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Forget the dead Afghan children, empathise with their killer

Once again the western media has simply told the story the US Army wants told, about a lone gunman with personal problems who has nothing to do with the army, its methods or foreign policy. 

And so we see ‘reality’ take shape before our eyes. As far as I can tell there is now virtually no part of the western media which has not accepted completely at face value not only the US-controlled facts of the Afghan civilian massacre but also the interpretation. I shouldn’t be surprised but somehow I still am.

I have been following some of the comments on online groups about holes in the official story of how one rogue soldier killed 16 civilians. I am always cautious about taking these kinds of comments at face value since it is almost impossible to verify anything, but there is at least enough consistent information to raise some questions. For example, what doesn’t seem to be disputed (as far as I can tell) is that most of the reported eye witnesses claimed to have seen or heard more than one US soldier. The fact that an accelerant was used to try to dispose of some of the bodies is also widely reported. Was this brought by Rouge Soldier? Did he plan that much in advance and carry it the multiple kilometres involved in the killing spree? And all that only to return and turn himself in? Why did he attack two houses which were two kilometres apart? Why was there no attempt to try and stop him if he was really only a lone man wandering through hostile territory? How did he get out of the US base heavily armed with not reason? Are these things not monitored? Are multiple reports of helicopter traffic in the area an hour prior to the killing coincidental?

Now, again, I want to stress that all of these questions may have answers, it may have been one man. But as far as I can tell from my quick glance at the Sunday papers (the only ones we might expect to have the time to do some proper digging) only one even mentions in one line that there is any dispute of the official story. And I thought the conservative position was to ‘report the controversy’?

But that is not all that I find problematic about the coverage. Immediately the name of the perpetrator was released (Staff Sergeant Robert Bales) the entire nature of the coverage has been to (excuse all the inverted commas here) ‘explain’ how ‘he’ did ‘this thing’. The inverted commas are for a purpose here. We are to be led through a psychological back story which will give us simple reasons for the atrocity and by ‘explaining’ it as a sequence of aberrations resulting from the mundane tale of one man we are instantly all off the hook. It’s not our fault we sent a group of highly armed trained killers to a volatile region with no real sense of purpose, it’s something to do with a head injury to one man who had marital problems and saw a colleague lose a leg the previous day. The ‘he’ is particularly important – it is totally and completely personalised. I can find not a single serious question raised about why this man was not identified as a problem or whether the Army might have some questions to answer about its procedures. This is to be personal, not institutional. But then again, not too personal; we are deprived almost completely of any real sense of the victims. Again, as far as I can tell there are pictures but nothing like the effort to humanise the victims that we are seeing put into humanising the perpetrator. ‘This thing’ that he did is gently, carefully pushed further and further into the background as the focus of the whole story shifts wholesale from Afghanistan to the US (his house, his jail cell…).

So I don’t know if it was one guy (although it seems convenient and slightly unlikely in equal measure) and I don’t know if he is a ‘good guy gone wrong’ or a psychopath the US Army did nothing about. And that is because basically I know nothing apart from another low-level tale of an American Guy. Just that. Can you imagine if the destruction of the World Trade Centre had been treated like this? Virtually no coverage from the US but lots and lots of speculation about an unfortunate marital problem by one of the hijackers? I know the scale is different but the principle is the same. Just as it will be the same when the US Army simply dismisses any back-story reason for why their next soldier will die in a roadside bomb. That too will be a story about an America Guy.

And so I simply put the words down again. Levenson? A free press? Nice idea. In the meantime, let’s just keep printing this carefully managed propaganda.

Robin McAlpine