What a difference a year makes. Immediately after September 11, US news organizations were seized by a narrow-minded nationalism that made dissent and even debate all but impossible. Susan Sontag became a national whipping girl for suggesting that the terrorists had shown courage, while Bill Maher lost advertisers for suggesting that those launching US cruise missiles were cowards. At Pentagon briefings, reporters were cowed into submission by the pugnacious Donald Rumsfeld, while at CNN Walter Isaacson declared that “there may be no more partisan issues to talk about for the next year.”
Today, there’s hardly an aspect of the war on terrorism that has not come in for intense scrutiny. The issue of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, for instance, which last fall and winter was completely off-limits, has since become a front-page staple. The FBI, which for months enjoyed the type of hushed respect it had had under J. Edgar Hoover, has been opened for vivisection. The New York Times‘s Tom Friedman, who last fall trumpeted his love for America and cast doubt on the loyalty of anyone who questioned its actions abroad, has been skewering the White House for its rudderless policy in the Middle East and its failure to address America’s dependence on foreign oil.
Last September, Newsweek placed on its cover a photo of three firemen hoisting a flag amid the rubble of the World Trade Center. “God Bless America,” the cover declared. This past August, by contrast, it was “The War Crimes of Afghanistan.” “In November,” the cover blared, “America’s Afghan Allies Suffocated Hundreds of Surrendering Taliban Prisoners in Sealed Cargo Containers. Where Were U.S. Forces?” The eleven-page “special report” described how hundreds of Taliban soldiers had baked to death after being packed into airless shipping containers by forces commanded by warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum. According to Newsweek, the “close involvement” of American soldiers with General Dostum made the issue “all the more sensitive.” An investigator from Physicians for Human Rights who helped uncover the killings was quoted as saying, “US forces were in the area at the time. What did the U.S. know, and when and where–and what did they do about it?”
The report did a convincing job of establishing that a war crime had taken place. It was less convincing in establishing US culpability. As the article itself stated, “Nothing that Newsweek learned suggests that American forces had advance knowledge of the killings, witnessed the prisoners being stuffed into the unventilated trucks or were in a position to prevent that.” The small group of Special Forces soldiers in the area “were more focused at the time on prison security, and preventing an uprising such as the bloody outbreak that had happened days earlier in the prison fort at Qala Jangi.” The magazine noted, however, that Pentagon spokesmen “have obfuscated when faced with questions on the subject” and that officials “across the administration did not respond to repeated requests by Newsweek” for a detailed accounting of US activities in the area. In short, the Administration seems to have been guilty mainly of not responding adequately to Newsweek‘s questions–not exactly a war crime.
Certainly the new skepticism is preferable to the old servility. Among other things, it shows how poorly served Americans were by the enforced conformity after September 11. Even in times of national emergency, it’s the press’s job to ask discomfiting questions. Now, journalists–belatedly recognizing this–seem to be overcompensating on some matters. Thus, Newsweek, embarrassed by its earlier obsequiousness, tries to demonstrate its mettle by implicating the United States in a war crime, even when the evidence for it is scant. And, after the long blackout on civilian casualties, the press now seems intent on chronicling every single incident.