Couched in Ignorance

Photo by Jack GouldWe see the world through our TVs, which may explain why we know so little about it. So let me use a TV example to explain our role in the Middle East crisis. It's like Father Knows Best, and the United States is Robert Young. We're the superpower dad in this house. And we've got these two screwball sons, but with the one son, we always look the other way when he drives the golf cart into Lebanon and kills 17,000 civilians; we just love the heck out of him regardless and give him Snickers bars and BB guns. Meanwhile, we scorn the other son and think the worst of him at every turn, even when he's catching it in the eye from the favored son's BB gun. Can you see where that son—the one with the eye patch who's not getting the Snickers bars—might grow up with a chip on his shoulder?

I simplify, perhaps. But we have indeed played Father Knows Best with much of the world, and nowhere have our affections been more unevenly applied than with the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Even with the recent spate of suicide bombings, there are typically three to four times as many Palestinians being murdered by Israelis as Israelis being murdered by Palestinians. And one of the reasons why Americans aren't as beloved as we'd like to be in the Arab world is that we don't use the word “murder” when it's Palestinians dying.

Last Friday, CNN gave practically nonstop coverage to a suicide bombing in which six Israelis were killed by a female Palestinian suicide bomber while offering only an occasional scroll-feed mention of the upwards of 500 Palestinians reportedly massacred by Israeli troops in the occupied town of Jenin. (The Israeli military is claiming that only a hundred may have been killed, hardened evildoers all.) That's just one town in two weeks of West Bank terror that saw the army firing scores of rockets into heavily populated neighborhoods, bulldozing buildings heedless of whether there were people inside, destroying crucial infrastructure such as water mains, and barring relief agencies from treating the wounded and dying. Don't be surprised if the death toll of the invasion nears that of the World Trade Center atrocity, and don't be too surprised if you don't see much about it in our press.

I wouldn't suggest that Palestinian terrorists haven't done hideous evils, or that Israel isn't in the unenviable position of being both David and Goliath, surrounded by nations of proven and enduring enmity, while itself lording a vast military superiority over the Palestinians. Last week, Israel's ambassador to the United Nations called the suicide bombers “the spiritual progeny” of the Nazis, and they may be. Yet what of his own side that has the all tanks, helicopters and fighter jets (with much of that hardware supplied by you know who) and dehumanizes its ghettoized neighbors?

Instead of the U.S. and Russia's mutually assured destruction, the Middle East's extremists now square off with mutually escalating horrors. Just as Nazi occupation forces once did, they revenge themselves not upon their attackers but upon the convenient and helpless. The Palestinian suicide bombers murder innocent children, shopkeepers, old people who already survived a lifetime of struggle, people who just want to live. And the Israeli army does the same, maybe killing a few of the terrorists they claim are their targets, but in the process murdering scores of innocents who have also had the shit end of the stick their whole lives and also just want to live.

“But Palestinians don't care if they are sacrificing their children to their cause. They have no feelings. They're like ants that way, those Palestinians.”

I have actually heard such opinions propounded on local couches while the news was on. I haven't met many Palestinians, but the ones I have, oddly enough, struck me as being as alike and as different as every other human being. You just don't see them on TV as much.

Yet last week, the six murdered Israelis dominated the American news and were cause for Colin Powell to call off a meeting with Yasser Arafat, demanding that Arafat condemn the bombings. Fine, except no one asked why Powell didn't call off his meetings with Ariel Sharon, whose troops continued murdering in the West Bank. Watching American TV, you'd think that Arab lives are such dung that even hundreds of murdered Arabs don't warrant the concern and queries that six murdered Israelis do.

Media is crucial in our Middle East role because most of what Americans know they learn on their couches in front of the TV. And sometimes I wonder if I'm going nuts, watching so much unquestioning, one-sided reporting flicker by.

It was a relief to see the much-awarded—and occasionally beaten—British journalist Robert Fisk speak last Friday at Chapman University. I write “journalist” on forms when asked my occupation because it reads better than “unemployed,” but real journalists are people such as Fisk who get their news right from the spigot. He has covered the Middle East from the Middle East for three decades, and he has the scars to prove it.

He started his speech by relating how he had been beaten nearly to death by Afghani villagers with rocks last December merely because he looked like an American. He didn't blame them, he said, because their village and loved ones had been decimated by bombs from our B-52s, which are not precise instruments for meting out justice, killing children and women as dead as they do terrorists. And their dead are scarcely even numbers in our news because American editors let their journalists know that accounts of civilian casualties in Operation Enduring Freedom were to be downplayed.

“I hate the 'what' and 'where' stories that leave out the why,” Fisk said, continuing that in the U.S. coverage in the aftermath of Sept. 11, it was practically considered unpatriotic to ask why.

He had interviewed paratroopers in the Afghan invasion who had told him they were there simply to “fight terrorism.” But these were Russian paratroopers in their invasion two decades ago, when one of the terrorists they were fighting was our “freedom fighter” Osama bin Laden. He related how some of the freedom-loving folks the U.S. had supported then would slaughter teachers for daring to educate girls.

Given several decades in which “the Arab world was humiliated and corrupted by the West,” he said, there was no shortage of answers to “why?”

“To many Arabs who were appalled by the attacks on New York and the Pentagon, bin Laden does not sound insane,” he said, citing our propping up corrupt Arab dictatorships, the children who have died as a result of our embargo against Iraq, and our unwavering support for Israel as reasons for genuine ire.

When an Israeli helicopter gunship blew up an ambulance containing two women and four children in 1996, it was Fisk who sifted through the wreckage to find the U.S. markings on the rocket they'd used. Though it was the deadliest incident of the day, Fisk said, the ambulance attack was downplayed in the U.S. press.

So it has always been, he claimed, citing how little coverage was given to the 1982 massacres in Lebanon presided over by Sharon. Now, he said, reporting has become so biased and deferential to Israel as to render it inconsequential. When our State Department shifts to referring to the West Bank's occupied territories as “disputed territories,” the press follows suit without question. CNN has issued a memo that Israeli settlements—though illegal, according to the U.N.—are now to be referred to as “neighborhoods.” Rather than mention Sharon's terrorist acts in Lebanon, he is called a “tough protagonist.”

As a result, the American people have little idea of what is going on. The Arab press is worse, he said, never addressing their own governments' torture and corruption. Some of the best reporting, according to Fisk, is to be found in the writing of Israeli journalists such as Amos Oz. Fisk's own writing can be found at

We have no business playing Father Knows Best with any nation, any more than we'd like them paternally meddling with our affairs. We are so much a part of the problems in the Middle East, however, that we bear some responsibility to help find a solution, and we can't do that if Father Knows Shit.

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