Media Narratives Feed Terrorist Fantasies
By BRET STEPHENS
For purposes of self-justification, Azam Amir Kasab, the only terrorist taken alive in last week's Mumbai massacre, offered that the murder of Jews in the city's Chabad House was undertaken to avenge Israeli atrocities on Palestinians. Two other terrorists cited instances of anti-Muslim Hindu violence as the answer to the question, "Why are you doing this to us?" before mowing down 14 unarmed people at the Oberoi Hotel. And if dead terrorists could talk, we would surely hear Abu Ghraib mentioned as among their reasons for singling out U.S. and British hostages.
One suspects the terrorists spent far too much time listening to the BBC World Service.
Let's hasten to add that by no means should the BBC alone be singled out. When it comes to terrorists and their grievances, nearly all the Western media have provided them with a rich diet on which to feed.
In the spring of 2005, Newsweek ran with a thinly sourced item about the Quran being flushed down a Guantanamo toilet. Result: At least 15 people were killed in Afghan riots.
Newsweek later retracted the story, which was the right thing to do but also, in its way, exceptional. Compare that to the refusal of French reporter Charles Enderlin and his station, France 2, to retract or even express doubt about his September 2000 report on Mohammed al-Durrah, the 12-year-old Palestinian boy allegedly killed by Israeli soldiers during an exchange of gunfire in the Gaza Strip -- an exchange Mr. Enderlin did not witness.
In an exhaustive piece in the June 2003 issue of the Atlantic, James Fallows observed that the evidence that the boy could not have been shot by an Israeli bullet is overwhelming, while the evidence that the entire incident was staged is, at the very least, impressive. In France, the story has been the subject of various lawsuits. In Israel, however, and throughout the Muslim world, Durrah became the poster child for a five-year intifada that took several thousand lives.
Maybe Durrah was somewhere in the minds of the Mumbai killers. If not, there was no shortage of other Israeli "atrocities" for them to choose from, mostly fictitious or trumped up and all endlessly cited in Western media reports: the "siege" of Gaza; the 2002 Jenin "massacre"; the 1982 massacres (by Lebanese Phalangists) in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut; the execution of Egyptian POWs in 1967.
All these fables have real-world consequences, and not only for Israelis. In July 2006, an American named Naveed Afzal Haq ambled into the offices of the Seattle Jewish Federation and shot six people, killing one. One of the survivors testified that Mr. Haq "stated that he was a Muslim, [and] this was his personal statement against Jews and the Bush administration for giving money to Jews, and for us Jews for giving money to Israel, about Hezbollah, the war in Iraq." Wherever did he get those ideas?
As it turns out, often from terrorist suspects themselves, offering their testimonials of Israeli or U.S. malevolence to a credulous Western media. In the Quran-in-the-toilet imbroglio, for instance, the Nation's Ari Berman filed a piece titled "Newsweek Was Right," which cited accounts by former Guantanamo detainees of how their captors abused the Holy Book. Unmentioned in any of this were the instructions contained in al Qaeda's "Manchester Document," obtained by British police in 2000, that told followers to "complain of mistreatment while in prison" and "insist on proving that torture was inflicted on them by State Security."
Or consider the tale of Ali Shalal Qaissi, the subject of a New York Times story in March 2006. Mr. Qaissi, founder of the Association of Victims of American Occupation Prisons, claimed to be the black-hooded man standing on a box, attached to wires, ghoulishly photographed by the Abu Ghraib jailers. The Times thought enough of his story to put it on page one, until it turned out he wasn't the man.
A March 18, 2006, "Editor's Note" tells us something about how these stories make it to print:
"The Times did not adequately research Mr. Qaissi's insistence that he was the man in the photograph. Mr. Qaissi's account had already been broadcast and printed by other outlets, including PBS and Vanity Fair, without challenge. Lawyers for former prisoners at Abu Ghraib vouched for him. Human rights workers seemed to support his account."
Of course, it's always possible to fall for a well-told lie. But it's worth wondering why a media that treats nearly every word uttered by the U.S., British or Israeli governments as inherently suspect has proved so consistently credulous when it comes to every dubious or defamatory claim made against those governments. Or, for that matter, why the media has been so intent on magnifying genuine scandals (like Abu Ghraib) to the point that they become the moral equivalent of 9/11. Some caution is in order: Terrorists, of all people, might actually believe what they read in the papers.
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