The news that a U.S. Army sergeant killed 16 civilians, most of them children, in southern Afghanistan early Sunday morning was treated by many media outlets primarily as a PR challenge for continued war and occupation of that country.
â€œAfghanistan, once the must-fight war for America, is becoming a public relations headache for the nationâ€™s leaders, especially for President Barack Obama,â€ explained an Associated Press analysis piece (3/12/12). Reuters (3/12/12) called it â€œthe latest American public relations disaster in Afghanistan.â€
On the NBC Today show (3/11/12) the question was posed this way: â€œCould this reignite a new anti-American backlash in the unstable region?â€ The answer: â€œThis is not going to bode well for the U.S. and NATO here in Afghanistan,â€ explained reporter Atia Abawi. â€œObviously people here very fearful as to whatâ€™s going to happen next, what protests will come about throughout different parts of Afghanistan, and how the Taliban are going to use this to their advantage.â€ â€œPeople,â€ as used here, would not seem to include Afghans, who are presumably less frightened by protests against a massacre of children than they are by the massacre itself.
The front-page headline at USA Today (3/12/12) read, â€œKillings Threaten Afghan Mission.â€ The story warned that the allegations â€œthreaten to test U.S. strategy to end the conflict.â€ In the New York Times (3/12/12), the massacre was seen as â€œigniting fears of a new wave of anti-American hostility.â€ The paper went on to portray occupation forces as victims:
The possibility of a violent reaction to the killings added to a feeling of siege here among Western personnel. Officials described growing concern over a cascade of missteps and offenses that has cast doubt on the ability of NATO personnel to carry out their mission and has left troops and trainers increasingly vulnerable to violence by Afghans seeking revenge.
The fact that the massacres occurred two days after a NATO helicopter strike killed four civilians was â€œadding to the sense of concern.â€
Another Times piece (3/12/12) began with this:
The outrage from the back-to-back episodes of the Koran burning and the killing on Sunday of at least 16 Afghan civilians imperils what the Obama administration once saw as an orderly plan for 2012.
That sounds as if â€œoutrageâ€ is the most serious problem–the reaction to the actions, not the actions themselves.
Treating the killing of civilians as chiefly a PR problem is not a new phenomenon. As FAIR noted (â€œThe Bad PR of Dead Civilians,â€ 5/11/09), the news that dozens were killed in NATO airstrikes brought headlines like â€œCivilian Deaths Imperil Support for Afghan Warâ€ (New York Times, 5/7/09), â€œClaim of Afghan Civilian Deaths Clouds U.S. Talksâ€ (Wall Street Journal, 5/7/09) and â€œAfghan Civilian Deaths Present U.S. With Strategic Problemâ€ (Washington Post, 5/8/09).
Covering the latest atrocity, the Washington Post (3/12/12) reported that â€œthe killings Sunday threatened to spark a new crisis in the strained relationship between the United States and Afghanistan.â€ A separate piece quoted an anonymous U.S. official complaining that massacres â€œplays to the absolute worst fears and stereotypesâ€ of the U.S. military, and that â€œitâ€™s the type of boogeyman [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai has always raised, but weâ€™ve never had an incident like this.â€
But there have been similar single incidents, most notably a 2007 attack by Marines that killed 19 civilians. And night raids by NATO forces have killed Afghans throughout the war.
On the Sunday talkshows, Republicans and Democrats spoke about the massacre–often with little to distinguish their points of view. On ABCâ€™s This Week (3/11/12), Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham told viewers that â€œunfortunately, these things happen in war…. You just have to push through these things.â€ He added that â€œthe surge of forces has really put the Taliban on the defensive…. We can win this thing. We can get it right.â€ Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-New York) remarked:
I think the president has a good plan. Obviously, itâ€™s a very difficult situation because we have real terrorism that emanated from Afghanistan. The president doesnâ€™t get enough credit. Heâ€™s done an amazing job with the drones and Al-Qaeda.
On NBCâ€™s Meet the Press (3/11/12), Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell, a Republican, said the news was â€œtragic because we have so many brave men and women, David, for now 10-plus years in the global war on terror, have done marvelous work for the cause freedom in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places…. Itâ€™s too bad and weâ€™ll have to see the details. But Iâ€™m really proud of what our kids are doing there.â€
Is it too much to expect that the dominant reaction after a grisly atrocity should involve sympathy for its victims rather than pride in the forces whom the perpetrator belonged to?