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Worthy and Unworthy Victims

Turkey’s Bombing of Iraq

by ANTHONY DiMAGGIO

The U.S. delivered an early Christmas present to the people of Iraq this year in the form of logistical support for Turkey’s war against the Kurds. The Turkish government has succeeded Saddam Hussein as the primary oppressor of the Kurdish people, and it undertook its most recent round of U.S. supported attacks this last week with a renewed round of bombing of Kurdish areas in Northern Iraq. U.S. support for the Turkish campaign has been justified under the rubric of fighting terrorism, as Turkish officials claimed the December 23rd bombing targeted only Kurdish secessionist rebels, and resulted in no civilian deaths.

Turkey’s war on the Kurds provides an ideal test of Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s "propaganda model." Mass media coverage, they argue, is characterized by a dichotomy between "worthy" and "unworthy" victims of state violence. Those who are "abused in [communist or other] enemy states" receive substantial attention in the news, as their oppressors are subject to the "high moral and self-righteous tone" of reporters, columnists, and editors. Herman and Chomsky analyze news coverage in the New York Times, CBS, Newsweek, and Time of religious leaders killed in Soviet-dominated countries such as Poland, contrasting it with coverage received by religious figures killed in U.S. allied capitalist states in Latin America.

The propaganda model continues to be relevant today when reviewing the "newsworthiness" of Kurds killed by enemies and allies of the U.S. Under the expectations of the propaganda model, civilian deaths caused by the U.S. and its allies receive little to no media attention, while coverage of the violence of "enemy" states or groups is extensively highlighted. This work examines U.S. media coverage of three types of victims: Iraqi Kurds killed by the Turkish government, Iraqi Kurds killed by the government of Saddam Hussein, and Turkish Kurds killed by the Turkish government. A propaganda model would predict that coverage of Kurdish civilian deaths will be prominent in regards to the violence of the enemy government of Saddam Hussein, while the violence of the Turkish military against Kurds will be downplayed, ignored, or framed as a relatively minor problem (when compared to the killings of Hussein).

In reviewing recent events in the Middle East, one sees that mass media coverage deemphasizes Turkey’s attacks on Kurds (both in Iraq and Turkey), instead heavily emphasizing the deaths of Turkish soldiers and civilians at the hands of Kurdish rebels. Extensive attention was devoted to the conflict between Kurdish guerilla groups (framed as aggressors) and the Turkish government (framed as the victim) throughout the October to December period. The Turkish parliament voted in October to authorize a military invasion of Iraq, and amassed 60,000 troops near the border after Kurdish rebels killed at least a dozen Turkish soldiers. Due to pressure from the U.S. and its allies, the Turkish government eventually backed away from its proposed invasion, announcing it would first pursue a diplomatic solution to the conflict. The Turkish government did eventually retaliate militarily against Kurds based in Northern Iraq, bombing targets on three separate occasions in ten days, and with U.S. logistical support. Kurdish members of the secessionist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) have also reportedly conducted attacks against the Turkish government, attempting to establish an independent Kurdish state in parts of Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq.

Kurdish nationalists have been demonized by American and Turkish leaders for targeting civilians and government forces. Estimates suggest that over 37,000 people have been killed since the onset of the PKK’s independence effort in southeast Turkey in 1984. As the founder of the PKK, Kurdish nationalist figure Abdullah Ocalan received much of the negative attention. Ocalan and other PKK members have been attacked for targeting not only Turkish civilians and government, but also Kurdish civilians who are seen as allied with the Turkish state. However, if tens of thousands have been killed in the conflict due to Kurdish terrorist violence, the government of Turkey can hardly be divorced from those deaths, as has been acknowledged by human rights groups. The Turkish government has a long record of engaging in terrorist violence against Kurdish civilians, and has engaged in such violence with only minor objections, and even the active support of, Western leaders. The vast majority of weapons supplied to the Turkish military during the peak of its repression of the Kurds were provided by the U.S., under the Clinton administration.

Turkey is suspected of sponsoring "mystery killings" of thousands of Kurdish civilians via official support of government-associated death squads. The government bombed Kurdish towns with napalm, "wiped off the map" over 3,000 Kurdish villages, and "violently and illegally displaced upwards of 380,000 Kurds throughout the 1990s." Amnesty International also suggested that the government may be executing civilians with impunity. Human rights groups, American media outlets, and American political leaders have acknowledged that the Turkish government is complicit in the torture, kidnapping, and unlawful detention by Turkish security forces and government sponsored militias. Turkey is also recognized as a world leader in the area of "cultural repression." The Turkish state has completely prohibited the use of the Kurdish language, despite the fact that 20 percent of the country’s population (over 13 million people) is Kurdish. Until the early 1990s, the government refused to even acknowledge that the Kurds existed as a people, instead insisting that they were merely "Mountain Turks" who had denied their Turkish heritage.

Those who speak out against Turkey’s repression are censored and punished. One Kurdish student and publisher was prosecuted by the government for engaging in "terrorism" after he published a lecture from American scholar Noam Chomsky. The lecture, which contained some brief criticisms of Turkish human rights abuses, was deemed a threat to "the indivisible unity" of the country. Turkey’s "anti-terrorism" laws have banned any books, movies, and television and radio programs that discuss Kurdish nationalism, and government police have arrested thousands who signed petitions supporting the teaching of Kurdish in public schools. The government even shut down a television station in one major city in the southeast for playing Kurdish songs.

Despite extensive documentation of Turkish repression, only Kurdish actions are designated as terrorist in the American reporting. The PKK has been consistently attacked by Turkish and American officials as a terrorist entity, and these attacks are uncritically transmitted in media coverage. A review of Washington Post stories from January 1990 through December of 2007 (a period marked by increased violence between Kurdish nationalists and the Turkish government) finds that the terrorist label is systematically applied only to the actions of rebels, and not to Turkey’s government itself. Of the over 115 news articles focusing on the topic of Turkish-Kurdish violence and terrorism, not a single story referenced Turkey’s actions against Kurdish civilians as terrorist, whereas all of the stories uncritically repeated either Turkish or American official claims that Kurds were engaging in terrorism. A closer analysis of American reporting provides a richer understanding of this routine of one-sided reporting.

American media reports have at times acknowledged Turkish human rights abuses. However, Turkish repression is never framed as terrorism. In addition, Turkish repression of Kurds is presented as a relatively minor setback in the grand scheme of U.S. and European relations with Turkey, as opposed to Saddam Hussein’s repression of Iraqi Kurds, which is consistently presented as a major human rights tragedy. Kurds killed by Saddam Hussein are "honored" as "victims" of a major "atrocity" by the New York Times. Hussein’s gassing of Iraqi Kurds is regularly referred to as a "tragedy," a "massacre," or as "genocide" in the elite press. Conversely, editors portray the U.S. and Europe as "sympathetic to" Turkey as it suffers under the Kurdish "terrorist threat," instead of sympathizing with Kurds suffering under Turkish terror. While the U.S. and its allies "have hesitated to accept Turkey as a political equal as long as it was committing terrible human rights abuses against Kurds," such abuses are not considered enough (as they are in the case of Saddam Hussein) to damper strong American-Turkish relations. The editors at the Washington Post allow Turkey a second "chance" to pursue a "breakthrough with its Kurds," even as human rights groups continue to release reports lambasting the government for widespread human rights violations. In short, the violent repression of Kurdish civilians is the subject of righteous condemnation only when those actors responsible are officially designated enemies of state, as in the case of Saddam Hussein. Turkish leaders may successfully target Kurds for torture and assassination, followed by strong American political and military support, accompanied by only minor objections in media and political discourse. Concurrently, Iraqi terror directed against the very same Kurds is morally reprehensible, so long as the victims are on the Iraqi, rather than the Turkish side of the Iraq-Turkey border.

Efforts to distinguish between worthy victims (Iraqi Kurds) and unworthy ones (Turkish Kurds) have been somewhat altered, however, in recent years. By 2007, attacks on Iraqi Kurds had also become acceptable in the U.S. media, so long as the aggressor was the Turkish government, rather than Saddam Hussein. The U.S. granted tactical and diplomatic support to the government of Turkey as it bombed various Kurdish areas in northern Iraq, allegedly aimed at PKK rebel targets. Despite reports of civilian deaths, American editorials lent moral support to the Turkish government. The editors at the New York Times postured that "Turkey’s anger is understandable. Guerillas from the PKK have been striking from bases in Iraqi Kurdistan with growing impunity and effectThe death toll for Turkish military forces is mounting."

Editors at the New York Times placed responsibility for the violence primarily upon the shoulders of the Kurds, rather than Turkish leaders, as they argued that "The Kurds will find it much easier to prosper if they can live in peace with Turkey." How such cooperation is possible in light of Turkey’s systematic human rights violations was not addressed. The paper’s editors also portrayed the U.S. as an honest broker between the two sides, rather than a consistent supporter of Turkish repression of the Kurds: "Washington must now try to walk both sides back from this brink. It then should make a serious and sustained effort to broker a long-overdue political agreement between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan." The editors at the Washington Post also presented the conflict through a pro-Turkish lens. Significant attention was directed to pragmatic assessments of the effectiveness of a Turkish political victory over Kurdish rebels: "The reality is that the PKK threat cannot be quickly eliminated by military meansNeutralizing it will require closer cooperation between Turkish and Iraqi Kurdish authorities, more effective Turkish military operations inside Turkey, and more political reforms in both countries."

This case study is instructive in one important respect: it suggests that American media attention to the repression and terror of foreign countries is not driven by legitimate humanitarian concerns, but by the strength of the alliance between the U.S. and the country in question. Little else can explain why the very same Iraqi Kurds who are regarded as worthy victims when killed by U.S. enemies such as Saddam Hussein are not worthy when killed by an allied government like Turkey. The consequences of such propagandistic news coverage are rather stark for those who take human rights seriously. A genuine concern with social justice requires a consistent condemnation of terror, regardless of whether it is pursued by American enemies or allies.

ANTHONY DiMAGGIO is the author of Mass Media, Mass Propaganda: Examining American News in the "War on Terror," due out in April 2008. He has taught Middle East Politics and American Government, and can be reached at: adimag2@uic.edu