TCS Daily

Panoptic War

By James H. Joyner - June 8, 2006 12:00 AM

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."

James H. Joyner, Jr., Ph.D. writes about public policy issues at Outside the Beltway.



It's just unfair
I've noticed that some people, even those in favor of the Iraqi war, lament it's just not fair that the enemy can so manipulate the world's(mostly anti-american and leftist) media to their advantage. This is true but one still can't complain because only the naive would expect war to be somehow fair, or conducted under Marquis of Queensburys rules. The onus is always on the good guys side to figure out how to win the war in spite of whatever advantages the enemy, including their fifth columnists in our western countries, may have.

Not just the media
James Joyner argues that the situation in Iraq is better than it seems in the main stream media but he gives little to back that, other than saying that 2500 dead Americans is small for a big war.

As a PhD, Joyner should feel that the real story is statistics. How is the economy doing? How is oil production (Hint: below pre invasion lows), electricity production (same), unemployment (higher than pre invasion highs), personal safety?

No Blood for Oil!!!!!!!!!!.. Er I Mean...
How is oil production (Hint: below pre invasion lows),

Woops, guess that was never true.

It seems funny
That almost to a man, the Iraqi's are more confident of their future than are the lunatic left in the rest of the world.

drug withdrawal
You could say a man was better off on drugs, since he has these shakes now a week into rehab, and he was fine everytime he had a fix, and didn't shake back then, so why not put him back on drugs? No... don't want to wait another week, just give him back his drug now.

I can see Goody Two shoes at Normandy
What is the production of cheese?
How is bordeaux production?
Electricity production?
Personal safety?

Ah more proof of the degraded spirit of this troll.

A perfect Analogy
Of course the left will want us to pay for Methadone, so we can keep people addicted, quiet and controlled-because it would be unfair to ask people to not have to deal with the world without being in a narcotic trance.

The State of Iraq
You'd think the Bush Administration would make this information easy to find for the average Joe -- should they?

Operation Iraqi Freedom: Three Year Anniversary -- Progress Fact Sheet
US Department of Defense, March 20, 2006


* Before March 2003, Iraq averaged 4,300 MW of peak electricity generation, supplying Baghdad with 12 to 24 hours of power a day by diverting power from the rest of Iraq, left with four to eight hours of power, however today the average Iraqi citizen has seven hours of electrical service in Baghdad and 10 to 12 hours in the rest of the country. It is expected to be 12 to 14 hours over the next year.

* Before March 2003, only 5.5 million of Iraq's 25 million citizens had access to a safe and stable water supply. Iraq's cities suffered from inadequate sewage systems, today 19 potable water treatment facilities have been built or rehabilitated, providing a standard level of service to about 2.7 million more Iraqis. In addition eight centralized sewage treatment facilities have been rehabilitated, adding capacity to benefit 4.9 million Iraqis.

* Health care for some ethnic groups was almost nonexistent under Saddam's regime; today there are over 300 new health care facility projects across Iraq and over 270 projects underway to be completed by mid-year 2007 allowing an additional 7 million Iraqi citizens, regardless of ethnicity, geographic origin, gender, or religious affiliation access to health care that was unavailable under the old regime.

Information complied from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Gulf Region Division, Public Affairs and IRMO Feb 06 report "Rebuilding Iraq"

Cut the cheese
If three years after Normandy there still was no Chevre or Pontlevesque, that might be a sign that there still were some krauts around, that the mission had not yet been accomplished completely. I'm not sure how much Bordeaux is produced in Normandy.

Three years later=the Germans attack in Battle of Bulge-Goody surrenders
Lets see three years later the Germans luanched a massive attack in the Ardennes. And we'd see the same surrender types yelling "250,000 dead and no end in sight." No war for brie!

Heard you trolls years ago and you are still parroting the party line.

US casualties
What is the US annual road toll (which happens to include innocent children) in relation to the 2477 war casualties? Any corresponding outcry by the media?

it IS funny
How the supporters of a failed administration responsible for the ugliest foreign policy disaster in the history of the US are still trying to pin the problems they are responsible for on the liberals.

Now lets say for just a moment that this administration is the best ever to preside over the US of A.

The rest of the planet believes that a communist dictatorship is more trustworthy than the US of A is.

Hmmm.... If this adminsitration is SO marvelous - they simply have a problem getting their message out.

This site was hugely pro-Iraq war prior to going to take Saddam out. They are still attempting to justify the unjustifiable when most conservatives have already concluded that the war is (and was) a waste of time, treasure, and American lives. What it will cost to repair the reputation of the US of A will likely take generations, while our nation goes broke paying for the incomprehensible spending habits of a big-government administration.

On second thought - that isn't so funny.

Do you really expect reporters to put things in perspective?
During each year of the US involvement of the Vietnam War, more Americans died each year on US highways than died in the whole war in Vietnam.

Carswell Air Force Base used to have a sign for airmen to read when leaving the base: "You are about to enter the most dangerous place on earth: a US highway!"

Gang killings in California exceed our losses in Iraq, yet you don't hear Congressman Murtha calling for withdrawal from California.

Seriously - who cares what the "rest of the planet" thinks of the US
The previous poster states that the "rest of the planet believes that a communist dictatorship is more trustworthy than the US of A is." and "What it will cost to repair the reputation of the US of A will likely take generations,"

I don't agree that the rest of the planet doesn't like the US, but I will certainly agree that there are quite a few countries and institutions (NGO's, UN, Worldwide MSM) that don't. I say SO WHAT!

The "rest of the planet" was sympathetic to the US after 9/11 cause they considered us as VICTIMS. They identified with victimhood and started to recoil soon after they realized that we would fight back.

Western Europe - It is slowly slipping into dhimmitude. It hopes that by appeasement, it will be able to live with their Islamic overlords. Maybe they will wake up one day and fight, but the current attitude and the demographic trends do not bode well.
Parts of outer Paris (and other large French cities) are simply no-go zones for the police where a 100 cars burned during a weekend is "normal". These are sharia ruled areas.
Sweden is almost lost as well. In southern Sweden (Malmo) Muslim gangs rape with impunity and the authorities cover their eyes and pretend it is not happening.
England - companies AFRAID to fly the St. George flag during the World Cup due to possible Muslim reprisals.
Germany - inviting the biggest holocaust denier today (the dictator of Iran) to come to their country for the World Cup.

Overall in Europe anti-semitic writings, behaviour, and attacks are on the rise. Why, cause throughout European history, whenever things have gotten bad, the Jew are attacked. This is a constant in European history.

The UN - a mostly corrupt organization. See Oil for food corruption in the billions or the peace-keeping troops that sell protection for sex with minors. The UN has as it's members, MOSTLY GOVERNMENTS of countries that are either partly-free, mostly un-free, or dictatorships.

The NGO's and Worldwide MSM - They don't like the US cause they are staffed with people who believe in a UN led "World" government, led by self-proclaimed elites that would TELL the rest of us what to do.

Who is still friends with the US? Australia, India, Japan, Poland, Czech, mostly England. Who leans mostly our way - at least half of Central and South America, Thailand, South Korea (they certainly want our troops in the country), the Philippines, etc. Even parts of Canada (mostly in Western Canada) are starting to wake-up.

Finally, if the reputation of the US is so bad, answer the question of what country tops the world-wide list of where a person would like to immigrate to?? And it isn't mostly because of business reasons.

honest leasership
There are liberals (and conservatives) who think it's time to pull out of Iraq. I'm not one of them. I was just saying that the Bush line that Iraq is going great ("Mission accomplished", "final throes", "stand up, stand down") is wrong.

In WWII there was some honest leadership: "Nothing but blood sweat, and tears". Now Bush goes to war (his word for it) promising only tax cuts for the rich and regulatory "relief" for polluters. The losers will be Iraqis when their country falls into civil war. Saying it ain't so don't make it not so.

more liberal lies
The tax cuts did not go to the rich only, and the tax cuts have benefited the economy, which benefits everybody.

There was no regulatory relief for polluters. Bush opposed changes proposed by Clinton. Changes that were not justified by any science, but rather by politics.

When the sign said, "Mission Accomplished", the mission of that particular naval air group had been accomplished. That's why they were coming home. The sign did not state or imply that the operation in Iraq was over. Anyone with the tiniest familiarity with the military would have realized that.

But liberals take pride in their ignorance of all things military.

If Murtha won't, maybe I will
I've felt for years, that it might be the case that giving California back to Mexico would improve both countries.

Goody two shoes honest leadership
You wouldn't support anyone in favor of the USA. If this was WWII you'd be Quisling.

"Saying it ain't so don't make it so." So true.

Bet Goody believes Kerry was a war hero
The Left isn't a political belief, its a pathology.

Blaming Clinton again won't solve anything.
I quite agree he was a complete and utter waste who sent American troops in harm's way for no purpose and our troops are still stuck overseas without having accomplished anything.

Its a shame that the Left uses the military as a meals on wheels and only uses it when American interests aren't at stake.

But as you said it was a failed administration, right?

over in captain's quarters blog
he frequently complains about how the media was so unfair as to keep investigating the lies about Kerry, while ignoring Bush's "proven" failure to complete his Texas Air National Guard committment.

he also keeps telling us how liberals are so much smarter than everyone else.

I see Kerry has released his 180
The Left has to cherish its delusions. The truth hurts too much. I love it when Goody Two shoes protests against Saddam's torture rooms!

Trust the Communists
Sure, the world can trust the communists to be communists, tyranical dictators who oppress their people. We can trust the French to be French.
And the reason the rest of the world is not trusting the USA is because it stopped playing the stability game.
Decades of supporting, winking and nodding at dictators all over the world for the sake of stability has not provided stability.
History has shown that promoting free markets and liberty is the ONLY was to ensure stability and it has the added benefit of improving the standard of living for billions of people.

So yes, the tyrants, dictators and socialists of the world don't trust the USA to leave them alone anymore.
Liberty will bring justice and prospertity to all.

Best way to rid CA of illegal aliens...
give it back to Mexico and watch them all flee like rats leaving a sinking ship.

you really should open your eyes and take your fingers out of your ears

TCS Daily Archives