistani villagers in 2010). And our destabilization of the tribal regions, resulting in the rise of warlords and the intensification of misery for ordinary people, is reminiscent of our role in Cambodia in the early'70s, paving the way for the Khmer Rouge's rise to power.
I stare in awe and amazement at the reporting that fails to question the repetition and intensification of the mistakes of previous generations, and that evinces no independence whatsoever from the perpetrators of these mistakes. When the news comes on, cry "incoming!"
Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, contributor to One World, Many Peaces and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at email@example.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.
© 2010 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.
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