The Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks in Paris were framed as an assault on freedom and democracy by Western mainstream media. This discourse was facilitated by statements of Western world leaders who “vowed to stand up for freedom of expression”. Western media further inquired the causes of such horrific events and identified a connection between Islam and terrorism. As Noam Chomsky pointed out:
The crimes also elicited a flood of commentary, inquiring into the roots of these shocking assaults in Islamic culture and exploring ways to counter the murderous wave of Islamic terrorism without sacrificing our values.
However, as Chomsky further stressed, such inquiries are only conducted when we look at “Their crimes against us”. Chomsky reminds us how Western culture “scrupulously” neglects to morally interrogate “Our crimes against them”. In this context it should be noted that in Western discourse, terrorism is only applied to describe actions of political violence conducted by non-state actors. However, terrorism is a tactic that is by no means limited to non-state actors but can also be identified in the realm of states.
One example constitutes “the Marine assault against Fallujah in November 2004” which, in Chomsky words, was “one of the worst crimes of the U.S.-UK invasion of Iraq”. Chomsky describes the initial attack on Fallujah as follows:
The assault opened with occupation of Fallujah General Hospital, a major war crime quite apart from how it was carried out. The crime was reported prominently on the front page of the New York Times, accompanied with a photograph depicting how “Patients and hospital employees were rushed out of rooms by armed soldiers and ordered to sit or lie on the floor while troops tied their hands behind their backs.” The occupation of the hospital was considered meritorious and justified: it “shut down what officers said was a propaganda weapon for the militants: Fallujah General Hospital, with its stream of reports of civilian casualties.”
“Evidently, this is no assault on free expression, and does not qualify for entry into “living memory,” Chomsky concludes.
Violence against Civilians during the April Fallujah Assault
It might be worth to further explore the Fallujah example. It sheds light on how Western political and intellectual culture treats democratic values such as freedom of expression during the pursuit of what could be termed “Our terrorism”.
Fallujah was twice attacked by U.S./Coalition forces in April and November 2004. During the April attack, about 600 Iraqi civilians were killed. The following paragraph was written by human rights worker Jo Wilding for the British newspaper The Guardian. Wilding had traveled to Fallujah in mid-April 2004:
People have been under bombardment for the last eight days. A lot of people are trapped in their houses still – despite the ceasefire – without food, without water and terrified to leave. Food and medical aid is now arriving but the problem is getting the aid around the city. A lot of it is delivered to the mosque, but then getting it to the hospitals, past the American snipers, is proving to be impossible. […]
An elderly woman with a wound to the head was still carrying the white flag she had been holding when she was shot. They were all saying it was American snipers shooting […] We saw mainly bullet wounds for the majority of civilians. Families are getting injured when they try to leave the house, trying to escape for Baghdad. A bullet goes astray or it gets them in their house. Then a lot of people are injured from shelling. They get hit by shrapnel that gets into the house.
Similar reports albeit on television were provided by an “unembedded” Al-Jazeera crew, led by reporter and talk show host Ahmed Mansour. This was the only news team to broadcast graphic footage from inside Fallujah depicting actions by the US/Coalition as horrific atrocities. The U.S. military consequently believed that it had to suspend its “operations” in April because media coverage by Al-Jazeera had incited anger among Arab publics. In its preparation for the November assault, the then Iraqi puppet government of the West, the so called Iraqi Interim Government (IIG) headed by Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, launched a flak operation against Al-Jazeera and independent journalists.
Press Censorship in Preparation for the November Fallujah Assault
According to investigative journalist Dahr Jamail “the interim government announced [in November 2004] that any al-Jazeera journalist found reporting in Iraq would be detained”. On the brink of the November Fallujah “operation”, the Iraqi Communications and Media Commission, which was overseen by Allawi and the IIG, issued a verdict to all Iraqi media that they should reflect the government line or expect legal action. The instruction of the Commission, which included the letterhead of the Iraqi prime minister’s office, ordered journalists to “set aside space in your news coverage to make the position of the Iraqi government, which expresses the aspirations of most Iraqis, clear”. Furthermore, the statement required the media to “guide correspondents in Fallouja [sic] […] not to promote unrealistic positions or project nationalist tags on terrorist gangs of criminals and killers”. Allawi also asked Arab journalists not to report from Fallujah without military company, advising them to join a press pool established by the Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF). The pool journalists were likely those to be embedded with the military. Hence, while only a handful of embedded journalists joined US forces in April, 91 embeds representing 60 media operations were present during the second “operation” in November.
A report by the U.S. Army’s National Ground Intelligence Centre (NGIC), leaked by the online platform WikiLeaks in December 2007, positively highlighted the importance of embedded reporters: “False allegations of noncombatant casualties were made by Arab media in both campaigns, but in the second case embedded Western reporters offered a rebuttal.”
Another important element of the U.S./Coalition media strategy was the lock-down of Fallujah in November which denied anyone to enter the city. This can be seen as a measure supposed to guarantee that journalists and relief workers like Jo Wielding were not able to report from Fallujah in November. In fact, access denial constitutes a strategy of indirect censorship.
These significant restrictions of free speech were not of concern for Western leaders and media commentators. There was also no discussion in the press as to whether military tactics in Fallujah might have amounted to state terrorism.
The Military Strategy in Fallujah
Ironically, Western media commentators literally described the military strategy in Fallujah in the same way as terrorism is defined in official definitions – albeit without labeling them as such. For instance, in the New York Times, journalist Edward Wong paraphrased a “senior American military officer in Iraq” who said he “hoped the tactical victory achieved in Falluja would push ambivalent Sunni Arab leaders to side with the Americans and become involved in the political process”. Similarly, theWashington Post’s Jim Hoagland argued in a comment piece “the most important immediate objective” in Fallujah was “to dissuade Sunni townspeople from joining, supporting or tolerating the insurrection” pointing out that “the price they will pay for doing so is being illustrated graphically in the streets of Fallujah”.
It could thus be argued, in accord with the U.S. Code definition of international terrorism, that the “operation” in Fallujah appeared “to be intended […] to intimidate or coerce a civilian population” in order to subdue resistance to U.S./Coalition rule. As yet, this case representing “Our terrorism against Them” has not elicited much outrage in the Western hemisphere. No investigation in the root causes of “Our terrorism” in Fallujah has been conducted.
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