TCS Daily


The War of Images

By Lee Harris - May 13, 2004 12:00 AM

It is often said that we are fighting a war of ideas. We are not. We are fighting a war of images, and right now our enemy is winning this war, while we are losing it, and losing it badly.

Consider the images that have worked their way into our collective mind since the beginning of April: the images of the massacre at Fallujah; the images of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib; the images of the decapitation of an American civilian. Now compare the overwhelming intensity of these images with the "idea" that the Bush administration is invoking in order to fight against them, namely, the abstract ideal of justice.

First, the Bush administration pledged to "bring to justice" those who committed the massacre at Fallujah; then it pledged to "bring to justice" those who were responsible for the prison abuse; and now, it has pledged to "bring to justice" the men who videotaped the killing of Nick Berg. How can such an abstract idea hold its own against such vividly concrete images? How can the pledge of due process hope to exorcise the searing memory of a severed head held aloft in triumph?

What is worse, the odds are that the only culprits who will be brought to justice are those Americans who abused Iraqi prisoners. They will be brought to justice in open and public show trials that the Bush administration feels will prove to the Iraqis that we Americans are really the good guys, after all.

Unfortunately, the justice to which these Americans will be brought will fail to satisfy the Iraqi people. No matter what verdict the military court hands down, the Iraqi street will go wild with anger and indignation at the perceived lightness of the punishment. For us, justice lies in the fairness of the process; for them it lies in the rightness of the outcome -- and how can any punishment short of death be appropriate for the Americans who defiled them?

Meanwhile, back on the home front, those Americans who instinctively believe in supporting our troops in far away lands, and supporting them "right or wrong," will watch with mounting exasperation as the Bush administration tries to appease the unappeasable Iraqi streets by putting Americans on trial in Iraq. At which point those Americans at home will began to ask themselves: Why are we bringing our guys to justice, while their guys, whose crimes are infinitely worst, not only remain at large, but are busily doing whatever they can to kill even more of us? Why are we punishing our own, in a futile attempt to pacify the Arab world, at the very time when we should be sticking together to fight an enemy whose collective will is to destroy us?

So we must be prepared to brace ourselves, not only against more images of Arab atrocities and American prisoner abuse, but against the inflammatory images that will emerge from the spectacle of Americans being exhibited in public trials in Iraq -- images that will have much the same impact on the collective mind of middle America that the images of prisoner abuse had on the collective mind of the Arab world.

When the average American sees images of other average Americans on trial in Iraq, howled and screamed at by mobs of Iraqis, whose side you do think he will be on -- the side of the Iraqis or the side of men and women whose only difference from himself is that they were assigned to a miserable job in a hellhole of a prison in the midst of a war that isn't quite a war, fighting an enemy who isn't quite an enemy.

Liberals complain that the Bush administration's approach is too simplistic. Quite frankly, it is nuanced to the point of incoherency. It asks of Americans that they hate only "the bad guys" in the Arab world, while it simultaneously calls on Americans to be willing to sacrifice their sons and their pocketbooks in order to create a happy future for "the good guys" in the Arab world. Yet our television and computer screens are full of the images of the bad guys of the Arab world doing unspeakably ghastly things to us, while we search in vain for the image of even one of the good guys for whom our nation has staked its resources and its prestige. Show us just one photograph of Iraqis publicly denouncing this gruesome act as a slander against Islam and a blasphemy against God.

From the photographs of men and women jumping from the World Trade Center to the videotape of Nick Berg's butchery, our enemy has flooded us with images that will haunt us all until our dying day. But Americans have been given no images of our friends in the Arab world; and certainly none that can match the potency of the images offered by our enemies.

The enemy's compelling images show what we are fighting against in Iraq; but there are no equally compelling images that show us what we are fighting for -- an "image gap" that is already causing many well wishers of the administration to question a policy in which we are endlessly willing to help a people who refuses to offer us even a single image of themselves caught in the act of displaying friendliness toward us -- a people who, on the contrary, take every photo opportunity given to them to show how much and how deeply they hate us; and who, when not given such an opportunity by us, are quite able to make one for themselves.

Most Americans are from Missouri: we must see it before we believe it. And we are not seeing why we should be fighting in Iraq for the good guys; indeed, we are not seeing the good guys at all, and many of us are beginning to wonder if there are any good guys, in our sense, to be found there; and if so, why they so adamantly refuse to show their faces to the camera.

Right now the Middle American psyche is being overwhelmed with reasons to hate the entire Arab world; and yet the Bush administration insists that we are in Iraq to help the Arabs. Unfortunately, the administration seems to be completely unaware of how sick and tired of Arabs the average American has become, unaware because it is politically incorrect to express such sentiments of outright hostility: but what is politically incorrect to express is all too often the motive force behind those sudden and spontaneous movements of the popular psyche that only seemed to come from nowhere because they came from a place unfamiliar to most pundits and paid prophets, namely, the gut level feelings of the average guy.

Many Americans simply wish the Arabs would go away; others wish to blow them away -- and wish to blow them away not because they see this step as inevitable and tragic, but because they rejoice at the prospect of getting them back for what they have done to us. Most normal Americans today just don't care any more about the Arabs and their welfare, or about their humiliation, or about their historical grievances, simply because all the images that come to us from their world horrify and appall us, including the disturbing images of Americans doing things that no normal American would ever dream of doing to other people back at home, if only because they would never be given the opportunity.

This is how most normal Americans now feel, but they dare not express it in public. But make no mistake, this feeling will be expressed -- somehow, somewhere: a fact of which our leaders and the world must be made aware before it occurs.

Lee Harris recently wrote for TCS about 9/11 Meets the Son of Election 2000. He is the author of the book Civilization and Its Enemies: The Next Stage of History.


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