Sunday, May 6, 2012

THE PARADOX OF POLAR BEARS

This is another archival re-print from the Daily Dirt, this time taken from the May 8th, 2004 edition. I reprint it here at Useless Eater for archival purposes, and because I think it contains some of my best writing to date. - YOPJ
"If it is true that I am the wisest man in Athens, it must be because I know that I know nothing." 
Socrates, 395 BC 

Like most of you, yer old pal Jerky woke up one day last week to learn that an American had been beheaded in Iraq, that the murderers had videotaped their crime, and that an uncensored, digital version of the video was available on the Internet. After a minimum amount of searching, I found it on Ogrish.com, a site exclusively devoted to bringing exactly this type of footage to the masses. Just as millions of others did, I went to the site and downloaded the video.


At the time, I'd seen ABC's coverage of the lead up to that slaughter, including footage of a young man by the name of Nick Berg speaking to the camera, followed by the reading of a statement by his soon-to-be murderers as he sat quietly in front of them. Ogrish dispensed with all that, offering only the final, horrific minutes. The "money shot". I wish I'd known their version offered no time to prepare for the wide-awake nightmare it presents.

The video starts immediately. Five hooded men stir as one of them pulls a knife from his vest. They pounce on the pale figure at their feet. A chaotic jumble of bodies flashes across the screen. The camera jumps and shakes, as though the cameraman was having second thoughts. The murderers chant glory to their god, and as one of them begins to saw off his head, Nick Berg howls in panicked, animal confusion. Nine times.

My blood froze. I went numb. These clichés remain in use for a reason. They offer an accurate approximation of the physiological reflexes that constitute horror. I wanted to stop the video, but something inside wouldn't let me. Whatever that something was, I hereby curse it to hell.

Ogrish's motto is "Can you handle reality?" Apparently, I can't. Unfortunately, it took having my brain raped by the most callous and brutal act I've ever had the misfortune of witnessing to reveal this sorry fact.

When it was over, once the blood began working its way through my veins again, it was time for another cliché. My heart sank. Realization dawned hard. There were no significant barriers to seeing this footage. No esoteric peer-to-peer hoops to jump through. This thing was easier to find than a McDonald's restaurant. It's quite possibly the most disturbing footage ever caught on camera… and everybody's watching it.

The repercussions of this ubiquity were not long in coming. Immediately, the organized American Right seized this golden opportunity to minimize the impact of the growing Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, vilify Muslims in general, and galvanize the wartime resolve of an American public that was growing ever more weary of Bush's Iraqi distraction.

Listing every example of the Right's shameless exploitation of this atrocity would be impossible. The few included in this essay are a fair representation of the rhetoric and tactics at play.

Syndicated simpleton Sean Hannity kicked off the festivities on day one, playing the audio portion of the snuff vid on his radio show. He sanctimoniously defended this ghoulish exploitation by declaring: "I think people need to know what we're dealing with - it's evil right before your eyes." Indeed.

The notorious Michael "Savage" Weiner echoed 19th century sentiments in his jeremiad: "Smallpox in a blanket, which the U.S. Army gave to the Cherokee Indians on their long march to the West, was nothing compared to what I'd like to see done to these people… Doc Savage recommends as an antidote to this kind of poison coming out of the Middle East from these non-humans."

Former satirist Phil Hendrie used his radio show to stoke the fires of hate, declaring it was time to "take out this Muslim garbage… this subhuman filth."

And, in his most recent editorial, talk radio "personality" Neal Boortz hit on all the common themes: "Suddenly the pictures of what happened in the Abu Ghraib prison don't seem to be quite so horrific, do they? … These are the people we are fighting. They are vicious relentless Muslim animals who will not stop killing innocent Americans and who will not abandon their dream of a world dominated by Islam until they are utterly and completely destroyed. … The retaliation for this vicious act must be firm, it must be swift, and it must have a violent finality. These inhuman Muslims must learn that these actions against Americans will not go unanswered ... and the answer will have a terrible finality."

There you have it. The cold-blooded murder of a single American has been transformed into a blanket justification for genocide. This is not an uncommon sentiment. People calling in to these shows and posting on their message boards, by and large, concur. Never mind that the vast majority of Muslims around the world found this murder as reprehensible as we. Never mind that even the leaders of the extremist Hezbollah and Hammas movements decried it's Satanic travesty. The hysteria among a certain segment of the American population reached pathological levels long ago. Now, it's nearing apocalyptic levels. Nuke 'em all. Let Allah sort 'em out.

But conservatives didn't limit their finger pointing to those who cleave to the Mohammedan faith. Karen Pittman wasn't expressing an unpopular idea when she wrote: "If anyone in America 'caused' the beheading of Nick Berg, it was those few sanctimonious, cynical Congressmen (like Teddy Kennedy) who were looking to 'decapitate' Donald Rumsfeld and General Richard Myers - they are the ones with blood on their hands."

Yet another favorite target found itself back in the sights… the so-called liberal media. Log cabin paradox Andrew Sullivan claimed that mainstream media outlets refused to air uncensored footage of Berg's decapitation because they only want to run stories that harm Preznit Dubya. As proof, Sullivan and other right-wing pundits say that search engine data shows people are more interested in Nick Berg's decapitation than they are in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. The media ran the Abu Ghraib photos, but didn't run the uncensored footage of Berg getting his head sawed off. Therefore, the media are serving their own agenda, rather than meeting the needs of their constituency.

Never mind that nothing in the tiny fraction of prison abuse photos so far released comes anywhere near the horror of the Berg tape. Never mind that no mainstream media outlet has ever aired completely uncensored footage of a murder this gruesome. Never mind that the BBC and CNN - both paragons of communist indoctrination, according to the Right - broke the story in the first place, making a de facto farce of Sullivan's specious/facetious contention. Never mind that those search engine results are indicative of nothing more noble than human prurience, the voyeuristic desire to see someone's head cut off. I mean, for fuck's sake... the second most popular search engine topic after Berg's murder is Paris Hilton's nookie tape!

But no... according to the Right, the media's refusal to air uncensored footage of Berg's murder must be a liberal plot to deny Americans the information they so righteously desire, because that's what liberals do! They try to manipulate people's emotions by controlling information, thus distorting the dialogue to suit their own sick and twisted agendas.

Somehow, that old saying about "the pot calling the kettle black" just doesn't seem strong enough.

I am reminded of a story currently unfolding in Norway, where a family of polar bears - a mother and two cubs - have become stranded on an isolated Arctic island. The ice melted before they could retreat inland. Now, with the seals gone, the bears face certain starvation. Animal loving Norwegians have urged authorities to launch an emergency rescue mission. After all, if they can get a news helicopter out there, why not a rescue chopper? Government official Sissel Aarvik cut the discussion short. "In nature most animals after all generally don't survive their first year," she said. "We currently do not have any plans to intervene."

With that in mind, consider the following.

In Fallujah, four heavily armed mercenaries were recently ambushed and killed by Iraqi insurgents, their bodies dragged through the streets by celebrating civilians. When this happened, the media presented it as both spectacle and warning. We were expected to be shocked and awed by the sheer barbarity of it all. When we were treated to grisly footage of the Fallujah ambush aftermath - charred corpses hanging from a train trestle like salamis in a deli window - the usual suspects shrieked their predictable outrage. Interestingly, they mostly concentrated on the desecration, and not the killings. "How dare Iraqis not be as squeamish about dead bodies as they should be? Those filthy animals!!!" It was seen as justification. As validation. As confirmation of the moral superiority of the WAR NOW! crowd.

So how did America prove its moral superiority to the "animals"? By threatening an overwhelming response, and following through on that threat. They reduced schools, mosques, and hospitals to smoldering rubble. They avenged the deaths of four individuals by killing over six hundred people, most of them innocent of any crime. Only a year ago, coalition forces leveled Iraq with "shock and awe" and "decapitation strikes." They filled the streets with corpses. Nearly 30,000 Iraqi civilians - I repeat, that's CIVILIANS - have been killed so far in the Bush administration's manifestly criminal war of first resort.

And now, we're all expected to go ballistic over the murder of poor Nick Berg by persons unknown. But let's leave all that for tomorrow, when the Dirt will present a complete rundown of the myriad mysteries surrounding Berg's life, his death, and all the things that don't add up about that tape.

I leave you with some final thoughts.

The reason governments use propaganda is because it works. Propaganda works because it seeks not to convince with reason, but to blind with emotion. The murder of Nick Berg and the mutilation of those four mercenaries were not, in and of themselves, enough to cause massive shifts in public opinion. Truth is not as powerful as photographs and video. That's why more attention was paid to the post mortem desecration in Fallujah than to the murders, themselves. Because we saw the desecration on tape, but the murders happened off camera. That's why so much attention is being paid to Nick Berg.

Unlike the more than 800 coalition soldiers killed so far in Iraq - for whom we feel only fleeting, mathematical sympathy - we got to watch the terrible last moments of Nick Berg's life. Unlike the 600 citizens of Fallujah, who were blasted into pulp with weapons of mass destruction, we got to see the charred, hanging corpses and Iraqi children smiling at the sight.

And unlike the hundreds that starve to death under the exact same circumstances each and every year, Norwegians have been following the story of those doomed polar bears on their TV news. So they want the government to do something. In fact, they insist that the government do something. And therein lies the image's power to override reason. Therein lies an explanation for the success of propaganda. When you get right down to it, it's all about polar bears.

*** **** ***
Yer old pal Jerky's Words of Wisdom #106:
Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. But all opinions are not created equal.

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