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Spinning Media Gears For A Far Away War


BAGHDAD — From the 12th floor of the Al-Rashid Hotel, the view is much like the panorama of any large metropolis. Along wide streets, cars are in constant motion. The cityscape is filled with tall buildings and residential neighborhoods. Nothing seems out of the ordinary — except that if all goes according to plan, my tax dollars will help to turn much of this city into hell.

As autumn began, a prominent New York Times article cited “senior administration officials” eager to sketch out the plan: “Officials said that any attack would begin with a lengthy air campaign led by B-2 bombers armed with 2,000-pound satellite-guided bombs to knock out Iraqi command and control headquarters and air defenses.”

That kind of flat language makes for comfy reading. We don’t need to be disturbed about the specter of war in a faraway place. But what if the place is not far away?

Looking out at Baghdad’s skyline, I think about the terror likely to descend on this city. For some people underneath the missiles, their last moments will resemble what happened at the World Trade Center a little more than a year ago.

Quite appropriately, the media response to 9-11 included horror, abhorrence and 100 percent condemnation. The power to destroy and kill did not in the least make it right.

But now, day by day, the power to destroy and kill becomes more self-justifying as reporters and pundits acclimate to the assumptions of official Washington.

This has happened before. When war appears on the horizon, and especially after it begins, a heightened affliction seizes most news outlets. The media spectacle becomes steady regurgitation of what’s being fed from on high. And right now, the nation’s media diet is stuffed with intensifying righteousness.

War gets attention. But already, with sanctions, the U.S. government has led a more insidious assault on Iraqi people for more than a decade. How do we grasp 5,000 children a month dying as a result? The grim statistics, even when reported and attributed to such sources as U.N. agencies, haven’t made much noise in the media echo chamber.

On a Saturday morning in September 2002, at the Al-Mansour Pediatric Hospital in Baghdad, mothers sat as usual on bare mattresses next to children languishing with leukemia and cancer. The youngsters are not getting adequate chemotherapy; the U.S.-led embargo continues to block some crucial medications.

Walking through the cancer ward, I remembered the response from then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright when, during a “60 Minutes” interview that aired on May 12, 1996, CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl asked: “We have heard that a half a million children have died. … Is the price worth it?” Albright replied: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price — we think the price is worth it.”

Easy to say, or accept, when others do the suffering and dying.

Consequences of the sanctions have been ongoing. The State Department continues to veto some crucial shipments of basic medical supplies to Iraq, including such items as special centrifuges for blood separation, plasma freezers and fusion pumps. After three visits to southern Iraq, most recently in September, an Austrian physician named Eva-Maria Hobiger says in heartfelt imperfect English: “By the support of these machines, the life of many sick children can be saved. It has to be called a crime when innocent and suffering children are the target of policy.”

Now, as with years of sanctions, top officials in Washington — making a “very hard choice” for all-out war — evidently figure “the price is worth it.” Geopolitical talk and strategic analyses dominate media coverage, while moral dimensions get short shrift.

I doubt that an American would find it easy to look the mothers and patients in the eyes at the Al-Mansour Pediatric Hospital. And I wonder what their lives will be like if, as expected, the missiles begin to explode in Baghdad. I don’t want to think about that. It’s much easier to stick with comfortable newspeak about “a lengthy air campaign led by B-2 bombers armed with 2,000-pound satellite-guided bombs.”

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