Foot-in-Mouth Disease

The World Organization for Animal Health recently certified Britain to be rid of the foot-and-mouth disease that had devastated the British meat industry. Unfortunately, the certification applied only to agriculture and not to the infestation of foot-and-mouth disease in the British media. The British press, especially the tabloid press, has deliberately distorted the nature of the detention a few hundred al Qaeda and Taliban from Afghanistan at Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo, Cuba. They have selectively presented information and suggested that Americans may be using torture against the detainees.

Much of this began with a Defense Department photograph showing detainees kneeling and shackled right before they were placed in cells. The photograph suggested to those predisposed to believe the worst that the United States was deliberately humiliating and mistreating detainees. We were reminded that the use of legirons harks back the days of American slavery. It turns out that additional restraints are used when the detainees are moved, not while they are in their cells. To not use these additional restraints with these dangerous detainees, in the words of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, would be “stupid.”

The Mirror provides an obvious example of such deliberate distortion. They ran a headline “Vietnam War Hero Condemns Camp X-Ray.” The veteran in question, Col. James Hughes, had once been captured and paraded around by the Viet Cong. If you read the quotations from Col. Hughes, you see someone unwilling to make any accusation, because unlike the British press, he doesn’t pretend to be informed. The worst he could say was that, “I just hope that they are not being treated like animals… I am enormously concerned about the welfare of anyone who’s being held in captivity.” The statement is an eloquent expression of generalized concern by a former victim of brutality, not any a specific condemnation of US actions as stated by the headline.

Much of the furor has died down and explanations about Camp X-Ray have been provided. The International Red Cross has visited and British officials and a US Congressional delegation have not found mistreatment of the detainees.

The real question is why the British press was so apparently anxious to accuse the United States of brutality, why even members of the British Parliament rushed to judgment. When thousands of Americans were killed in the September 11 attacks, almost all Europeans truly felt anguish at the loss of life. However, there was a small minority, irritated by the United States as the only superpower, smug in the realization that perhaps the United States had got its comeuppance. So long as Americans are victims, so long as Americans are being pulled from ruble, Europeans are sympathetic. When the United States exercises its right of response, some of the European Left gets squeamish and accusatory.

This anti-Americanism on the Left is not exclusive to Europeans and began as soon as US military action began. At the end of last year, there were exaggerated reports of civilian causalities in Afghanistan. Using press reports, Professor Marc W. Herold, of the University of New Hampshire, estimated civilian casualties of nearly 4,000 people. Given that the death count at the World Trade Center has been difficult to determine even in a open society and the fact that it is difficult to identify the civilians and Taliban and al Qaeda, it is foolish in the extreme to use press reports (many from papers unsympathetic to the United States) to compute a civilian casualty count. Herold’s civilian casualty total exceeds that of that claimed by the notoriously mendacious Taliban. Now the British press cites Herold uncritically as if he has a definitive casualty count.

A report from Edward Cody of the Washington Post Foreign Service illustrates the difficulty in untangling was it really going on in Afghanistan. On December 29, 2001, US forces destroyed a number of brick homes near Qalai Niazi, Afghanistan. Was this an attack on civilians or a legitimate military target? According to Cody, “Journalists who arrived here [Qalai Niazi, Afghanistan] on Sunday found a large store of ammunition that filled one little house, from boxes of rifle rounds to stacks of antitank rockets. But, by today, [Thursday] it had been hauled away, and people now swear it was never here in the first place.” One can understand how locals might want to distance themselves from the Taliban and al Qaeda, however, this motivation tends to diminish their credibility.

The foreign press has a positive obligation to examine every country critically, including the United States. No one supportive of liberty wants a lapdog press anywhere in the world. However, the zeal with which the British and European media have leapt to assert the worst on the basis of thin evidence reveals more about these media outlets than it does about the US military.

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