Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Killing the Messenger

It appears to be one of the great early successes in open-source journalism -- exactly what MSM futurists like Reuters' Tom Glocer seemed eager to greet and other news organizations welcomed with little visible trepidation.

But the unauthorized video of Saddam Hussein being hanged is likely to result in some severe penalty for someone -- one hopes it is at least the "guilty" party -- and for the moment the media focus seems to be on the act of taping some pretty odd gallows behavior by official participants (or were they? see below) rather than the behavior itself.

Ironically, the overarching issue is not whether TV would show the actual death. These days that discussion is quaint beyond words. The issue is that there is tremendous news value in the illicit recording of an historical event that could not have been obtained any other way. And, but for this, history would have been inaccurately recorded.

Recall that the first video released of the execution, the official video, had no audio
, an omission which seems explained now by the fact that the audio tells an unflattering story about how this execution was carried out. Recall also that not a single witness to the execution emerged to complain of unseemly treatment of the condemned, and that nobody is disputing the accuracy of the video.

So this tape, whatever the motivation of its author, sheds a new light on a newsworthy event around which rumor and speculation would have swirled for ages. And the official version, at first redacted almost as clumsily as Rose Mary Woods erasing the Watergate tapes, now looks like a coverup.

So, what to do? Iraq seems determined to make a bad situation worse.
"Whoever leaked this video meant to harm national reconciliation and drive a wedge between Shi'ites and Sunnis," said National Security Adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, one of a group of 20 officials and other witnesses who were present at the execution at dawn on Saturday.

Maybe. But the person who shot this video reasonably expected to leave with only a snuff film of a former dictator, not boys gone wild. If that person is trying to make trouble, what are we to make of the people on the video who actually are trying to make trouble?

And it gets better.
(A) senior Interior Ministry official said the hanging was supposed to be carried out by hangmen employed by the Interior Ministry but that "militias" had managed to infiltrate the executioners' team."The execution was carried out by militias and outsiders. They put aside the team from the Interior Ministry that was supposed to carry it out," the official said.
So, if this is the final official story it seems that Iraq cannot even manage to secure the Ministry of Justice's As-Buratha prison for an execution of historic proportions with the entire world watching. How hard will they try to ensure that the army and police are not infiltrated? What does infiltration even mean in today's Iraq?

The United States will bear blame for this. The U.S. captured Saddam. It handed him over to Iraq. But if there is any good news about all this, here it is: there is something to be learned from this transaction, something very valuable.

The U.S. captured Iraq. It will hand it over to Iraq. Will Iraq on that day be as clueless and ineffective as it was executing Saddam Hussein the moment it took control of him?

It may be that this 2:36 piece of grainy video becomes a metaphor for what is possible in the US-Iraq relationship, specifically how little power the former has to make the latter effective.

Will the passage of any amount of time help the U.S. help Iraq? If not, what are we fighting for?

1 comment:

Bob said...

This is good, John. You ask and answer some good questions about this. I can only add a view that in journalism, the truth is always better than the alternative. In this case, we are being forced to confront a number of truths we seem reluctant to accept, as we make ready to "surge" more anonymous Americans into this absurdist moral nightmare of our making. I'm not just talking about the "truth" of how Saddam went down. It's more the truth of war itself, which is murder--often sadistic, always disgusting--in a different context. So who, or whom, are we kidding? This morning, the New York Times' lead editorial bemoans the unfortunate loss of meaning, loss of benefit, loss of opportunity in this execution: "What should have been a symbolic passage out of Iraq's darkest era will instead fuel a grim new era of spreading sectarian vengeance." Well, who, or whom, are they kidding? The Times strongly supported the excellent Iraq adventure, and apparently retains some fantasy that good things will arise from a feast of death, from war unleashed as creative force. The Times' editorial writer seems to feel cheated. Wow, these Iraqis can't even handle a good hanging. It's depressing to confront just how far from good American competence these people still are. So yes, it's depressing to confront the truth. In journalism, the truth is not fully contained in just facts, but also in what the facts actually are, and what they mean. The Times apparently continues to sell a false, fantastic version of what the facts are and mean. As hard as it is to watch, this grainy little video says more in 3 chillingly efficient minutes about war, executions, expectations, the state of polite MSM journalism, the state of our government, and even of our culture, than the millions of false words and images already wasted on this obscene affair. Thank goodness for cell phones.