The Journalism of Empire: an Exhibit in LA Times

(1:30PM EST – promoted by Nightprowlkitty)

Imagine a future in which the United States has been invaded and occupied by China.  Imagine that Chinese forces speeding through downtown Chicago open fire in an intersection and kill your son, as he sits in the passanger seat of your car.  Now imagine that the American Branch of the Chinese Government offers you money to make up for it.

Imagine that you say to the Chinese official holding out the cash, “I don’t want your money.  I want you to think American life is precious.”

According to an article in the LA Times headlined Blackwater shooting highlights a U.S., Iraq culture clash, you are weird and hard to understand; the product of an alien culture.

Baraa Sadoon had “60 fragments of bullet lodged in his abdomen”:

Several times he asked about his car, which was shot up in the incident. Investigators told him it was still needed for the investigation. They wanted to know whether he planned to ask for compensation. He was miffed.

“I want you to feel that Iraqi life is precious,” he said he told them.

It is an all-too-typical effect of war and occupation.  The population of the imperial power — in this case, you and I — is told that the occupied people are strange, their culture too hard for we more civilized people to understand.  The article both insults the intelligence of the reader and distorts and damages our understanding of ourselves and other human beings around the world.

Physician Haitham Rubaie doesn’t want money either. What he wants above all is justice for his wife, a doctor, and his son, a medical student, who died.

He rebuffed attempts to have a donation to an orphanage made in his family’s name. No amount of cash, no matter how well-intentioned, would sweep this under the rug.

“I don’t want any help from you,” he said he told them. “If you want to help the orphans, you give them money yourselves.”

As readers, we are asked to think of Dr. Rubaie as culturally distant from us.  A believer in a kind of justice we neither grasp nor would ever accept.

“Our system is so different from theirs,” said David Mack, a former U.S. diplomat who has served in American embassies in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates. “An honor settlement has to be both financial and it has to have the right symbolism. We would never accept their way of doing things, and they don’t accept ours.”

Is this also an effect of imperialism?  That we, the occupiers, come to think that “ours,” our justice system, our sense of right and wrong, of just and the unjust, is so shallow and base?  Do we evict our souls so we can stand the thought of the killing and torture of civilians in other lands?  Do we reduce ourselves to imagining that we, in their position, would accept the money?

Note the emphasis on unimportant cultural accoutrements.  Iraqi “glasses of tea” are mentioned, and we are meant to understand that we, the readers, are not like that.  We don’t care about commiseration.  We don’t care about responsibility.  We know nothing of these “glasses of tea”:

But traditional Arab society values honor and decorum above all. If a man kills or badly injures someone in an accident, both families convene a tribal summit. The perpetrator admits responsibility, commiserates with the victim, pays medical expenses and other compensation, all over glasses of tea in a tribal tent.

A neighbor pays a neighbor’s medical expenses and admits responsibility.  They must be Martians.  

I take it that we are to adopt, actually, a feigned British accent, and imagine days of yore.  Perhaps the occupation of the land so vital to “our interests” goes badly, old chap, because those Arabs are so hard for our boys to understand.

Perhaps, longer ago, Roman citizens sitting around back home said things like this about Britain, too.

Our system is so different from theirs,” said David Mack, a former U.S. diplomat who has served in American embassies in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates.

A product of that “different system” says:

“Let them apologize by saying those were innocent people,” Rubaie said. “Then we will be ready for understanding.”

The LA Times article is an object lesson in the collapse of basic decency that goes hand-in-hand with imperial ambition.  A failure of the heart; an end to empathy.  We are told that we don’t understand all of this.  We are told that we are less than human, or that the human is less than we.

Two days later, he said, he met with a Blackwater representative. The man offered him $20,000, Abdul-Razzaq said, “not as compensation, but as a gift.” Abdul-Razzaq said he refused again.

“If you write out an apology for me and confess your crime,” he recalled saying, “I will give you a similar paper with my signature promising not to press charges.”

He said the official told him such an arrangement was impossible. His company’s lawyers in America would never sign off on such a proposal.

The offical is you and me.  The offical is the one we understand.  So the journalism of empire would have us believe.  So we must believe, if we are to see all of this and be able to live with ourselves.


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  1. Also at DailyKos.

  2. except “thank you” LC, for reminding us.

    My heart is broken for Abdul-Razzaq, his family…and for us.

    • Edger on May 4, 2008 at 16:08

       These convoys are the arteries that sustain the ocĀ­cupation, ferrying items such as water, mail, maintenance parts, sewage, food and fuel across Iraq.


       These convoys, ubiquitous in Iraq, were also, to many Iraqis, sources of wanton destruction.

       According to descriptions culled from interviews with thirty-eight veterans who rode in convoys–guarding such runs as Kuwait to Nasiriya, Nasiriya to Baghdad and Balad to Kirkuk–when these columns of vehicles left their heavily fortified compounds they usually roared down the main supply routes, which often cut through densely populated areas, reaching speeds over sixty miles an hour.

       Governed by the rule that stagnation increases the likelihood of attack, convoys leapt meridians in traffic jams, ignored traffic signals, swerved without warning onto sidewalks, scattering pedestrians, and slammed into civilian vehicles, shoving them off the road. Iraqi civilians, including children, were frequently run over and killed. Veterans said they sometimes shot drivers of civilian cars that moved into convoy formations or attempted to pass convoys as a warning to other drivers to get out of the way.


       Sergeant Flatt recalled an incident in January 2005 when a convoy drove past him on one of the main highways in Mosul. “A car following got too close to their convoy,” he said. “Basically, they took shots at the car. Warning shots, I don’t know. But they shot the car. Well, one of the bullets happened to just pierce the windshield and went straight into the face of this woman in the car. And she was–well, as far as I know–instantly killed. I didn’t pull her out of the car or anything. Her son was driving the car, and she had her–she had three little girls in the back seat. And they came up to us, because we were actually sitting in a defensive position right next to the hospital, the main hospital in Mosul, the civilian hospital. And they drove up and she was obviously dead. And the girls were crying.

    The Other War: Iraq Vets Bear Witness
    Chris Hedges & Laila Al-Arian
    The Nation, July 9, 2007

  3. While speaking at a conference hosted by AKbank in Istanbul Turkey on May 31, 2007, just prior to the scheduled Bilderberg meeting, Henry Kissinger gave a speech in which he stated,

    “What we in America call terrorists are really groups of people that reject the international system…”

  4. of those essays which leave me speechless with pain. Pain for the basic inhumanity we practice and somehow manage to rationalize as ‘security’. Both political parties add insult to grievous injury when they call for the Iraqis to stand up. I feel hopeless when any one with even the slightest amount of power speaks the truth and is instantly branded as traitorous. The publics acceptance of this butchery, the cheering for our side, and the blaming of the Iraqis, just makes all hope for  my country die.  


    • RiaD on May 4, 2008 at 19:49

    from an alien culture with alien values….

    my goal is to take over the world & impose my alien values on everyone…over 3 cups of tea or coffee or chocolate or beer (if i absolutely must!) or even water!

    thanks for this….wonderful perspective awakening essay!

    do you mind if i print this out to give to a few select repubs??

  5. To this day I have a vivid memory of the powerful scene in the movie Hearts and Minds, an expose of the reality behind the Viet Nam War.  In the scene, the voice-over was of General Westmoreland (I think) talking about how the Asians don’t value individual life the way we do.  This was a popular conceit at the time.  The footage was of people at a funeral, wracked with grief.

    You are pointing out a refined version of calling your enemies rats so you feel okay to shoot them.

    Thanks for this.

  6. for the people of Mesopotamia. Instead they’ve been a curse since the end of WWI.

  7. . . . but it isn’t between “the U.S.” and Iraq.  It’s between BushCo and the human race.  BushCo certainly includes corporate America and thus the corporate ownership of the L.A.Times, but it still isn’t the same thing as “the United States,” though the corporate media will always pretend it is.  What’s completely unfathomable and inadmissable to BushCo  is that there are any crimes that can’t be paid for with money, and any people anywhere (including the United States) who can’t be bought off with money.  If any such people exist, they must be re-educated (the media’s job) or eliminated.

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