By John Kendall Hawkins
By the late-90s we must have sensed that the shit was hitting the fan. The fire at Waco. The Unabomber envelopes. The downing of Flight 800. The World Trade Center bombing. Blowjobs in the White House. Oklahoma City. Tokyo’s subway sarin attack. The Khobar Towers bombing blamed on bin Laden. The ascent of Atlanta’s radio jockstrap Sean Hannity to national status on Roger Ailes’ newly established Fox News Network. OJ taking off the gloves. Rodney King wondering if we could all just get along. Cruise missiles on Bosnia on the eve of Clinton’s impeachment for blowjobs. Distracted from distraction by distraction, as T.S. Eliot famously put it, years before Karl Rove’s prosaic promise to fuck with reality-based thinking in the wake of 9/11.
As if America didn’t have enough problems, a foot soldier in the Army of God was afoot in the wee hours of July 27, 1996 at Centennial Park in Atlanta, where the Olympics were winding up for the night. Eric Rudolph, formerly of the Army of Exceptionalism — he’d been a special ops soldier in the Airborne 101 — was strolling near some benches behind the park, wearing a green backpack. There were dozens of people milling about. Rudolph sat on a bench and surreptitiously opened his backpack and set a timer on a huge bomb and placed the pack under the bench, then walked away hurriedly. No one saw him.
Rudolph rushed to a phone bank outside a Days Inn a couple of blocks away from the park and called in the bomb threat to 911. He used a plastic device to disguise his voice, and then, according to Kent Alexander’s account in the recently released film, The Suspect, the following took place: Rudolph said, “‘We defy the order of the militia …’ Click. The line went dead. The 911 operator had disconnected him.” Disconcerted at not being taken seriously, Rudolph called back, disguising his voice by pinching his nose, and said: “‘There is a bomb in Centennial Park. You have thirty minutes.’ He hung up. The call lasted thirteen seconds.” Confusion followed, with the 911 operator unable to find the Olympic Park address. Transcripts show insufficient urgency followed:
Dispatcher: Zone 5.
911 Operator: You know the address to Centennial Park?
Dispatcher: Girl, don’t ask me to lie to you.
911 Operator: I tried to call ACC, but ain’t nobody answering the phone … but I just got this man called talking about there’s a bomb set to go off in thirty minutes in Centennial Park.
Dispatcher: Oh Lord, child. Uh, OK, wait a minute. Centennial Park, you put it in and it won’t go in?
911 Operator: No, unless I’m spelling Centennial wrong. How are we spelling Centennial?
Dispatcher: C-E-N-T-E-N-N-I—how do you spell Centennial?
911 Operator: I’m spelling it right, it ain’t taking.
Valuable time expired, and the bomb squad, when they were finally called to the scene, had insufficient time to properly clear the area before the bomb went off.
At the start of Clint Eastwood’s latest film, Richard Jewell, the title character is followed by the director as he makes his rounds as an AT&T security guard outside a busy Centennial Park. Goofy and overstuffed, he is immediately seen as an oddball. Offering water to a pregnant woman in such a way that, though thanking him for it, she eyeballs him suspiciously. He confronts a group of drinking teens who diss him. On his way to get help, he sees the bomb under the bench. He asks passersby if the pack belongs to them. Alarmed, he alerts the assigned police crew, urging them to take action immediately, seemingly certain the pack is loaded. Bystanders are pushed to safety by Jewell, and others, when the bomb booms.
Paul Walter Hauser plays the complex character of Jewell, who’s not as dumb as he looks (or sometimes acts), and who gets caught up in a media frenzy that is fuelled by the wild speculation of a misinformed newspaper reporter, played by Olivia Wilde, and the entrapping tactics of the FBI — John Hamm playing the principle scofflaw fed. As the world comes at Jewell like a viral contagion, annihilating his privacy and reputation, he is buoyed up by his mother, played by Kathy Bates (in an Oscar-nominated supporting role) and Sam Rockwell as Watson Bryant, his lawyer and friend.
Theres been considerable controversy over the film’s depiction of the newspaper reporter from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC), Kathy Scruggs, played by Olivia Wilde. Eastwood has taken heat for her depiction, but he didn’t write the screenplay. The script is based upon Marie Brenner’s Vanity Fair article, “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell,” and The Suspect, Alexander and Selwen’s account of the bombing and its aftermath — including police investigations and news reporting. Only the latter sets up the scene where Scruggs allegedly received the confirmation from police that Richard Jewell was the primary suspect.
In The Suspect, Scruggs meets up with her source (unrevealed) at a bar — “someone she had known over the years. The source was about as plugged in as it got. She got down to business.” She was seated across from her source, and there was no hanky-panky:
The meeting was strictly off the record—that was understood. They ordered drinks, made small talk. After a few minutes, Scruggs asked the question. Are there any new suspects? Yes, the reply came back. One. “It’s Richard Jewell.” Scruggs’s heart pounded. Bingo. Jewell, the hero. Until now.”
To this day, this source is unknown, although Alexander and Selwen drop a couple of insinuating names in a couple of places.
Compare the Suspect scene above with the screenplay version (45-6) written by Billy Ray. In Ray’s account, Scruggs comes across as an eager beaver, who’ll do anything to get the scoop. Here’s how she’s depicted in the film:
I wouldn’t run it unless I had independent corroboration from a second source. That would put us in a different zone, as you know. (her hand drifting) Tom. You’re about to burst.
She leans in — that open blouse. He’s hard as an anvil.
First time in my life I ever wished I was gay.
Kathy smiles… then Shaw gives it up:
The Bureau’s looking at the security guard. Jewell.
WHOA. Kathy freezes. Did I hear that wrong? Nope. Trying to calm herself, she takes out her notepad.
The scene’s sexual banter is significantly longer in the film. There’s no question that it makes Scruggs look sleazy. But it’s also a condensed, slightly spiced up sum of all parts which Alexander and Selwel suggest throughout The Suspect. Is it Eastwood’s role to change a script for fairness to perceived reality? While Richard Jewell is based on actual events, Eastwood never pretends that his movie is “journalistic,” the way Katherine Bigelow did for Zero Dark Thirty. Did Scruggs sleep with cops to get information? The film says Yes, and The Suspect says Maybe (with a wink).
But Marie Brenner, in her Vanity Fair piece, “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell,” draws attention to a far more damaging assault on Scruggs’ reputation — the question of attribution in her story on Jewell and her reliance on ‘Voice of God’ journalism. Her lede reads:
The security guard who first alerted police to the pipe bomb that exploded in Centennial Olympic Park is the focus of the federal investigation into the incident that resulted in two deaths and injured more than 100.
Well, says who? Further defamatory sentences follow (here is the article) — without any attribution at all. It’s the Voice of God at work. Ironically, VOG was AJC’s rule: they’d “essentially banned” the expression “sources said” because readers might believe a quote was “fabricated.”
Brenner opens up the possibility that there was no source, per se, at all. And this line is taken further by Alexander and Selwen when they allude to the 1984 LA Olympics Turkish Bus bomb — planted by the ‘heroic’ officer who found the bomb. It may be, The Suspect suggests, that Scruggs had been given the hero-bomb anecdote and ran with it, in her passion to be the one who broke the story. Alexander and Selwen cite previous admonishments: “She was so eager to run with what trusted sources disclosed to her that editors often had to slow her down until she got more corroborating details.” Maybe there was no secondary corroboration.
The worst thing of all is that Jewell didn’t find out that he was a suspect until the AJC piece broke and went wild across the local and national airwaves. Overnight he went from a profile in courage to the profile of a loser — and, if he was imitating the LA ‘bomb hero, not particularly original either. None of it makes Scruggs look good as a reporter. But the AJC, believes the film has gone too far in portraying her as a quid pro quo “floozy,” and in “The Ballad of Kathy Scruggs,” Jennifer Brett complains that the harsh appraisal of Scruggs’ journalism is not balanced. She cites Scruggs’s brother, Lewis, who recalls, “… She was proud the FBI called her about Jewell. She was proud of the way she reported it to begin with.” But she shouldn’t have been proud.
The FBI did a disgraceful job handling the bombing, starting with director Louis Freeh, who micromanaged the investigation, and may have pushed the notion that Jewell be regarded as the prime suspect to his underlings in Atlanta — suspicions drawn from false profiling. It continued with the leak to Scruggs. But the most despicable thing they did was their attempt to entrap Jewell in a fake interview during which they hoped to extract information that ‘only the bomber could know’. Jewell caught on, called a lawyer, and sought solace and protection behind his forceful and articulate mother, Bobi (played by Kathy Bates). Eventually the FBI conducted an internal investigation of their handling of Jewell, although the FBI later admitted, “We never went after the leak.”
Ultimately, it may be that it was FBI director Louis Freeh’s actions that were under-scrutinized in the half-assed investigation that followed. In The Suspect, Alexander and Selwen make clear that Freeh was calling the shots from Washington, and that he may have pushed the ‘bomb hero’ scenario on the Behavioral Science Unit (BSU) of the agency, forcing them to push out a false profile — without independently gathered evidence. Scruggs used their “lone bomber” profile, even though she should have known that Jewell couldn’t have been at the scene and making phone calls up the road — at the same time. He would have needed an accomplice, negating the “lone bomber” theory.
Richard Jewell might have perished emotionally or even have ended up imprisoned for the bombing, if not for his mother’s courage and ability to sway the media, as well as Watson Bryant, his lawyer, who is there when Jewell needs him, yanking back the naive and over-talkative suspect from FBI entrapment. Everyone seemed to be coming at him in his 88 day ordeal, before he was cleared. Not only was there the usual swarming rush to judgement, stoked by the sensationalist media, but he was viciously turned on, suddenly going from hero to goat. NBC Late Show host Jay Leno, was particularly horrid, referring to Jewell as “Una-doofus,” while he was a suspect, and calling him later, after he was cleared, “white trash.”
In the end, as we all know now, Eric Rudolph was arrested almost seven years later, for bombing a gay bar and two abortion clinics. In a plea bargain deal, he also copped to the Olympic Park bombing. Rudolph, an ex 101st Airborne special ops soldier, was a survivalist who went on the lam for five years after the Centennial bombing. He claimed that he was motivated in his bombings by hatred of gays, abortion, and general government over-reach. He fit the profile of a “lone bomber”.
Back in Jennifer Brett’s recent AJC piece, “The Ballad of Kathy Scruggs,” which seeks to correct the image presented of the reporter in the Clint Eastwood film, a friend, Tony Kiss, defends Scruggs, “She was never at peace or at rest with this story. It haunted her until her last breath,” Kiss said. “It crushed her like a junebug on the sidewalk.”
It’s ironic that both Jewell and Scruggs had a thing for cops — and in both cases they were let down, at great cost to their lives and reputations. The event produced a convergence of ill-will and evil rarely seen: media manipulations, police corruption, political and social reactionaries, insensitive Late Show jokes, a Christian terrorist who likes to blow people to Kingdom Come, frenzy and sensationalism.
Neither ever recovered. Jewell died aged 44; Scruggs died at 43.
Oh what a difference a weekend doesn’t make.
At one end of the empire the ardent flame of Scottish independence, as if inspired by Mel Gibson’s cheeky Braveheart, was snuffed out by a pre-referendum BBC fear campaign and the pleading of a candid Cameron, the populace realizing it was all only a movie and that the popcorn was bland as styrofoam . Or maybe there was some widespread ‘mischief’, as some observers have claimed. Doesn’t matter. As Russell Brand said before the vote, “I’m not going to turn up and put an X in a box, like an Xbox. It’s like an illusion, it’s a temporary reality. It’s meaningless, it’s pointless. It makes no difference. Give us something to vote for, and then we’ll vote for it.”
At the other end of the empire, in New Zealand, on Saturday the Kiwis resoundingly welcomed back Nationalist John Key, despite (some would argue because of) the ‘Moment of Truth’ revelation festivalorganized by the Greens, which saw oracle Glenn Greenwald flown in from Brazil to join forces with firebrand Kim Dotcom, as well as live video links to Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. Together, these foreigners (Dotcom’s a recent immigrant), lampooned and besieged and tore at Prime Minister Key’s credibility, clearly demonstrating that he flat out lied about the mass surveillance of his own citizens. It was the kind of smoking gun stuff that got Richard Nixon chased out of town 40 years ago. But Key was returned by a 24% margin over the runner-up party, Labour. The illicit wiretapping for Uncle Sam will continue. But some good news: The Kiwis will now push ahead with a referendum for a new flag, so that they may proudly wave their symbolic independence to the world.
However, it was here in Oz that the Big News splashed its breathless headlines across the local tabloid: Terror Powers: Federal Police use special orders for first time to detain suspects. And what followed was a non-attributed, unchallenged piece put together by three reporters that told readers police would now be implementing a draconian 9 year old law passed shortly after the London bombing of 2005 (although, curiously, Oz did not see fit to pass such a law after the Bali bombing of 2002 that killed some 88 revelling Australians). The reader is told that federal police would now be using Preventative Detention Orders “to detain suspects in custody without charge” and that such PDOs allow police to take off the street any “suspect” and hold him with no communication to lawyers or family—as long as the threat was perceived by the government as “imminent.” Strangely enough, “Police cannot question a suspect being held under a PDO,” which is inexplicable, given the ‘ticking bomb’ rationale employed for scooping suspects. Further, we’re told in a jump to page 7, Attorney General George Brandis will expect from parliament this week expanded police powers, which give them immunity for actions during raids, as well, as the proposal is currently written, to torture suspects.
The precipitating event? Some baddie blew up the Melbourne Cricket Ground or the Adelaide Oval, resulting in the cancellation of the Aussie Rules football season? A heartless terrorist poisoned the vats at Carlton Brewery? A radical Aussie imam pulled up his dishdash and dumped a giant turd in the handsome blonde sands of Bondi Beach? Well, no. Instead, Prime Minister Tony Abbott, the Butt of Jokistan, announced allegations of “imminent” “random” “beheadings” to be carried out by jihadists loyal to the Caliphate, or ISIL, or ISIS (guess it depends on what your definition of ISIS is, as Bill Clinton would say). No one was safe. Why, at the same time an infiltrator in Washington was scaling the fence of the White House with 800 rounds of ammo without being seen, jihadi plots were afoot to radically renovate Parliament House and to end Abbott’s triathlon career. And thus, last Thursday, the largest anti-terrorist raid in Australian history netted one arrest on terrorism-related charges. Allegations, mind you, that will effect the greatest loss of freedoms in modern Australian history.
Back in November 2005, federal agents conducted similar raids, also citing imminent threats, and arrested several men, amid an atmosphere of fear-mongering, but the subsequent prosecutions fell apart when no evidence was forthcoming. As Greg Barns, a lawyer for one of the 2005 defendants, put it yesterday in an op-ed that appeared in the Melbourne Age, “there is a history in this country in recent years of hyperbole, sensationalism, paranoia and misconstruing of conversations and activities when it comes to reporting on and about Australia’s anti-terror laws.” Indeed, one could argue that such excesses go beyond terror scares and include all manner of common perceptions of ‘outsider’ behaviour, this being the rather predictable outcome of a culture wherein even most left-wingers are nationalistic and where seemingly only three degrees of separation exist between citizens. In any case, as Barns rightly argues, the first casualty of such rush to judgements is the Aussie meme: Fair Go, meaning, in this case, the presumption of innocence. Barns concludes,
Terrorism is understandably an emotional subject and terrorist attacks, when they happen, are horrific for any community. But in Australia, the way in which police, politicians and media work hand in glove to whip up hysteria by making claims which often turn out to be untrue or grossly exaggerated, is dangerous for our democracy.
One could argue that such dangers are especially potent in a nation that has no formal constitutionally-mandated Bill of Rights to protect its citizens against various abuses. But then, we live in times where capitalism has shat the bed and Democracy is just another word for nothing left to lose.
In the same newspaper, we’re told that an Aboriginal Muslim-convertee from Perth is in trouble with police for his “radical rants,” such as suggesting that the US and its military allies are more terroristic than their targets, citing compelling examples for his rant. The expected new powers will fix this though, making it easier to prosecute people who say things like, “blowing up pregnant women and their children with drone-fired cluster bombs is every bit as evil as a beheading.” How outrageous –and un-Australian – to hold such a view!
Further still in the same fishwrap dispenser, the reader is informed that Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, is “deeply concerned” about the Afghan heroin suddenly flooding the streets of Oz, a “narco-terrorism” that the word-smith Bishop finds “terrifying.” Awhile back former Prime Minister Paul Keating described Abbott as an “intellectual nobody” who Aussies should be ‘terrified’ at the prospect of electing to lead the nation. One might equally grow alarmed by the ascension of the formerly irrelevant Julie Bishop, who seems part Dan Quayle, part Sarah Palin. And a quick aside, what is it with Bishop’s sudden taking to wearing black dresses adorned with weird broaches? Is this to show how grim the situation is, an omen of dark times ahead, like that ‘black cat crossing the path’ Kathryn Bigelow inserted into her ‘journalistic’ Zero Dark Thirty account of the Abbottabad raid on the bin Laden compound?
Along with the new opium war the horrible Afghans are inflicting on the Lucky Country, the “deeply concerned” Bishop has quietly renewed charges before the UN Security Council that the Russians were ultimately responsible for downing Flight MH17, which had 27 Aussies aboard. The preliminary Dutch Safety Board report, she says, is consistent with Australia’s previous reactionary findings. Except, of course, that the report, if anything, leans more toward the ‘shot down’ by the Western-backed Ukrainians than by pro-Russian rebels, a view supported by innumerable eyewitnesses on the ground, not to mention radar evidence, and probably most importantly the failure of the US to release satellite imagery in their possession (they were directly overhead that day) that would end the debate immediately. Not even the CIA appears willing to back Obama. But then, Bishop must push the ‘Russians did it’ meme, because otherwise she’d have to explain why Australian advisers were sent to Kiev after the shoot-down to help shore up and re-train Ukraine’s flunky military, while the Southern Cross was draped across the caskets of 27 mates back home. Even scarier, the black dress and tangled-snake broach Bishop wore before the UN made her look like the ISIS flag. Or maybe that was the opiates kicking in.
And in related news, there were renewed calls to ban burqua-wearing. In Melbourne a man was forcibly removed from a flight because his seat mate got all terrified by innocuous satirical doodlesthe guy was killing time with and reported him to the crew, and the man has been banned indefinitely by the airline for his “disruptive behavior.” (To be fair, he should have known better, as cartooning in Australia can get you in serious trouble—god help you if you should be caught lampooning Israeli citizens in party-mode as they look down on the recent Gaza bombings.) On local TV grim reporters got into spirit of things by mixing in a report of man “with a telephoto lens” in a white van near an elementary school (they even showed a picture of the distant vehicle). A random mother was interviewed, and she snarled, “I’d like to get a hold of him myself,” and yet, though someone apparently got close enough to the van to determine the occupant had a telephoto lens, no one bothered taking down the plate or pursuing said vehicle. Then back to the terror alerts. Just like that the hysteria horses were off and running out the gates, and mercy on you if you were a neigh-sayer to this national crisis.
Well, the truth is, you could see it all coming, if you just kept in mind that Syria, Iran, Russia and China are the last nation-states that stand in the way of total American imperial hegemony. These four are connected in a couple of important ways. First, they have all begun trading in currencies other than US dollars, helping to limit their vulnerability to US monetary manipulation and its consequent political fallout. Second, they are directly tied up in energy resources infrastructure that is in direct competition to western-controlled interests; as one report puts it,
“It was estimated in 2007 that approximately 96.3 percent of the amount of projected natural gas which would be “imported by continental Europe would be controlled by Russia, Iran, and Syria under such an arrangement”
Russia already supplies most of Europe’s natural gas, making significant Continental sanctions against them self-defeating. But Russian truculence is intolerable to US oligarchs,
A few months back, while Obama was supplying and arming various ‘rebel’ factions trying to overthrow the Assad regime, including al Qaeda operatives, the US president announced that the US would stay out of direct participation “for now”, but that the Syrian use of chemical weapons would be “a red line” that would bring in US force. Sure enough, just a few months later many civilians were murdered by a sarin gas attack. As with the recent MH17 shoot-down, Obama and his State department clown posse immediately blamed the Assad regime, without evidence, and made it clear that Assad had crossed the red line and now must pay. But then Russia intervened, US popular support was negligible, and Obama had to back off. As legendary investigative journalist Seymour Hersh has since reported, the likely sarin gas murderers were US-Saudi-backed rebels trying to go false flag.
Given this temporary setback for the US-Saudi partnership, it seems inevitable that an ISIS would develop out of this Bay of Pigs in the desert. Are they as dangerous as they seem? Probably. (Reportedly, many of the escapees from the 2013 Abu Ghraib prison breakout joined ISIS, including hardcore leftovers from the American occupation. How’s that for blowback?) Are the beheadings extraordinarily cruel and horrifying? Yes, especially when the killer wears scary pajamas, but not much more cruel or horrifying than cluster bomb mayhem or watching a botched execution in the US that leaves a man’s last moments a carnival of sadism. (Incidently, a lot of space in the media has played up the forensic evidence of the beheader’s lefthandedness and vein match-ups, etc., and yet no mention of an analysis of the British voice is mentioned. There’s a good chance the swordsman’s already know to investigators.) But ISIS are also valuable to the US, as they provide cover for the very air attacks on the Assad regime that Obama wanted months ago. No doubt, as ISIS moves further into Syria, sudden new corridors to Damascus will open up, courtesy of US bombs and missiles.
And then the Australian Prime Minister’s polls plummeted, as he reversed the carbon tax , and then cut funding to the social safety net, and called for the deregulation of universities and a more American-style educational loan system. Despite this austerity movement, the government found plenty of cash to fund significant increases in military spending, in direct support of a future expanded American military presence on Aussie soil as the empire looks to subdue China. Of course, this will make Oz a direct military target, in the case of a Chinese attack, especially Western Australia, due to its military installations in Geraldton and Perth. But no public debate over such expenditures or such a role in empire building. If Australia wants to become the Northbridge or St. Kilda red light districts for the Yankee doodle dandies—well, it wouldn’t be the first time.
Thus, one has to chuckle when Abbott made a public of show of being tough on his climate change policy, vowing to align with other nations against US emissions policy and said climate change would be off the G20 agenda next month, only to cower before the towering ‘blackfella’ in the Oval office and announce ‘room for agreement’ on climate change and to acknowledge he couldn’t stop the subject from being included on the G20 agenda. And, of course, the inevitable announcement that the US and Australia would henceforth have even closer military ties. “I like Aussies in the trenches with me,” Obama said, briefly and disingenuously buffing to a shine the Anzac legend in its centenary ,” they know how to fight.” And Abbot was all-too-happy polish Darth Vader’s helmet in return.
But here’s the thing. In this latest and likely to be longest foray into the desert storm, Obama does not have Congressional approval(which is to say public approval) for the coming evisceration by air of Syria, with whom the US is not at war, which is why he’s hedging, as usual, on what he calls it, while also intimating that he “doesn’t need Congress’ approval.” But there is no question that he is about to order more war crimes with his indiscriminate strikes. And by going along with this military campaign against a nation that Australia is not at war with and which has not threatened Oz in any meaningful way, Oz will be liable for its participation, on the moral scale, if not the Nuremburg scale. By going along with the US open war that has no apparent endpoint, no clearly articulated objectives, and necessarily adopting America’s quasi-martial law status (technically, the US has been continuously in a state of emergency since 9/11, which means his commander-in-chief status outranks his public presidency status), Australia is clearly ceding a good deal of its sovereignty.
The government has assuaged some with its “guarantee” that the new powers will not include the right of federal police to torture suspects (just as with the US before 9/11, but then came reasons to take the gloves off and rendition to black spots became routine). But, perhaps the most odious aspect of this indefinite shifting of “the balance between freedom and security,” which will “require some inconveniences for quite some time,” as the Prime Minister puts it, is the implementation of sedition findings based on expressions uttered online or in public. Whistleblowers will not be tolerated. As the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance wrote in a letter to the Attorney general, “MEAA believes that these penalties could be used to intimidate, harass and silence the legitimate journalistic scrutiny and reporting on the activities of governments and their agencies.” And if the previously alluded to examples of “political rants” that diverge from orthodoxy, and a man being tossed off a plane for doodling, are any indication, a vicious Vichy mentality will prevail throughout Oz, with citizens and journalists too reluctant to express their true views for fear of retribution or being handed over to spooks. In a mere matter of days Oz has gone from just another country with fiscal worries and uncertainty to being a garrison of the new Romans in their days of bread and circuses. And just like that Oz has become a far flung penal colony again. It remains to be seen what, if any, pushback there’ll be.
I have sometimes wondered how some Johnny Journo, transported back into biblical times, might have reported on, say, the Massacre of the Innocents, or one of the many other atrocities which spice up the prolific stir-fried testaments to depravity that was the human condition prior to the arrival of the Enlightenment and the saving grace of Reason. Of course, most biblical historians now suggest that many of these kinds of atrocities were apocryphal or metaphorical, and somehow designed to push a meme or conceit about ancient justice. It probably never happened, scholars say; they weren’t those kinds of people.
And then you flash way forward to the 20th century, way past the Enlightenment and all its lessons and admonishments, and read that, according to a Cornell University study, some 231 million people were “killed or allowed to die by human decision” in the century. And that such a new testament to the dark side of the old human condition seemingly reached its abysmal bottom with Stalin’s purges (estimated to have led to 20-60 million deaths) and the Holocaust, which resulted in the genocidal extermination of some 6 million Jews. Summing up this moral cataclysm, Robert Jackson, U.S. chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials opened with,
“The crimes which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant and so devastating, that a civilisation cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated.”
The obvious lesson that comes out of this is that we must guard against wilful ignorance, that we must educate ourselves and be active citizens, and avoid becoming Good Germans or Good Sheeple who look the other way as the banality of evil deeds have their corrosive way with our moral consciences. Never again should one people be allowed to obliterate another with impunity – because, implied Jackson, civilisation will just crack up if we let this shit go.
Thus, when we pull Johnny Journo back through the time tunnel, back into the now, him dragging back tales of fanatical religious zealotry leading to horrific unilateral interpretations of justice, we needn’t insist that he look upon the current doings in the middle east “objectively.” After all, even ideally, only four of the five Ws of basic journalism – Who, What, When and Where – can be addressed objectively, and usually in a lede of some 25 words or so. The fifth W – Why? – has frequently proven to be a devil’s detail work of word-framing. The best the beat journalist can ever do is present a sense of balance to the reader. There are at least two sides to every story.
But the reporting that takes place under normal conditions is significantly different than the reporting that takes place in the face of atrocities. The blown up or dismembered limbs and body parts of women, children and non-combatants require not so much dispassionate observance, if such were possible in the instance, but documenting and keen witnessing, the sounding of the alarm that, as prosecutor Jackson suggested at Nuremberg, civilisation is under threat.
We all know an atrocity when we see one, even if our collective responses to them have been dimmed by years of exposure to the conscience-defiling phantasmagoria of cinematic excess, bodies blown apart, specially effected and disintegrated in more imaginative ways than creation can keep up. And then uploaded to YouTube. Vile snuffs, rapes, beheadings gone gleefully, secret-sinfully viral. We live in a world of textual irony shotgun-married to visceral imagery, of endless subtle smirks delivered in the serial gyrations of market-driven, in-your-face twerks. But long after the sarcastic are exiled to Sardonia, where each man wanders Lear-like, an island entirely unto himself, cast away by the inevitable irrelevance that time brings to all the things that occupy space for the length of a human memory.
But how do we report on such atrocities? If we could send Johnny Journo back to the Auschwitz-Birkhenau on the day of its liberation, to report on the stenches and smoke, the trenches and piled-up drained-to-the-bone bodies, the barbed wire and abattoir-like facilities, would we expect objectivity and balanced reporting from Johnny in that situation? Could we reasonably demand that he detach his subjectivity from the naked horror before him, interview first a zombie-like survivor, followed by asking a captured prison guard, “Jeez, Sergeant Schultz, just what were you guys thinking?” And, of course, no matter how moving what Johnny wrote was, it could not compete with the beckoning, come-and-see moving images of that bulldozer pushing those emaciated bodies into a mass grave, bodies so denuded of humanity that you could not even tell that this batch was once the string section of the Warsaw symphony. The image of these piled up bodies have become a searing universal symbol of barbarity, but also a trademark of the Jewish diaspora, an image always accompanied by the righteous slogan: Never Again. And if the 20th century could have minted a coin to bequeath to the 21st it might have had a depiction of the Golden Rule on one side and the bulldozer pushing bodies on the other.
While Gutenberg may have revolutionised the technology of language, bringing it from the chattering teeth and tongue palate of the oral tradition to the moveable type and ink plate of the press, one could argue that it was the evolution of the camera obscura, from its still box of shadow-lit light to today’s restless high def digital pixilations, that has made us understand our collective reality a different way. Nevertheless, in the continuing battle ‘for hearts and minds’ that is the coliseum of the politicians and Google ad-sensors, even the most graphic and disturbing images require the contextualization of reportage.
When it comes to the atrocities of war, which include the “human decisions” that lead to unnecessary deaths (the so-called collateral incidentals), the best example of the melding of context and image into one package of psychological influence is the reportage of the My Lai massacre by young investigative journo Seymour Hersh back in 1969. I was just a teenager back then, and, like most people, did not actually read the Hersh pieces, but had his findings summarised by a newsreader while an iconic still image of naked terrified children running down a dirt road lined with bodies machine-gunned by US military forces screamed out from the TV set: atrocity. Even as a youngster, the report was deeply disturbing, the way it would be if you were suddenly informed that your favourite uncle had just been arrested for chopping up his entire family.
The response went deeper amongst the policy-makers, academics and student activists who had actually read Hersh’s St. Louis Dispatch account of Lt. Calley and the events leading up to the March 1968 massacre. And while Hersh’s reportage did not by itself effect immediate changes or prevent further American atrocities (the Nixon-Kissinger secret bombings of Cambodia and Laos were still yet to come), it certainly stirred up and catalysed the anti-war movement, which eventually led to bad plumbing and Nixon being shit out of office in shame in 1973.
But the American military learned from the journalistic coverage of the Viet Nam war, the so-called ‘first TV war’, and adjusted, and have controlled, as best they can, the imagery and contextualization of all the many big and small conflicts and engagements they have been involved with since. And after the three towers came down in Manhattan in near-freefall speed on September 11, the War on Terror has been prosecuted with a virtual gag order on the MSM. The invasion of Afghanistan; the blatant, criminal lies that led to Iraq’s evisceration; the regional chaos created in Libya, Syria and Yemen, with plans still progressing for taking out Iran; the crisis fomented in the Ukraine seemingly to pay back Putin for his interference with Obama’s careful planning to explode Syria on the pre-text of chemical weaponry; the Asian pivot that is already an undeclared war on China – all of this gets short shrift by the MSM, while American Exceptionalism is ballooned in a con-flatulence of false patriotism and criminal neo-liberal predation, a gifted whoopy cushion to a world and civilisation all too happy to have a sideline seat to the carnivalesque festivities.
Indeed, under the cover of fighting a War on Terror, America has taken the lead in doing its best to eliminate all efforts to reveal the many atrocities it has committed in the last decade. When Private Bradley Manning went public, through Wikileaks, with the secret cables, but especially with the release of the video depicting an Apache gunship atrocity in Iraq, in which children and a Reuters reporter were murdered, he had to be crushed (along with Julian Assange). When Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye demonstrated with his reporting that US forces were responsible for a cruise missile attack that horribly wiped out 14 women (5 of them pregnant) and 21 children with a cluster bomb, Obama personally arranged for his imprisonment. When Anwar al-Awlaki ’s family went before the Justice Department and begged them to bring their son to justice through long-established rules of law, they droned to death the American citizen son anyway, and, for good measure, droned to death Awlaki’s son, who’d been accused of nothing, a few weeks later, thus setting a precedent for assassinating citizens per order of the Executive alone. And more recently the military-backed government of Egypt has sentenced three Al Jazeera journalists to prison for their reporting, a decision that drew puffy ire from US secretary of state John Kerry (though no ultimatums), puffs of smoke that mean little given the American role in installing Egypt’s latest repressive regime.
Indeed, times have never been so precarious for investigative reporters or adversarial journalists. Not if the stats are any indication. According to Reporters Without Borders, 40 journalists have been killed while reporting so far this year. Another 179 have been imprisoned. Almost all of them have come in regions where atrocities are taking place – not just in the middle east, but also in Brazil, Ukraine, and many other places. And where reporters are not being killed outright, in many places, including such bulwarks of democratic liberalism as Australia, are passing new laws designed to suppress dissent and revelation.
So that when we come to how Johnny Journo should cover the atrocities resulting from the recent Gaza invasion by IDF forces, we may need to update our expectations to reflect the reality of what civilisation is up against. If the US, with its pushy Pax Americana, were still pushing its Cold War memes about the importance of installing the institutions of democracy worldwide, including most notably an adversarial journalism that challenged from within regimes the US was disenchanted with, then it would be almost unthinkable that Israel could have gotten away without anything so much as an official rebuke after shooting up the offices of al Jazeera in Gaza and blowing up two al Aksa TV reporters in Gaza recently, who, as “propagandists,” Israel simply regarded as enemy combatants. The American Exceptionalism that once at least pretended to lead the way for moral good, most certainly now leads the way for the atrocious and reprehensible. Everywhere thugs are taking note.
We all know what atrocities look like, and what the world has seen taking place in Gaza over the last few weeks is atrocity, war crimes by any measure. Hundreds of already barely surviving women, children and other civilians were murdered willy nilly by drone missiles and the bombs of supersonic jets supplied by US taxpayers. The US Senate weighed in on who they support in the one-sided slaughter by voting 100-0 in support of Israel’s over-the-top response. The Western mass media has been once again meek and compliant, just as they were back in 2008/9 when the previous set of Israeli atrocities on this scale took place. While there has certainly been popular outrage expressed over the latest merciless barbarity, the MSM has mostly gone along with the same old Israeli shtick of ‘provocation will be met with annihilating force’. Oh well, Atlas shrugged.
But this time the cynicism and suppression of dissent has taken on new dimensions. While Overland literary journal online published without incident “Watching the bombs,” a narrative which described how Israel residents of the hilltop enclave of Sderot set up chairs and munched down snacks as they watched their military rip the bejeezuz out of their occupied territorians, a narrative accompanied by a provocative image depicting a theatre crowd wearing 3D glasses, hysteria knew no bounds just a couple of days ago when a Sydney Morning Herald column on the Gaza mayhem by Mike Carlton was accompanied by a cartoon depicting the scene of carnage with an image of an old man with a long nose, wearing a skullcap and sitting in a seat adorned with the Star of David. While one could certainly understand how the use of religious symbolism could be construed as somewhat insensitive, the fact of the matter is that the inspiration for the cartoon was a photograph of Israelis on the Sderot hillside overlooking the bombing fun, some wearing skullcaps and flaunting the Israeli flag. Anti-Semitism, screamed the Israeli lobby, and forced the newspaper to apologia and retract the cartoon. The response from the Australian government was telling. Senator George Brandis, coincidentally overseeing legislation that will considerably clamp down on whistle-blowing journalism, said of the cartoon that it’s “the kind we haven’t seen since Germany in the 1930s”. And just like that, the scathing, revelatory column on Israel’s atrocities in Gaza, which could have been just as easily penned by the enlightened Jewish Robert Manne, as the gentile Carlton, was buried beneath the controversy over the cartoon.
And this, too, is American-inspired. Indeed, not long ago, when Daily Show comedian Jon Stewart expressed, for the first time, sympathy for Gaza residents undergoing the bombardment, he was lambasted by rabid defenders of Israeli policy. But it’s not just comedians who are subject to scurrilous attacks after daring to criticise Israeli hubris and war criminality, Jimmy Carter, who some would argue was the last actual Democratic president, Clinton and Obama being stooges for the neo-liberals, found himself attacked by his interviewer when he told it like it was about the roadblock to peace in Palestine which has been deliberately constructed by radical Zionist expansionists with a view to eventually evicting or destroying every last tenant’s hold on the land, a kind of terror nullius . As investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill noted in a recent Huffington Post live interview, “”Israeli propagandists are largely given carte blanche to say what they want on American television with very little push-back.”
One might get the impression that Israel citizens are as united behind their government’s actions as the US Senate has proven to be, but that would be wrong. There have been multiple demonstrations within Israel of people fed up with the war in general and with the occupation in particular. There is vigorous debate within the media and plenty of outrage voiced for the atrocities that have taken place. But these views and this debate are largely suppressed by, one imagines, the manipulation of search engine and ranking algorithms.
Whether adversarial and investigative journalism can even survive 2014, given the enormous pressure it is under from the US government, is anyone’s guess. Consider that New York Timesinvestigative journalist James Risen who may go to jail for contempt rather than reveal the identity of a whistleblower who provided Risen with classified information about a CIA plan to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program. Formerly prominent whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers back in 1971, which initiated Nixon’s long, drawn-out demise, said recently,
“The pursuit of Risen is a warning to potential sources that journalists cannot promise them confidentiality for disclosing Executive Branch criminality, recklessness, deception, unconstitutional policies or lying us into war. Without protecting confidentiality, investigative journalism required for accountability and democracy will wither and disappear.”
And that would be the final atrocity for Democracy, with no one left to witness the bulldozing of our emaciated truths about unbridled power into a shallow grave.
 Milton Leitenberg, “Deaths in Wars and Conflicts in the 20th Century,” Cornell University Peace Studies Program, Occasional Paper #29, 3rd Ed., August 2003.