The mother of all media wars is brewing, and its outcome will affect the future of Iraq and the Middle East. Now that ABC, CBS, and NBC have played up photos taken by U.S. guards at Abu Ghraib who foully played at being pornographers, will they do the same with photos of the deadly abuse that Saddam Hussein dropped on his Abu Ghraib prisoners? Will the broadcast networks remind Americans of what we are fighting for, or will they merely dwell on what reflects poorly on the Bush administration's military effort?
For pro-life Americans, this type of battle is nothing new. Networks for 30 years have played up the pro-abortion side's ugly tales of "back-alley abortions" and have shown marchers waving coathangers, without specifying how rare maternal abortion fatalities were in the pre-legal days once penicillin was available to treat infections. They have refused to show photos of never-to-be-born children, burned in the wombs that should have been their havens or sliced apart as the terrorists sliced Nick Berg's head from his body on May 11. Many media outlets have even refused to show drawings of what happens during partial-birth abortion.
Some 30,000 Iraqis executed by Saddam's guards at Abu Ghraib cannot communicate their memories; their bodies lie in shallow graves. So it has fallen to seven Iraqis to become symbols of both the old regime's brutality and the new sheriff's compassion. The seven were among those who had their right hands cut off when Saddam decided that it would be illegal to exchange Iraqi currency into dollars. On May 26 they sat in a Heritage Foundation auditorium and watched the first public screening of Remembering Saddam, filmmaker Don North's 50-minute documentary that has been excerpted on CNN but otherwise largely ignored.
It should not be, because Remembering Saddam helps us to recall not only the old regime's brutality but the way Americans often respond to dramatic cases of need. The film itself portrays the lives of the amputees, presenting the amputations themselves in segments short enough to let the squeamish turn away. The men received a minimal amount of anesthetic: then came the surgery, done-in the words of Dr. Joseph Agris at the May 26 premiere-"like taking off a chicken leg." After-care was also minimal: "They tied off a few blood vessels and closed the wounds," Dr. Agris said. "I'm surprised they didn't get infections."
The final scene of the film shows a severed hand placed on a table with forceps. But that is not the final scene of the story. Producer North began searching for a way to help the men, and eventually made contact with Houston journalist Marvin Zindler and Dr. Agris, a reconstructive surgeon who agreed to operate on the Iraqis. Houston's Methodist Hospital agreed to provide surgical facilities. The German-American company Otto Bock contributed state-of-the-art electronic prosthetic hands that cost $50,000 each and respond to trained muscular movements. Two Houston companies, TIRR and Dynamic Orthotics, donated rehabilitation and training for the patients. Continental Airlines flew the men from Europe to Houston. The Pentagon and the Coalition Provisional Authority cut through red tape and flew the men out of Baghdad.
On May 26 the Iraqis, still learning how to use their new hands, waved and displayed finger movement following the showing of the film. They are already able to tie shoelaces, use Ziploc bags, and-more important-pick up pens and write letters to those they love. In Texas they had watched an Astros game in the owner's box and relished a barbecue at the Y.O. Ranch. And they are reflecting on their experience. Basim Al Fadhly spoke of how Saddam's media "described Americans as people with no morals. Everybody we met [in America] has treated us in a kind way."
The men had spent 45 minutes in the White House with President Bush on May 25, the day before the film's premiere, and were still excited and grateful: Al'aa Hassan spoke of the "courageous decision by the president to get rid of injustice and terrorism." But they were most impressed with how neither President Bush nor the White House itself put on airs. Laith Aggar said of the Oval Office, "I was surprised because it's a small office." He added, "I thought we'd have to wait for several hours . . . if someone wanted to meet Saddam, he'd have to wait 30 or 40 hours."
They wanted to make their appreciation of America unmistakable. Salah Zinad expressed his "gratitude and thanks to the mother of each soldier who is in Iraq. With their efforts we've been able to open the big prison of Iraq." Hassan Al Gearawy added, "You are people who believe in freedom. God gave you a president who respects freedom as well." Basim Al Fadhly added about President Bush, "He is a believer, because he talks about the situation in Iraq in a spiritual way. You don't find this way of speaking among many leaders."
Nor is that way at all evident at the leading American newspapers or the major television broadcast networks, which have not covered this story of brutality and compassion. Perhaps they don't want to cover the good news, preferring to dwell on the bad. But why must they be so one-sided in their coverage, drip-drip-dripping on the misfeasance of American prison guards and turning away from visually arresting images that would show why most Iraqis still see the United States as a liberator?
Photos and film to feed a visual medium abound, although some may be too brutal for mass showing. Saddam and his two now-dead sons, Uday and Qusay, apparently enjoyed the pornography of brutality and often ordered the videotaping of punishment. Don North reports that Uday apparently "taped his pet lions killing and eating two young men," and that Saddam's videotapers sent to an Iraqi general who had fled to Jordan a tape showing the rape and torture of his wife and daughters.
Another film apparently shows one prisoner thrown from a roof and another beheaded, with the head placed on the victim's prone body as the executioner reportedly sings, "Happy Birthday, Saddam." Other so-far-embargoed images may include shots of prisoners being castrated and-this resonates in terms of our own abortion debate-babies being gassed to death.
Which of these images should be shown? Some Christians might say none, and quote what the Apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians: "Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." But Paul could not have meant that we are to dwell exclusively on these things, for he himself wrote of beatings, immorality, shipwreck, and other experiences as far from purity as Abu Ghraib is from compassion.
How graphic the coverage should be is another matter, but in our national debate we're still at the stage of exposing a double standard. Conservatives are asking why journalists are so restrained in showing what could help more Americans understand what we're up against, and so quick to show that which reflects poorly on America. In a May 14 speech William Bennett asked, "Why do we not see the plastic shredders that humans were placed in under Saddam Hussein, sometimes headfirst, sometimes feet first? Why do we not see Hussein's torture chambers, which were operated as a matter of policy, and see instead only our abuse, which was an aberration? Why do we not see the mass graves of al-Hilla?"
And if we cannot see pictures, should not at least the words of our enemies be widely disseminated? The beheaders of Nick Berg proclaimed, "As for you Bush, dog of the Christians, anticipate what will harm you . . . you will only get shroud after shroud and coffin after coffin, slaughtered in this manner."
Mr. Bennett also noted, "We've been here before," as he pointed to the way networks showed very little "of the burning and beating and hanging of the contract workers in Fallujah at the end of March." But the pro-life movement has been here long before the Iraq War began. The battle has never been merely "pro-life" vs. "pro-choice," because many on the "pro-choice" side have fought against showing evidence that would help more women to make an informed choice. Many of our leading information media are now carrying on a battle against providing full information.
The same goes for Iraqi coverage. With the United States now divided on the war, leading media outlets should help Americans to make an informed choice-and that may mean looking at disturbing images so that we'll not make the mistake of thinking we can obtain peace by wishing it.