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Losing it in a snap

By Terry Joseph
May 14, 2004

Using only personal experiences, consider the many occasions on which long-term success or even instant gratification was but a millisecond away when fate intervened, sneeringly; extinguishing with impish grin even the most fleeting acknowledgement of glory.

Were it a private defeat, residual feelings of inadequacy might soon subside, but when the incident is discreetly captured on easily disseminated media, there remains ominous potential for all the world to witness this enormous misunderstanding about who really authors your résumé.

Even if the mission was patently ill-advised and its result twisted into triumph by sheer bigotry, spontaneous approval vindicates original sin only until new light offers fresh parallax. At a time well before now, getting away with murder required only that no one saw what actually happened.

Technology has long fixed that, so the US military should have seen its latest fiasco coming.

On April 14, 1970, two young black men were shot to death in Alabama, USA, during a civil rights march. Police officers involved enjoyed temporary endorsement from the racist community in which they functioned. That wave of conspiratorial empathy quickly collapsed when hazy but damning snapshots of the episode were released on that evening's television news.

Largely theatrical abhorrence replaced tacit sanction-but even so, only for a while. Just two years later, in April 1972, the contentious television sitcom, All in the Family, which made light of racial prejudice, swept the Emmy Awards. In April of 1992, four policemen beat Rodney King in Los Angeles. Late last month, coalition forces lost at least the psychological war in Iraq through exposure of yet another set of incriminating pictures.

Precisely one year ago, as the conflict in Iraq escalated, the Arab television network Al Jazeera, was globally criticised for showing American prisoners of war being humiliated. Captured after a coalition convoy came under attack near Nasiriya, 12 soldiers were either killed or scandalised for the cameras. American and humanitarian authorities roundly condemned not just the atrocity but Al Jazeera's airing of it.

"We don't know all the details yet. We do know that we expected them to be treated humanely just like we are treating the prisoners of theirs that we capture humanely," US President Bush told reporters at the White House. For as long as it was top story, he remained in the vocal and visual vanguard of those who play by the rules.

Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld said parading prisoners of war before television cameras is a violation of the Geneva Convention-a set of rules that supposedly govern the conduct of nations locked in armed conflict. And even in the face of contrary pictures, Iraqi Defence Minister Sultan Hashim Ahmad that same day told a Baghdad news conference his country would conform to the Swiss accord.

Recently, CBS Television aired a shocking slide show of snapshots showing American military seniors abusing Iraqi prisoners of war, using methods not heard of since the Spanish Inquisition. Rumsfeld and Bush expressed "shock and awe" and the world echoed the sentiment. In a snap, coalition forces and nations comprising them conceded a major defeat in a war mounted primarily to rid the world of institutionalised "Saddism".

It somehow slipped us all to chastise CBS for showing pictures of identifiable Iraqis being humiliated, persons who, presumably, will one day return to society after having their genitals shown globally. Evidently, the same Geneva Convention had been suspended in the interest of a more profound cause. What is good for the goose is suddenly good for a gander.

But what happened next was even more astonishing. By way of reprisal for atrocity by coalition forces, an American was dragged before the camera and decapitated in living colour. Not to be outdone, conflict in the Middle East delivered pictures of the latest Israeli-induced carnage in Palestine and militants of the latter grouping killing five soldiers and displaying their body parts as trophies.

Clearly, what we are witnessing, frame-by-frame is not (as the spin doctors would have us believe) temporary insanity on the part of a few but a suspension of all agreed protocols on the part of the many. Whether they be pictures of Abu Ghraib prison or from a theatre of war near you, snapshots of civilisation as it crumbles are even more chilling than those of prisoners forced into performing dehumanising acts.

Apparently, it is no longer sufficient to merely conquer the enemy. The victor must now further demonstrate superiority in much the same way as barbarians did. And given today's technology and media competition, it is becoming infinitely more difficult to cover-up such acts. Even if CBS hadn't broken the story, pictures of the atrocities would have been on the Internet or, by now, delivered directly to your e-mail inbox.

Perhaps we misread last year's refusal by President Bush to be party to agreement on the International Court of Criminal Justice and, after recent discovery that he is often aware of things long before they manifest, it could well be that he knew the US stood a good chance of becoming that court's first defendant and, given the evidence, losing that case in a snap.

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