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Fighting with Pinpricks: Media and war crimes

Published: January 25, 2008
Section: Opinions

For the most part, war crimes have never been of much interest to our media. Nazi war crimes—the gold standard of human cruelty—went largely unreported until after the last days of the Second World War. News of the Srebrenica massacre in 1995 had to battle for column inches against the murder trial of an erstwhile football star, and in 1997, the most brutal massacres of the Algerian Civil War were generally ignored amidst the maudlin months-long mourning for a former member of a powerless cadet branch of the powerless House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.

Despite our culture’s deep obsession with all things violent, massive acts of political murder and maiming rarely feature on the front pages of our newspapers. Even when such actions do get reported, they are less the stuff of breaking news and more the stuff of page A12, a tidbit of suffering which the effete can denounce over cocktails and thus secure their status as humanitarians.

That’s why I was unsurprised that only one major newspaper printed that one of this country’s biggest allies was accused of war crimes by a UN special rapporteur on Saturday. Indeed, even the article in question, from the New York Times, buried this all too credible accusation in the fifth paragraph of the story.

The ally in question was the State of Israel which last Friday bombed a building in Gaza which formerly housed the Hamas Interior Ministry, but which since 2006 has housed absolutely nothing. Shrapnel from the attack killed one woman and injured at least 46 civilians, including revelers at a wedding next door and children playing soccer in the street. John Dugard, the UN special rapporteur for human rights in the Palestinian territories, said that those responsible “for such cowardly action . . . are guilty of serious war crimes and should be prosecuted and punished for their crimes.” This is hardly Israel’s first war crime, but it is noteworthy—and newsworthy—that such an important UN official not only labeled the attack a war crime, but also called for prosecution.

Much has been made recently about the stifling effects that Israel’s supporters in the US have on the conversation about human rights in Palestine. These effects are certainly real and certainly troublesome. But it is also worth noting that the non-coverage of Israeli war crimes is also indicative of a non-coverage of all war crimes in our media atmosphere where even the best known war crimes of late—in the former Yugoslavia and in Sudan—are covered in unsatisfactory and superficial detail and their social, political, and economic causes are generally overlooked. Israel is certainly a special case—the specter of being labeled an anti-Semite or a self-hating Jew haunts all of Israel’s critics—but the end result is the same for most cases. To wit, most Americans know very little if anything about the numerous crimes against humanity which have been committed in the last half century.

It is important for both Israel’s critics and its supporters that this change. The biggest human rights debate of 2007 was whether or not Israel is an apartheid regime. While this question is still hotly contested, I think the biggest human rights debate in 2008 will be whether or not Israel is committing a slow-motion genocide in Palestine. The substance of this debate is best left to another article. The key point is that this discussion has started in left-wing publications and has spread to the mainstream British press as evidenced by a recent article in the Times of London and a recent report on the BBC which both referenced these accusations. Unfortunately this conversation will not take place in the American mass media. It will be a narrow conflict explored mostly by elite human rights workers at the UN and within some NGOs and by little known and even lesser read leftist journals of opinion. The majority of the American public will remain oblivious.

This situation is bad news for both left and right. It is bad for the left because such a narrow discussion of these issues makes it difficult to amass broad political support for any action which has any hope of ending Israel’s war crimes. It is bad news for the right because the primary players in this debate will likely be individuals and groups who Zionists traditionally view with suspicion and accuse of holding an anti-Israel bias. Instead, both left and right should agree that a broad and democratic debate on Israel’s human rights record is best. Unfortunately, such a debate can only happen when the mainstream American media gets serious about reporting on war crimes.