On not believing everything you read in Newsweek

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Let’s grant that Newsweek was not able to authenticate its Koran-in-the-toilet story. Does that mean we are free to ignore what is reported from the regions most affected by our “war on terrorism”? Lo, none other than Laura Bush said yesterday (May 20), “You know, you can’t blame it all on Newsweek.” While the magazine’s report was “irresponsible,” she said, the rioters deserved some blame too. (Maybe she read Tom Friedman’s column that day about that very same subject.)

Today’s news (May 21, 2005): A former Afghan force commander (our ally during the Afghan offensive), Abdul Khaliq, was interviewed by a New York Times reporter. This man, who is presently working in road construction to improve his country, said that he was happy at first to see Taliban members taken prisoner. Now, however, he is agitated about what he has heard about insults to Islam and sexual abuse in Guantánamo. Reportedly, he said this: “The Americans were good people before. Now, definitely, people are changing their minds about America.” Should we discount this testimony because “the media is biased”?

In Pakistan, the issue of American abuse is especially prominent because prisoners released from Guantánamo are interviewed on Pakistani radio and television as soon as they get home. Only last Friday (May 13), an Urdu-language television talk show taped interviews with two Pakistani ex-prisoners who said they witnessed desecration of the Koran. Is this true? Most Pakistanis apparently believe it is true. Reporting by Newsweek is not required for this to become known.

I admire Billy Graham. I admire Franklin Graham and his agency Samaritan’s Purse. But one could make a case that in the long run Franklin Graham’s much quoted remark, “Islam is a very wicked religion,” has done far more harm than the Newsweek article. Why is that so? Here’s why: it is so because a great many of our American soldiers are evangelical Christians, and they have been led to believe that contempt for Islam is a Christian virtue. Charles Graner, of Abu Ghraib infamy, has described himself as a Christian, and part of the defense at his trial was that he handed out Bibles to Iraqis. He is only the most egregious example. There have been many documented stories about guards deliberately insulting the faith of prisoners, and these reports have not been discredited.

The same May 21 Times article describes a middle-class Pakistani woman looking through the women’s magazines in an Islamabad bookshop as her two children played in the aisles. She was asked by a reporter to comment on America. “The first word that comes to my mind is ‘torture,'” she said, “[Guantánamo] is a place where Americans lock up and torture Muslims in the name of terrorism.”

Typical American responses to this will be, “All she hears is propaganda.” “The reporter went looking for someone who would say that.” “The article is slanted.” “Why don’t they say something good about America?” These responses, which I hear everywhere I go, demonstrate an unwillingness on the part of “Christian” America to face our lack of military discipline and the betrayal of our own best values.

None of these abuses would have occurred, or would have been promptly stopped, if the president, during his various visits to military bases, had given speeches denouncing torture and abuse as un-American; and if the generals passed this word down the chain of command, and if the officers in charge of the prisons made regular unannounced inspections, and if the rank and file were thoroughly trained in procedures, attitudes and techniques that respect the humanity of those who are in their power. It is simply undeniable, at this stage, that the soldiers in charge of these situations, both officers and non-coms, were confused about the mixed signals they were receiving. The evidence for this has been piling up for months and is uncontrovertible.

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