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The Situation Without Pictures

Why I Liked Thomas Friedman’s Latest Column Before I Didn’t

by KATHLEEN CHRISTISON

I read two articles on Sunday that made quite an impact. The first was a Thomas Friedman column. Reading Friedman is always an interesting, usually an angering, experience. This one didn’t anger me right off the bat, but his thesis disturbed me.

Friedman said some startling things, for him. It was gratifying to see that, after three post-9/11 years of blaming the root causes of terrorism on Arab backwardness and lack of democracy, he is finally ready to acknowledge that the obscenely close U.S. relationship with Israel and what he frankly called Israeli "bashing" of Palestinians has something to do with arousing Arab and Muslim anger and the kind of hatred of Israel and the U.S. that provokes terrorism. He even went so far as to remark that the Bush administration’s embrace of Ariel Sharon is so tight that "it’s impossible to know anymore where U.S. policy stops and Mr. Sharon’s begins." Way to go, Tom!

But something about the main thrust of Friedman’s column gnawed at me until finally I realized what was wrong. After recounting a conversation with another journalist, just returned from Iraq, about the fact that Americans are frequently referred to by angry Iraqis as "the Jews," a handy moniker for anyone seen to oppress Arabs, Friedman worries that this identification of Americans with Jews and Israel seriously endangers all three parties and makes them vulnerable to Islamic terrorism. The widespread perception across the Arab and Muslim world that these three are one and that they together constitute the "great enemy of Islam" seriously endangers all three.

So far so good. But what became clear upon closer reading is the fact that Friedman, although finally showing some wisdom in accepting the relevance of this perception to the terrorist threat, nonetheless still believes the perception is unfair and biased, still believes the fact of the perception is the Arabs’ fault. The problem for him is not that the woman is being raped, but that the woman’s friends have noticed and are calling attention to the rape.

The trend toward identifying Americans with Jews and Israel, Friedman notes, has been "fanned" by Arab television stations, which "deliberately show split-screen images of Israelis bashing Palestinians and U.S. forces bashing the Iraqi insurgents." The word "deliberately" clearly indicates that Friedman thinks this comparison is unfair.

Friedman’s solution would be for Israel to "push harder to defuse" its conflict with the Palestinians. It is not clear whether his principal interest here is in the defusing or in the pushing harder — whether he wants the bashing of Palestinians to stop, or simply wants Israel to bash harder in order to induce a Palestinian surrender. But you get a clue to his true thinking with the rest of the sentence: the defusing should be accomplished "in order to deprive the Arab media of the raw images that help to feed this phenomenon [i.e., the spreading perception of U.S.-Israeli-Jewish collusion]." In other words, don’t worry about the Palestinians, don’t be concerned that Israel is on a wantonly destructive, murderous rampage through the civilian population of Palestine that is provoking justifiable rage throughout the Arab and Muslim street, just worry that Arabs and Muslims are seeing pictures of this rampage. Just work to get the cameras turned off — get "this poisonous show off the air," he says later — and Americans and Israelis will be safe. Never mind about Palestinian safety, never mind about justice, just hide the injustices.

Then I read the second article, and focused on how very evil Friedman’s prescription is. The second article is a mid-October piece in the British Medical Journal by a British physician who visited the occupied territories in March and recorded the abysmal state of medical care under Israeli occupation. Derek Summerfield counts the numbers of Palestinian children (621, two-thirds of them under the age of 15) killed since the intifada began four years ago; notes that over half of these children were shot in the head, neck, or chest ("the sniper’s wound," he says); enumerates the numbers of innocent bystanders (186), including women and children (26 and 39), killed in Israeli assassination operations; recounts the documented cases (87, including 30 children) in which denial of access to medical treatment has led directly to death; notes that 97 primary health clinics and 11 hospitals are isolated by the wall from the populations they are supposed to serve; reports that twenty percent of Palestinian children under the age of five are anemic and another almost one-quarter are acutely or chronically undernourished. Finally, he observes poignantly that these statistics attract far less publicity than the suicide bombings carried out in desperation by Palestinians (and now — one might add — by Iraqis, Afghanis, occasional Saudis, and possibly other nationalities in locations as widely scattered as Taba and Djakarta).

In Palestine, there are few pictures of Summerfield’s statistics. Thomas Friedman doesn’t know and clearly doesn’t care about these statistics, so long as none of the dead children appear on Arab television. The Arab and Muslim street doesn’t know the precise numbers either, but they do know the situation even when there are no pictures. There are no pictures of the 108 clinics and hospitals unable to serve their patients because of the separation wall, but the phenomenon is well known throughout the Arab world. It’s well known that people die and women give birth and newborns stop breathing at checkpoints all the time because they can’t get out and ambulances can’t get in, even though there are no pictures of suffering heart and kidney patients or mothers in labor or dead infants. This is what makes for rage and terrorism.

If Thomas Friedman were to extend his great concern for the safety of Jews, Israel, and America to the victims of Israeli and U.S. power, perhaps the conflict could then truly be ended, the injustices ended, and the pictures turned off.

KATHLEEN CHRISTISON is a former CIA political analyst and has worked on Middle East issues for 30 years. She is the author of Perceptions of Palestine and The Wound of Dispossession.