Killed Far Away, Ignored

The American media's treatment of death in the War on Terrorism, and the alarming rhetoric it enables

Writing in Salon, anti-war polemicist Glenn Greenwald observes that hawkish pundits and readers who patronize their work are aghast when American civilians are killed by terrorists, but are perfectly comfortable endorsing bellicose policies that result in the loss of many more innocent lives:

Behold the spectacle of those who cheered for the attack on Iraq (resulting in the deaths of at least 100,000 innocent people), who casually call for massive first-strike nuclear attacks on other nations (certain to vaporize hundreds of thousands or millions of humans), who loyally marched lockstep behind a leader who instituted a worldwide torture and disappearance regime, lamenting how those grimy, backward Muslims over there have a disturbing and incomparable affinity for violence.

It is certainly true that the wars launched in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks have claimed many more innocent lives than the planes steered into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and that Pennsylvania field. Greenwald is also right to point out that the world's Muslims aren't uniquely prone to violence, an observation that needn't prevent us from acknowledging the indefensible behavior of radical Islamists. Those 100,000 innocents dead in Iraq include some civilians killed by American troops, but orders of magnitude more who were killed (in the power vacuum we created) by intra-Muslim sectarian violence or suicide bombings launched by fundamentalist insurgents.

The barbaric nature of terrorists who would kill Americans if given the chance should neither make us callous to the suffering of their peaceful co-religionists nor blind us to the innocents affected by U.S. foreign policy. Pace George Orwell, however, "it takes a constant struggle to see what is in front of one's nose," and the consequences of our military action abroad are hardly right in front of us: the news media daily sanitizes the images that the public sees in a way that causes us to grossly underestimate everything from the suffering of Iraqis and Afghans to the sacrifices of U.S. soldiers.

Our press has always been more squeamish about portraying violence than its counterparts in Europe, where graphic images are common features of front page photographs. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, mainstream newspapers and television programs briefly chose to be more graphic in their coverage, rightly judging that sanitizing the events of that day would do us a disservice. But why is it less important to fully confront the reality of what is happening now in Afghanistan and Iraq? The United States Armed Forces has lost 5,885 people in those two countries. When did you last see a photograph of one of their coffins? Has the story of an innocent Iraqi killed by our forces ever flashed across your TV screen? The figures are mere abstractions.

It is no wonder that some pundits casually call for military strikes that would certainly kill many thousands of innocents. Even the actual dead in wars we're fighting are treated more like abstractions than dead humans. And given the behavior of our press, an American could be forgiven for conceiving of September 11 as having claimed more innocent lives than the War on Terrorism, though the reverse is true by orders of magnitude. Implicit in this media coverage is the notion that audience sensitivity is an important a consideration when reporting from abroad as conveying the truth. So long as that attitude prevails, many Americans will remain callously insensitive to faraway deaths in which they're implicated.

Photo credit: Reuters/Tim Shaffer

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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