TCS Daily


Seeing Is Believing

By Duane D. Freese - April 22, 2003 12:00 AM

The poignant pictures of 12-year-old Ali Ismaeel Abbas, who lost his arms and his family from a missile explosion in Baghdad April 5, made an immediate impact on the world thanks to modern communications.

Quickly, the photos spread in newspapers, on television and over the Internet, bringing an outpouring of money to support the poor boy's recovery from his injuries, including severe burns over most of his body. One result is that the boy will receive the most advanced prosthetics now available.

All that's as it should be. Binding up the wounds of the innocents injured in the Iraq war is something everyone should support. But there is something amiss with making Ali's tragic tale into the "haunting face of war," as Reuters put it, or "symbol of Iraqi war suffering," as the Washington Post referred to him on his transfer to a Kuwaiti hospital for treatment.

Washington Post staff writer Philip Kennicott in the paper's Style section reflected that the "Images of War" in the Ali photos and those of curators returning of a ransacked National Museum in Baghdad represented "our things of darkness in this war." And he asked, "Will we acknowledge them as ours?"

In one sense, those who have supported the war must do that, as they have also accepted the images of happy Iraqis tearing down the statues of decades of repression.

But for those who opposed the war, there is a darkness to the peace that preceded it that they must acknowledge as well. For there are now images, not quite so stark but still revealing, of grieving Iraqi families at relatives executed by Saddam Hussein's government.

The tragedy in those pictures is that they are not measured in a thousand words, but in hundreds of thousands of lives - in 290,000 "disappeared" Iraqis over two decades, 100,000 Kurds killed, and 210,000 Marsh Arabs in southern Iraq displaced, imprisoned or murdered under the regime of Saddam Hussein.

The extent of the regime's terror network was hinted at when thousands of Iraqis went to a bombed-out police station in Basra, a detention and security center in Nasiriyah and the headquarters of Iraq's military intelligence in Baghdad to desperately seek relatives that the regime had taken away as long as a 20 years earlier.

Yet, when TCS recently attempted to find images of those past atrocities, it could come up with only two in a broad-ranging search of the Internet.

This, though, should hardly be surprising. Dictatorships retain their hold by hiding and denying what they do.

For example, when Kenneth Behring, former Seattle Seahawks owner and California real estate entrepreneur, sought permission to donate wheelchairs through his Wheelchairs for the World Foundation, to poor North Koreans in need, his request was succinctly rebuffed: "We have no disabled people," Behring was told. Considering there are 400 million disabled people in the world, and more than 100 million of whom in need of wheelchairs, that North Korea has none is ridiculous.

But it fits with the myth of the good life under tyranny that many in the anti-war camp help perpetuate. Ramsey Clark's International Action, which along with International ANSWER organized anti-war marches even after the fall of Baghdad, came up with this rosy view of North Korea, compared with Myanmar, from The Illustrated Book of World Rankings 2001:

"North Korea continues to face many difficulties, but in some areas its achievements have been amazing. ... Gross national product: ... Myanmar ranked 58th at $55.7 billion. North Korea ranked 64th at $22 billion. However, many goods and services in North Korea, like health care, education and housing, are virtually free. Percentage of income spent on housing: Myanmar ranked 87th at 10%, ... North Korea 164th at .8%. Percentage of income spent on health care: The U.S. ranked first at 17%, South Korea 35th at 5%, Myanmar 92nd at 2.4%. North Korea was not listed. Health care there is free. ... Infant mortality: Myanmar had 79 deaths per 1,000 live births; North Korea had 23 per 1,000, South Korea was lower with 10 per 1,000. Life expectancy in both North and South Korea was the same: 69 years. The U.S. wasn't much higher-72 years, while Myanmar was 58 years. Of the three Asian countries, North Korea had the lowest death rate-5.3 per 1,000, while in Myanmar it was 9.9 and in South Korea 6.4. North Korea did fantastically well on literacy: 95%. The U.S. had 95.5% and South Korea 98%. Myanmar was 83%."

"These are Western-compiled figures and may not do justice to North Korea's accomplishments," the writer concluded. "However, they do show that, if unthreatened by imperialism and allowed to grow into a united nation, the achievements of the Korean people would be monumental. As the threats from Washington grow ever more serious, it is up to the anti-war movement to come to the defense of the Korean people."

The reality of North Korea, though, hardly squares with the numbers. A U.N. Resolution against North Korea sponsored by the European Union on April 10 demanded an end to human rights abuses. It focused on the use of torture and forced labor in its prison camps. Testimony at a human rights meeting chaired by Baroness Caroline Cox, deputy speaker of the House of Lords and president of Christian Solidarity Worldwide in the UK, provided a revealing glimpse of life inside a country whose "achievements have been amazing."

One North Korean, Kang Chul Hwan, who was imprisoned at the age of nine for the alleged political crimes of his grandfather, testified: "In order to survive, I ate rats, cockroaches and snakes." In his 10 years in prison, he estimated that a third of the children died of malnourishment. "Children simply disappeared from the camp," he said. Others testified about cannibalism in North Korean labor camps.

At the end of the testimony, Cox said: "We have heard a grim and sober catalog of extreme violations of human rights in North Korea and China, with descriptions of suffering almost beyond comprehension. There is a moral imperative for all of us who have the privilege of living in freedom to use our freedom to influence the international community to try and bring an end to such appalling suffering and human degradation."

But there are no pictures, only words and testimony, much as in Iraq there were mostly just words and testimony of Saddam's atrocities. It is a plain fact that the world knew ahead of time about Saddam's atrocities. Many were recorded by human rights organizations. Amnesty International's 2001 report on Iraq, noted that torture was endemic. It was performed:

"(B)oth to extract information or confessions from detainees and as a punishment. ... Torture has also been used against women suspected of having links with Shi'a Islamist groups in the country or simply because of family links. In many cases relatives of those active in the Iraqi opposition abroad have been tortured or ill-treated as a way of putting pressure on those opposition leaders to cease their activities."

Torture included "victims (being) blindfolded, stripped of their clothes and suspended from their wrists for long hours. Electric shocks have been used on various parts of their bodies, including the genitals, ears, the tongue and fingers. Victims have described to Amnesty International how they have been beaten with canes, whips, hosepipe or metal rods and how they have been suspended for hours from either a rotating fan in the ceiling or from a horizontal pole often in contorted positions as electric shocks were applied repeatedly on their bodies. ... Other methods of physical torture described by former victims include the use of Falaqa (beating on the soles of the feet), extinguishing of cigarettes on various parts of the body, extraction of fingernails and toenails and piercing of the hands with an electric drill. Some have been sexually abused and others have had objects, including broken bottles, forced into their anus. ..."

Such evident proof of the atrocities is why CNN's chief news executive Eason Jordan - after he confessed in a New York Times op-ed called "The News We Kept to Ourselves" that he covered up Iraqi atrocities - could say everybody knew about how bad Saddam Hussein was. Jordan claimed that what he could say would have added little to that evidence while putting some individuals' lives at risk.

Jordan's excuse doesn't explain why CNN so willingly would have its reporters pass along Iraqi propaganda in attempts to get interviews. But then, television is a visual medium, and the regime controlled the pictures within Iraq that CNN could present.

So, with such Iraqi control of the visual images of what was going on, there was little of the outpouring of humanity as for little Ali or the kind of outrage expressed by some against the scenes of a ransacked museum.

Unfortunately, to most people in the modern communication age, seeing is believing. Unlike 200 years ago, when people had to rely on word of mouth or written messages - and thus upon their imaginations - modern communications makes visual imagery the key to sparking an instantaneous response. And that can prove dangerous.

The pictures of the ransacking of the museum in Baghdad sparked three Clinton appointees to the White House Cultural Property Advisory Committee - Martin E. Sullivan, Gary Vikan, and Richard S. Lanier - to resign in protest over the "inaction" by U.S. troops to halt the looting of the National Museum. They lacked the imagination to wait for facts about the destruction and thefts. They responded to what they saw.

A day after they quit, non-visual evidence emerged that organized thieves took part of the museum's ransacking, with some looters having keys to the museum's vaults. Further, the American military noted that a conscious decision was made that soldiers would put lives of today's Iraqis first, ahead of the artifacts, likely emptied before American troops got there.

In this world, anti-war protestors carry signs and post on web sites pictures of injured men, women and children from the Iraqi war to make sure they are seen. The thousands of men, women and children crippled and injured remain unseen except by the terror apparatus of the Iraqi machine and those in other dictatorships. The tools of modern communication make it easy for care about the boy and museum because they are out in the open. We must use our imaginations and intelligence to look behind the closed doors of tyrannies to prompt compassion for the rest.
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