Panoptic War

TCS Daily

June 8, 2006

Editor’s Note:  Terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has been killed.  Images of Zarqawi’s face are making the rounds as you read this, reinforcing many of Dr. Joyner’s assertions below.

The war in Iraq has had powerful images from the beginning and public perceptions of the war have shifted along with the prevailing images. The world rejoiced at the sight of Saddam Hussein’s statute being toppled and of him dragged dirty and bearded from his spider-hole. We recoiled in disgust at gruesome images from Abu Ghraib. Our mood lifted with the sight of purple fingered Iraqis voting in their first meaningful election. Televised video of a terrorist strike on Samarra’s Askariya mosque and ensuing rioting sparked talks about the inevitability of civil war.

The most ubiquitous pictures, though, are of atrocities committed by the insurgents and their terrorist allies. A series of hostage beheadings perpetrated on videos, beginning with the May 2004 murder of Nick Berg, were for a time all the rage online. Less spectacular but more important are the seemingly daily images of carnage from IED explosions, car and suicide bombings, kidnappings, and small terrorist attacks that demoralize the American public in a steady drip . . . drip . . . drip.

The Washington Post‘s Philip Kennicott argues that “The Iraq war is the first major conflict fought in what might be called the age of the new Panopticon,” which he describes as a “world of instant cameras, cellphone snapshots, e-mailed photographs, a world that produces a nonstop, immediate and ubiquitous visual record of itself” that is “breaking the government’s monopoly on omniscience.”

Images of dead children at the Iraqi villages of Ishaqi and Haditha are bringing comparisons to Mai Lai, even though an investigation has exonerated those responsible for the former and criminal charges are almost certainly forthcoming in the latter case. As Kennicott explains, “Photographs are immediate. Investigations are by necessity methodical and often slow. These two different senses of time — the immediate and the methodical — are now in troubling conflict. A dead child cries out for immediate response; the military investigates.”

How one perceives this “Panopticon” likely depends on one’s preconceptions about this war and our military. It is doubtless true, however, that the widespread availability of imagery of the horrors of this war will simultaneously clarify and mislead.

Even when the photos tell the truth, as in Abu Ghraib, the power of stirring images is such that anomalies get heightened emphasis and sometimes contexts get dropped. A handful of bad soldiers in that camp got far more coverage than the tens of thousands of decent ones risking their lives to bring a better life to ordinary Iraqis; the former simply make for more titillating news. And there are pictures!

That the Ishaqi tragedy was almost certainly accidental and an outgrowth of a legitimate military mission will be permanently overshadowed by images of dead children. There’s even a video, carried by BBC but produced by “a hardline Sunni group opposed to coalition forces,” that shows the carnage. We can safely predict more people have seen those images than will ever read the report.

During the 1990s, the power of the mass media, especially the 24/7 real-time coverage of the all-news cable networks, to shape public perceptions about foreign policy issues was dubbed the “CNN Effect.” Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution notes that the 1992-1993 intervention in Somalia is the classic case. President George H.W. Bush intervened at least partly because of public pressure caused by “graphic pictures of starving children” and that President Bill Clinton announced our departure after televised images of “a gang desecrating the body of an American, dragging it through the streets.”

There is an old adage in media circles that “Dog Bites Man” isn’t news but “Man Bites Dog” is. Planes that don’t crash, politicians who don’t accept bribes, homes that haven’t caught fire, and schools where no shootings take place are much more representative of our world than the converse but, precisely because of this, they aren’t interesting.

Yet, coverage of the remarkable and titillating is necessarily distorting. It is well documented, for example, that public perceptions of crime track local news coverage of violence much more so than actual crime statistics.

If that’s true of the world that immediately surrounds us, shouldn’t it be truer of events happening halfway around the globe?

This is an asymmetric war, with the world’s best military trying to contain a guerrilla force that, as Christopher Hitchens notes, is reduced to “the use of random murder to create a sectarian and ethnic civil war” and efforts “to alienate coalition soldiers from the population.”

Yet, the information war is asymmetric, too. The enemy can dominate media coverage by staging constant acts of mayhem. News about mundane affairs of state, like coalescing of democratic institutions, revitalization of the infrastructure, or even the relative peace and prosperity in most of Iraq is very much “dog bites man” when there’s gore to be shown.

Sadly, however, these tactics have been sufficient to turn American public opinion against the war. As I write this, 2477 American servicemen have lost their lives in over three years of fighting in Iraq. While tragic, that is tiny in relation to past wars. Indeed, we lost more people on D-Day alone and nearly three times that at Gettysburg. But those wars weren’t on television and every single death was not memorialized daily on the national news or the subject of comic strips.

The old saying that, “If it bleeds, it leads” might be restated as, “If it bleeds, it misleads.”

Original article