is Bush? Let him come here and see this!" one Iraqi boy yelled while
grinding his heel into the charred skull of one of the American dead.
So went Iraq's "Mogadishu moment," as four contracted security personnel hired by the US military were murdered and mutilated in the Iraqi town of Fallujah while large crowds watched and celebrated.
The boy's wish was essentially granted. George W. Bush and most everyone else in the United States did see images of the events -- and those images only. The six Iraqi civilians in Fallujah gunned down by Marines in a firefight five days prior merited little press attention.
Still, popular reaction to the attacks in the United States suggests that Americans are coming to understand the heavy costs of maintaining an armed occupation. A Pew Research Center poll released on April 5 found a 12-point increase (to 44%) from January in the number of Americans who want to withdraw US troops from Iraq as soon as possible. By a margin of 11 points, most Americans said they believe Iraqis generally oppose US policies in their country, a shift of more than 20 points since December.
Using these figures as a guide, one might guess at the issues now being debated by US policymakers and media figures: How and when can US forces begin withdrawing from Iraq? How might Iraqis be more effectively engaged in their country's reconstruction?
Instead, American commentators have called for US forces to ratchet up the violence in Iraq, while elite debate focuses exclusively on the pros and cons of sending yet more troops. The editors of the Washington Post, for one, applauded both President Bush and Sen. John Kerry for "vowing...that there would be no retreat," and encouraged US commanders to "respond forcefully to Fallujah and step up the counteroffensive against the Sunni insurgency."
Top-rated Fox News personality Bill O'Reilly suggested countering the "killers of liberty" by reviving some of the ruling techniques of Iraq's former president. "Remaining dissenters must be harshly dealt with. Fear can be a good thing. How do you think Saddam controlled Iraq all these decades?" In the two days following the attacks, US forces cordoned off Fallujah and attacked intermittently, leaving its power plant destroyed and dozens killed. When Iraqis protested, O'Reilly lamented that "Some people simply will not embrace freedom."
Others were less demure. Acclaimed conservative author Victor Davis Hanson saw in Fallujah the "frequent tolerance of barbarism" so typical of Arabs, more "toxic fumes of the Dark-Ages." Syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker shared her longing to "nuke the Sunni triangle" to avenge the deaths of four Americans, a desire she guessed was shared by "millions of others." "Wouldn't it be lovely," she asked, "were justice so available and so simple? If we were but creatures like those zoo animals" in Fallujah.
The Iraqis' bloodlust ought not be entirely foreign to Westerners. One is reminded of the words of the great British philosopher Bertrand Russell, who at the onset of World War I spent the evening in London "walking round the streets noticing cheering crowds, and making myself sensitive to the emotions of passers-by. During this and the following days I discovered to my amazement that average men and women were delighted at the prospect of war."
That many American commentators express incredulity at the Fallujah events despite the "zoo animals" in their own history is unsurprising. Neither is it notable that their shrill condemnations are directed only at the crimes of others and not toward those carried out by their own government; that is, the crimes they are directly involved in and responsible for, as citizens of a democratic society.
Such commentators might, for example, find new applications for the phrase "killers of liberty" if they were to examine the long-term plans for Iraq articulated by US officials. What better way to describe those in Washington who intend to pry open Iraq's economy by lifting restrictions on foreign investment and allowing foreign-owned corporations to have one hundred percent control of Iraqi companies; or to control Iraq's central bank and maintain authority over the reconstruction of its infrastructure, police, and courts; or to entrench regional US military dominance by building 14 permanent bases in Iraq.
Though vital to understanding the occupation's true ends, this information is reported marginally or simply ignored, helping us to understand one other predictable statistic from the Pew poll: a significant majority of Americans (57%) still believe the invasion of Iraq was justified.
The great crime of US media coverage, where our own misconduct is overlooked and our innocence presumed, is therein exposed. Americans are being sheltered from information that might lead them to question the basic justness of the occupation project. Far worse, they are being prevented from acting on their responsibility to mitigate the harm being done in their names, even as prospects for Iraqi self-rule fall victim to bloody chaos.
Nico Pitney is a student activist and writer based in southern California. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.