Monday, February 6

And yet another . . .

Even more than most of my posts, this one is a thought experiment, so please bear with the meandering form. I'd be interested in any comments.

Many people, particularly Republicans (but also non-Republicans like myself, on occasion) have cautioned opponents of the Iraq war to be circumspect in their criticism. When Senator Kerry accused U.S. soldiers of terrorizing Iraqi women and children, Congressmen Pelosi and Murtha called for a speedy withdrawal, or Chairman Dean said that the war is unwinnable, their opponents chided them for encouraging the enemy and thereby endangering the lives of American soldiers. Most of these responses are as unhelpful as the comments to which they object--if an opposition party can't offer an alternate plan (even if that "plan" is "surrender"), then how exactly does our system of government work? And Kerry's opportunistic grandstanding is to be expected from one whose career was built on such shifty soil. No response is necessary. Just keep an eye on him to make sure that he's not going behind his country's back to negotiate a treaty with the enemy.

Others have upbraided newspapers and magazines for publishing information which, true or not, put our soldiers and allies in danger of reprisals from inflamed Muslim populations The Newsweek "flushed Koran" story and the New York Times's speculation that some Iraqi bloggers are funded by the CIA are examples of this. In the former case, the connection is clear: Newsweek published, Afghans rioted, and people died. Does Newsweek therefore bear any responsibility? Assuming the story was true, is the flushing of a Koran in the course of an interrogation even newsworthy? And, if so, does publishing it outweigh its likely impact on lives in the field?

These are difficult questions. An adequate discussion of the obligations and duties of the media during times of war would take up the rest of my week, so I will skip it and give my half-reasoned conclusion that anyone reporting a story should consider its possible impact. Even I agree with Newsweek's decision to report the desecration of a Koran, I can't say how far the rationale for doing so extends. To publicizing leaked information about intercepts of telephone calls between terrorists and phone numbers in the United States, at the risk of jeopardizing a valuable intelligence source that could save thousands of lives? To publishing battle plans leaked by a disgruntled general who believes that they are futile and dangerous? There has to be an uncrossable line, or, if you prefer, a point at which the balance between newsworthiness and reckless endangerment tips into irresponsibility.

This is a long-winded build-up to my point, which is: how much responsibility do newspapers who republish the Danish cartoons, knowing the likely reaction of many Muslims, bear for the torching of embassies, riots, boycotts, and violence against Westerners? My views on the wider controversy are set out plainly below, but this is a slightly different question and one that I would like to hear addressed by those who leap to praise unreservedly the French, Norwegian, Spanish, and German newspapers.

It is interesting that, despite the wide republication of the cartoons in Europe, to my knowledge, they have not appeared in any mainstream newspaper in the UK or the US, the two countries with the most troops committed in Iraq. What if they had? What if the New York Times had published them to show its solidarity with Jyllands Posten, and what if al-Jazeera had picked up that coverage and tens of thousands of Iraqis had stormed the Green Zone in Baghdad in protest? Or dozens of American aid-workers in Afghanistan had been beaten to death in retaliation?

How would Bill O'Reilly-type blowhards, who condemned Newsweek's Koran story, respond to a display of journalistic bravado in defense of free speech that cost lives?

Many people who have lauded Jyllands Posten have also criticized editors who have chosen not to run the cartoons as cowards or worse. The problem with this sweeping criticism is that an editor's excuse that publishing the cartoons would not be "responsible" could mean one of many interrelated things. It could mean, for example that it would be disrespectful of Islam, that it would upset many Muslims, or that it would endanger people at home or abroad. If it means either of the first two, then that is a quintessential editorial decision, which I would criticize only if the editor would treat another religion differently. No cartoons about Mohammed? Fine, but I don't want to see any insensitive depictions of the BVM next month. If it is the third, I think that it is a very different matter. Were I an American or British editor, I might very well decide that my responsibility to my fellow nationals and soldiers in the field outweighs my duty to take a stand in defense of free speech. A strongly worded editorial in support of braver (or more reckless) newspapers might be the wiser policy. This may make me a coward, but I don't think that the issue is that easily dismissed.


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