Thursday, July 29, 2010

"What's hard to look at"

This week's issue of TIME features a heart-wrenching photograph of an 18-year old Afghan woman who had her nose and ears cut off by the Taliban as punishment for running away from her abusive in-laws. It's a disturbing look at the awful things that people do to one another, a tangible, visible reminder of the brutality that ideologues visit on those they seek to rule.

But is it right?

TIME's managing editor, Richard Stengel, explained his decision to feature the photograph on the magazine's cover. (Fair warning: the link above takes you to his editor's note and a small version of the image, so if you're easily shaken and you'd rather avoid it, don't click. Here's the cover story, and here's a link to a full-size pdf of the image.)
The much publicized release of classified documents by WikiLeaks has already ratcheted up the debate about the war. Our story and the haunting cover image by the distinguished South African photographer Jodi Bieber are meant to contribute to that debate. We do not run this story or show this image either in support of the U.S. war effort or in opposition to it. We do it to illuminate what is actually happening on the ground. As lawmakers and citizens begin to sort through the information about the war and make up their minds, our job is to provide context and perspective on one of the most difficult foreign policy issues of our time. What you see in these pictures and our story is something that you cannot find in those 91,000 documents: a combination of emotional truth and insight into the way life is lived in that difficult land and the consequences of the important decisions that lie ahead.
So: does this constitute advocacy? (Before you answer, consider the fact that the woman's picture is accompanied by the headline, "What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan.") Stengel's assertion that the decision to run the image was judgment-neutral strains credulity; will anyone view that photo and say "this helps confirm my view that we must withdraw?"

I don't have a problem with advocacy one way or the other, even by media organizations. Publications are within their rights to have an editorial line, and if TIME's is that we ought to stay in Afghanistan indefinitely in order to protect the human rights of Afghans, then that's fine. But let's not fool ourselves that this is merely "provid[ing] context and perspective on one of the most difficult foreign policy issues of our time," unless that context and perspective amounts to "there are no good options here."

And again, didn't we already know that?

I don't want to reduce this whole thing to a complaint about the media and the circulation motive, the ethics of making editorial decisions and headline choices out of a drive to sell papers, etc etc, because I don't find that to be a particularly interesting subject. Will more people pick up this issue because of the disturbing cover image? Probably. Will some people avoid it for the same reason? Probably. Will more people be talking about TIME because of this provocative editorial decision? Certainly, and it strikes me that that's probably the point.

So I guess if we're trying to come around to something bigger than a discussion of journalistic ethics, it's this: should the plight of women (or people in general) under hard-line theocratic rule be driving our policy choices?

What about after 1,000 dead Americans?

What about after 10,000 dead Americans?

There's no moral equivocation here. We are the good guys, and there's no two ways about it. I'm not going to sit here and say "well the Taliban might cut people's faces off, but we kill plenty of people with misguided Hellfires and that's just as bad!", because it's not. There's a difference in intent, and that matters.

But where's the line? How many human rights are enough? How much suffering is too much?

So, this: What's the magnitude of human tragedy required to justify a financially and strategically bankrupting enterprise?

7 comments:

  1. I'm not so sure the 'plight of women under under hard-line theocratic rule' is driving our policy. At least, not any more than any of the other human rights that Afghans lacked under the Taliban. Reality is, that for years the Taliban allowed and celebrated such abuses and we were never motivated to lob TLAMs into AFG until they were supporting attacks on our Embassies.

    It took genocide in the Balkans for us to fight a 'low-risk' air campaign. America doesn't go to war against those who grossly violate human rights. At best in AFG the human rights abuses are a supporting reason why we fight.

    Since that webpage posted the classified documents, some interesting news has been coming out regarding the insurgents, LWJ has it that Omar has done a 180 on not attack civilians (http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2010/07/mullah_omar_orders_t.php), Time runs this front page article. ISAF's fb page is running a story about an IED expert was caught wearing a burkah. This is information warfare, and it is how we fight back.

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  2. This is information warfare, and it is how we fight back.

    You think TIME is willfully participating in a US IO campaign?

    This is sort of a digression, but I'm not sure the LWJ has the Omar thing right. I'm not an expert on this and I haven't studied the issue, but I feel confident that Afghan civilians who openly and expressly collaborated with coalition forces were not off-limits to violence even under last year's proclamation. (Afghan "civilians" who openly aided the enemy would no longer be considered civilians by ISAF standards and international law, so why wouldn't the same be true in reverse?)

    I'm not so sure the 'plight of women under under hard-line theocratic rule' is driving our policy. At least, not any more than any of the other human rights that Afghans lacked under the Taliban. Reality is, that for years the Taliban allowed and celebrated such abuses and we were never motivated to lob TLAMs into AFG until they were supporting attacks on our Embassies.

    It took genocide in the Balkans for us to fight a 'low-risk' air campaign. America doesn't go to war against those who grossly violate human rights. At best in AFG the human rights abuses are a supporting reason why we fight.


    This is fine, and I basically agree. The problem is when it's used as the thrust of a pro-escalation or pro-involvement argument. The counter-sanctuary, anti-safe haven, going-after-AQ rationale is so obviously bankrupt as to leave the human rights argument as the single reed in the wind, the one thing that supporters of the war can point to as an unvarnished evil of U.S. departure: innocent people will be killed.

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  3. I see this as the flipside to reporting from 2004 to 2008. Back then, it was the continuous drumbeat of US casualties. Every TV news report ended with the reporter solemnly giving us the latest tally of Americans killed in Iraq. Every newspaper article related to Iraq did the same. Every day, the news informed us of many Americans had been killed on that day, in Iraq. We were given news stories that focused on two things: dead Americans and declining approval ratings for the President. The focus was entirely upon the cost in American lives without regard to the chaos that would have followed a withdrawal from Iraq. For some reason, Time has now done the opposite with this issue.

    I think you asked a good question: "should the plight of women (or people in general) under hard-line theocratic rule be driving our policy choices?"

    My answer would be: It should not "be driving" our choices, but it certainly should be considered. It does not justify the scale of our efforts in Afghanistan.

    I'm not really bothered by this story. Even if it did bother me, it will be forgotten soon enough. As noted, I think the impact on human rights should be a consideration. I am glad to see that the media is now at least willing to consider more issues than just the simplistic # dead and % approval. Unfortunately, I think that critical thinking will be a bridge too far for most Americans. Casual observers want to be told what to think: is Afghanistan good or bad? Should I be happy or angry with the President? The media will soon recognize this, and reports will soon revert back to # dead and % approval.

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  4. I didn't mean to sound as if Time's cooperation with a IO campaign was implicit... But, the timing is interesting.

    I'd like to say that fighting for human rights is not the single reed.... But, I saw Biden on TV today saying over and over again, 'we're not Nation building in AFG. We're there to kill Taliban.'

    http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSN2924677020100729

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  5. One problem is that war makes people more mad and more extreme.

    Such excesses will only become more common the longer the war keeps going.

    This kind of brutality is not a Taliban invention. The Taliban are rather a kind of religious ideology-molded paramilitary arm of the Pashtu society. Some of their supposedly "Muslim" beliefs are rather Pashtu tradition.

    Time Magazine seems gets involvedd in propaganda.

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  6. Let's not forget that the Soviets had abolished this barbarity at least until we gave the fanatics the werewithal to rocket girl's schools and reinstate it.

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  7. I'd be the first to point to exactly this as a reason to stay, but your final question is one I wrestle with all the time. Obviously the United States can't remain in Afghanistan as a combat force forever, and perhaps the best hope is to get to a point to where ISAF will be an actual assistance force, doing FID and supporting diplomatic-civilian efforts in the country. But where's the line? I still don't have an answer, but I do know that the closer we come to any kind of withdrawal, the closer we come to abandoning half the country to a closed life.

    Is it worth it? I'd like to think so, but the utilitarian in me protests.

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