Tom Bradby, ITV News political editor, nutshelled the media zeitgeist in a single tweet:
‘I am not at all religious, but I can’t help feeling there may be a seventh circle of hell reserved somewhere for Jihadi John [the killer of James Foley, Steven Sotloff and David Haines].’
Bradby’s comment indicates just how rapidly Isis has come to represent nothing less than Pure Evil for the state-corporate media. Or as Mehdi Hasan, political director of Huffington Post, commented (without irony):
‘Isis, in other words, is evil. Scum. The worst of the worst. Unique, to borrow Obama’s phrase, in its brutality.’
Traditionally, claims that an Official Enemy is uniquely Evil rise to a deafening crescendo just prior to an attack on that enemy. In late 2002, a former intelligence officer told John Pilger that the flood of government terror warnings at the time were ‘a softening up process’ ahead of an attack on Iraq and ‘a lying game on a huge scale’. (Pilger, ‘Lies, damned lies, and government terror warnings,’ Daily Mirror, December 3, 2002)
Sure enough, the US and various unsavoury allies this week began a bombing campaign ostensibly against Isis in Syria. As Jonathan Cook notes, the attack has taken place without a UN Security Council resolution or any serious argument that the US is acting in self-defence:
‘That makes it a crime of aggression, defined at Nuremberg as “the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole”.’
Compared to Obama – now embarking on his seventh war – George W. Bush appears a paragon of virtue, having at least troubled with UN resolutions. Bush commented in March 2003:
‘The world needs [Saddam Hussein] to answer a single question: Has the Iraqi regime fully and unconditionally disarmed as required by Resolution 1441? Or has it not?’
Early reports estimated that eight Syrian civilians had been killed in the latest bombing raids by US militants. The BBC buried a reference to the killings in a ten-word sentence in the middle of a news report:
‘Eight civilians, including three children, were reported to have died.’
Bad enough that civilians ‘died’, but how much worse if they had been killed by Britain’s leading ally.
A September 4 search of the Nexis media database for mentions of ‘Isis’ (Islamic State) and its alternative title, ‘Isil’, found the following mentions:
January 1 – May 31, 2014, CNN mentioned ‘Isis/Isil’ 110 times.
June 1 – August 31, 2014, CNN mentioned ‘Isis/Isil’ 1,465 times.
Between these same dates, the New York Times mentioned ‘Isis/Isil’ 89 times and 389 times, respectively. (David Peterson, email to Media Lens, September 4, 2014)
Much of this coverage has of course focused on Isis beheadings, massacres and other crimes – self-declared and alleged – in Iraq and Syria.
Absent from most media coverage is the recognition that these conflicts have been characterised by appalling violence on all sides. A curious omission, given that the same media have focused intensively on gruesome atrocities committed, for example, by the pro-Assad ‘shabiha’ militia in Syria, alleged to have been responsible for the May 2012 Houla massacre.
In the last three years, Lexis media database finds 933 UK national newspaper articles mentioning ‘shabiha’. In the last twelve months, there have been just 28 mentions, with 19 this year (Media Lens search, September 15, 2014). Yet another Damascene conversion, it would seem, just as the Western state-corporate media crosshairs moved from Assad to Isis.
Similarly, while it is true that Sunni forces, including Isis, have committed horrific crimes in Iraq, Sunnis have also suffered terribly. A recent New York Times headline made the point: ‘Sunnis in Iraq Often See Their Government as the Bigger Threat.’ The report explained:
‘Iraq’s Sunnis vividly recall how militias linked to the governing Shiite parties staged attacks against Sunnis during the worst years of the sectarian conflict last decade, often in cooperation with Iraq’s military and police forces, or while wearing their uniforms.
‘Mr. Maliki [former Iraqi president] was criticized for his inability or unwillingness to dismantle the groups, hardening Sunni mistrust of the government.’
Investigative journalist Scott Peterson added some background:
‘From the indiscriminate bombing of Sunni areas… to large numbers of languishing detainees, many Sunnis say the roots of discontent are obvious, and have resulted in support for groups as radical as IS.’
While the tit-for-tat nature of Sunni-Shia tortures, disappearances and massacres was extensively covered during the US-UK occupation, it is rarely mentioned now in media condemnations of Isis.
In fact, arguing that the West should ‘degrade and ultimately destroy’ Isis on the basis of its human rights record, without mentioning the context, is like arguing that Britain and America should have been wiped out for their conventional and atomic bombing of cities packed with civilians in the Second World War without mentioning German and Japanese crimes. Indeed, to be consistent, the West should be arguing that much of the Middle East and all members of the ‘coalition of the willing’ should be degraded and destroyed for committing atrocities.
In reality, of course, the attack on Isis is not about preventing atrocities. As Glenn Greenwald notes, ‘the U.S. does not bomb countries for humanitarian objectives. Humanitarianism is the pretense, not the purpose‘.
We wonder if state-corporate propagandists are able to reflect on the irony that even before two US journalists were murdered, the US had sent bombers half-way around the world to kill Isis fighters. And yet, over the last three years, the West has tirelessly condemned the actions of the Syrian government in a literal war for survival against Isis and other foreign-backed ‘rebel’ groups, on Syrian soil – a war that is alleged to have cost 190,000 lives, including 50,000 Syrian government forces. Certainly Assad’s troops have committed appalling war crimes. But one can barely imagine the scale of the US reaction if Isis had wreaked even a tiny fraction of this death and destruction on its homeland and forces, much less threatened its very survival.
‘Before We All Get Killed’ – Pressing The Panic Button
To his credit, CNN’s Brian Stelter asked recently whether journalists are ‘letting their fears get the best of them, or their ideological agendas’, commenting:
‘I myself am very concerned about the press provoking panic about ISIS… Bottom line, we journalists cannot let fear-mongering get in the way of facts.’
Peter Bergen and David Sterman, also of CNN, wrote an article titled, ‘ISIS threat to U.S. mostly hype.’
A report in the New York Times commented (September 10) of Isis:
‘American intelligence agencies have concluded that it poses no immediate threat to the United States. Some officials and terrorism experts believe that the actual danger posed by ISIS has been distorted in hours of television punditry and alarmist statements by politicians, and that there has been little substantive public debate about the unintended consequences of expanding American military action in the Middle East.’
‘Daniel Benjamin, who served as the State Department’s top counterterrorism adviser during Mr. Obama’s first term, said the public discussion about the ISIS threat has been a “farce,” with “members of the cabinet and top military officers all over the place describing the threat in lurid terms that are not justified.”
‘”It’s pretty clear that upping our involvement in Iraq and Syria makes it more likely that we will be targeted by the people we are attacking,” said Andrew Liepman, a former deputy director at the National Counterterrorism Center who is now a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation.’
Glenn Greenwald adds:
‘[T]he U.S. has known for years that what fuels and strengthens anti-American sentiment (and thus anti-American extremism) is exactly what they keep doing: aggression in the region. If you know that, then they know that… Continuously creating and strengthening enemies is a feature, not a bug. It is what justifies the ongoing greasing of the profitable and power-vesting machine of Endless War.’
The US media watch site FAIR also offered a rare dose of sanity putting the Isis ‘threat’ in perspective:
‘They have executed people they have taken hostage in violent, war-torn countries. This is criminal behavior, to be sure, but the idea that they constitute a danger to “national security” doesn’t add up.’
By contrast, in an interview conducted by CBS’s Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham commented of Obama:
‘This president needs to rise to the occasion before we all get killed back here at home.’
In the same programme, Schieffer asked another guest:
‘Seeing this video yesterday [of the beheading of British aid worker David Haines] leads me to believe that if we ever had any doubt about these people posing a threat to the United States, these videos would remove that. Are they a threat to our national security?’
‘Yes, America is wary of war, but when fires break out, we fight them before they spread, not when it is convenient. We have no choice now.
‘Whatever it takes and, as the president said, however long it takes, this evil must be eradicated. These forces must be destroyed.’
FAIR commented with its usual self-restraint:
‘When the host of a discussion show says, “We have no choice now,” that doesn’t bode well for the show having a discussion that presents a full range of choices.’
Unsurprisingly, a September 8 poll by CNN found that 75% of Americans support additional bombing raids on Isis (with 23% opposed). Remarkably, on the eve of the 13th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the perceived threat of Isis actually rivalled that of al Qaeda in 2003. The CNN/ORC Polls showed that 45% of Americans saw Isis as a ‘very serious threat to the U.S,’ while 49% thought the same of al Qaeda 11 years ago.
Jon Sopel, the BBC’s North America editor, interpreted this ‘mainstream’ media-inspired hysteria thus:
‘The American people demanded action. Two weeks ago [Obama] said he had no strategy. The American people told him to go and get one… All the American people care about is that the threat is dealt with. And – maybe reluctantly – that is the task the president is now undertaking.’
Media activist John Leach offered an alternative formulation on Twitter:
‘We poured sewage into this hole and Yougov [pollsters] have confirmed that it is indeed mostly full of sewage.’
A glimmer of hope for anyone opposed to Perpetual War is found in the fact that a majority of Americans, 61%-38%, oppose the use of US state militant ground forces in Iraq and Syria to fight Isis.
In the UK, over half the public (52%) would approve the bombing of Isis fighters by RAF militants – a dramatic 15-point shift from three weeks prior, when 37% backed the move.
Why should we view public fears and support for war with extreme scepticism? Because we have very recent experiences of state-corporate propaganda successfully deceiving the public in Iraq, Libya and elsewhere. In September 2003, a Time/CNN survey found:
‘Nearly seven in 10 Americans believe it is likely that ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the Sept. 11 attacks.’
The claim was entirely bogus, counter-intuitive and in fact fabricated. The US population had simply been deceived by state-corporate lies.
What these latest events reveal is the truly stunning ability of modern high-tech communications to very quickly influence the public mind. The lesson seems blindingly clear – the corporate media ‘watchdog’ works seamlessly with the state power it is supposed to hold to account to wage one war after another. Exposure of previous lie-based campaigns has little impact – the state-corporate propaganda machine is simply activated to demonise yet another target, to generate more benevolent rationalisations for yet more killing.