Monday, November 22, 2004

wounded prisoners and doing the right thing

Kevin Sites, the man who took the footage of the marine killing a wounded Iraqi, now has an account of the incident up at his blog (from Instapundit). If things are as he described, the marine did, in fact kill a wounded, helpless prisoner and ought to face the consequences.

But Sites's explanation of why he released the film rings hollow. He writes
We all knew it was a complicated story, and if not handled responsibly, could have the potential to further inflame the volatile region. I offered to hold the tape until they had time to look into incident and begin an investigation -- providing me with information that would fill in some of the blanks.
He doesn't say what answer the Marines gave. I expect that if they had said "No, don't worry about it. Go ahead and publish it and inflamed passions be damned!" then Sites would have reported it. Why didn't he?

A careful reading of this quote suggests that Sites actually offered to hold the video for a limited time and then only if he were given some sort of exclusive information on the investigation and potential court martial. If so, the Marines turned down his offer because it made no difference to them if the tape were released the next day or the next month. Either way, it was likely to get more Marines killed. Not to mention civilians.

Am I reading too much into this? Maybe. But the fact remains that Sites remembered Abu Grahib. He knew what was almost certain to happen when he published the tape. In fact, the potential for inflaming the region is exactly what made the tape so valuable to him. He knew it would make him famous.

There was no issue here of exposing a cover-up. By his own account, the Marines were already taking the issue very seriously:
I told the unit's commanding officer what had happened. I shared the video with him, and its impact rippled all the way up the chain of command. Marine commanders immediately pledged their cooperation.
Although the matter was apparently being handled he tells us
Hiding this wouldn't make it go away. There were other people in that room. What happened in that mosque would eventually come out. I would be faced with the fact that I had betrayed truth as well as a life supposedly spent in pursuit of it.
So what if the facts came out? The Islamists are waging a war of propaganda against the US. Sites is not so naive that he doesn't understand that. And he is not so naive that he doesn't understand how much more valuable to this war pictures are than words.

Sites knew very well that the pictures would have a far greater impact than a mere report of an investigation and possible court martial. What kind of propaganda could the Islamists make out of the fact that an American Marine was being tried for mistreating prisoners? Nothing. For their propaganda coup, they need pictures. Motion pictures showing an American Marine killing a helpless prisoner. Pictures they could show over and over to make it seem like an atrocity had been committed over and over.

Kevin Sites gave them that. And he did it with full knowledge and deliberation.

He knew that what he was doing was wrong. You can see it in his decision-making process
That doesn't make the decision to report events like this one any easier. It has, for me, led to an agonizing struggle -- the proverbial long, dark night of the soul.
Kevin Sites had a choice to make: did he take the action that made him famous and might lead to many deaths of innocent people or did he make the choice to sacrifice this great personal opportunity in order to do the right thing?

Worded like that, of course, any man with pretensions to being a good person would have no choice. So that's when you start inventing moral principles to justify what you really want to do. That's when you come up with rationalizations like this:
In war, as in life, there are plenty of opportunities to see the full spectrum of good and evil that people are capable of. As journalists, it is our job is to report both -- though neither may be fully representative of those people on whom we're reporting. For example, acts of selfless heroism are likely to be as unique to a group as the darker deeds. But our coverage of these unique events, combined with the larger perspective - will allow the truth of that situation, in all of its complexities, to begin to emerge.
You just ignore important questions like how important this emergent Truth is when compared with civilians being kidnapped and brutally murdered. You rely on a higher morality. Something with a fine name like "The Truth". Something so high that it isn't even comparable to worldly considerations of screaming people having their heads sawed off with a big knife.

Kevin Sites found his reasons. He appealed to a higher, if arbitrarily constructed, morality; one that will serve for the moment and then be discarded when it is no longer useful, to be replaced by yet another morality to justify the next awful thing he wants to do.

Or who knows? Maybe his job will be such that this particular principle will serve him well for years as it has other journalists, salving their consciences with high-sounding rhetoric to justify their own self-interested ambitions.

It has worked well for Dan Rather. Why not Kevin Sites?

No comments: