Rachel Corrie, Jessica Lynch, And The Unequal Worthiness Of Victims
Rachel Corrie, Jessica Lynch, And The Unequal Worthiness Of Victims
You can learn much about the toxic and authoritarian role of the American â€œmainstreamâ€ (corporate-state) media by asking a representative sample of Americans to identify and tell you what they know and think about two young women recently in the news â€“ Rachel Corrie and Jessica Lynch. Your respondents will certainly know and care a great deal more about Jessica than Rachel, for reasons that bode poorly for the state of American civilization and hence the fate of the world.
â€œI Wonder About These Childrenâ€
Rachel Corrie died at the age of 23 on March 16th in Rafah, a Palestinian city on the southern tip of Gaza. A senior at Evergreen State College in the state of Washington, Rachel lost her life trying to stop the demolition of a Palestinian home, murdered by an Israeli bulldozer driver. The driver rode his machine twice over her clearly visible body. Rachel became one of many killed in Gaza and the West Bank, victims of a racist occupation that provides the single greatest source of Arab bitterness in the tinderbox that is the Middle East. Hers was the first death of a foreigner in Palestine to protest Israeli actions.
Rachel Corrie was a â€œshining star, a wonderful student, a brave person of deep convictions,â€ according to Evergreen, which bucks the conservative trend of American higher education by nurturing concern for oppressed people at home and abroad. The excellent quality of the thought that informed her schoolwork is displayed in an e-mail message sent out five weeks before her death. In one section of this message, Rachel reflected on the difference between Americansâ€™ life situation and that of Palestinians, children especially, living under the iron heel of a leading terrorist US client state:
No amount of reading, attendance at conferences, documentary viewing and word of mouth could have prepared me for the reality of the situation here. You just canâ€™t imagine it unless you see it, and even then you are always well aware that your experience is not at all the reality: what with the difficulties the Israeli Army would face if they shot an unarmed US citizen, and with the fact that I have money to buy water when the army destroys wells, and, of course, that I have the option of leaving. Nobody in my family has been shot, driving in their car, by a rocket launcher from a tower at the end of a major street in my downtown. I have a home. I am allowed to go see the ocean. Ostensibly it is still quite difficult for me to be held for months or years on end without a trial (this because I am a white US citizen). When I leave for school or work I can be relatively certain that there will not be a heavily armed solider waiting half way between Mud Bay and downtown Olympia at a checkpoint â€“ a solider with the power to decide whether I can go about my business, and whether I can get home again when Iâ€™m done. So, if I feel outrage at arriving and entering briefly and incompletely into the world in which these children exist, I wonder conversely about how it would be for them to arrive in my world.
They know that children in the United States donâ€™t usually have their parents shot and they know they sometimes get to see the ocean. But once you have seen the ocean and lived in a silent place, where water is taken for granted and not stolen in the night by bulldozers, and once you have spent an evening when you havenâ€™t wondered if the walls of your home might suddenly fall inward waking you from your sleep, and once youâ€™ve met people who never lost anyone â€“ once you have experienced the reality of a world that isnâ€™t surrounded by murderous towers, tanks, armed â€˜settlementsâ€ and now a giant metal wall, I wonder if you can forgive the world for all the years of your childhood spent existing â€“ just existing â€“ in itsâ€™ attempt to erase you from your home. That is something I wonder about these children. I wonder what would happen if they really knew.
These and other parts of her message put celebrated imperialist authors like Robert Kagan to shame. Still short of her bachelorâ€™s degree, Rachel left Kagan and other academically certified apologists, planners and propagandists of racist â€œwarâ€ and empire in the moral-intellectual dust.
Her courageous capacity for critical thinking and morally engaged activism reflected her familyâ€™s values as well as her undergraduate experience at Evergreen. â€œWeâ€™ve tried to bring up our children to have a sense of community that everybody in the world belonged too,â€ said Rachelâ€™s father, an insurance actuary â€“ an atypical occupation, perhaps, among the middle-class liberal and left â€œwarâ€ opponents that American rightists to blast as over-privileged â€œun-Americans.â€
Rachelâ€™s murder received brief attention in the â€œmainstreamâ€ American media. Her story was rapidly eclipsed, however, by the â€œwarâ€ on Iraq, which Rachel naturally opposed.
â€œSaving Private Lynchâ€: Celebrating an Expendable American
Things are very different with the mediaâ€™s treatment of the rescued POW Pfc. Jessica Lynch. Like Rachel, Jessica before the â€œwarâ€ was young, pretty, blond, interested in seeing the world, concerned for children â€“ before joining the Army she was planning to teach kindergarten - and admired for her determination. After those similarities, however, key differences emerge.
Jessica is only 19, too young to be a college senior. She comes from a blue-collar family (her father is a self-employed truck driver) in a tiny West Virginia named â€“ hauntingly enough â€“ Palestine. Unlike Rachel, Jessica lacked both middle-class pathways to American career success and access to the world of critical reflection and inquiry that reveals the full story of US foreign policy. She is one of the Americans that George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and other members of the American super-rich see as expendable in their rush to imperial expansion. Like numerous other young Americans from her socioeconomic cohort, Jessica joined the predominantly working-class ranks of the armed forces looking for more than immediate employment. She was also pursuing college tuition assistance to attain the educational certification so essential to making a decent living in the United States, the most unequal nation in the industrialized world. Military service is the price she and many other Americans pay for being born into the lower ranks of the American hierarchy. As one iconoclastic West Virginian puts it, â€œhere in West Virginia, we have the highest enlistment per capita of any state. I suppose that speaks volumes about the opportunities this economy offers the young in these parts. Jobs in the coalmines arenâ€™t even very plentiful anymore. Jessica was one of the hopeful, looking for a way to get the skills and education she needed and eventually to return to her beloved mountain home. She sure got more than she bargained for in more ways than one.â€ (Anne Tatelin, â€œThe Gospel According to Jessica Lynch,â€)
In paying that price, Jessica and her comrades in the US Army 507th Maintenance Company found themselves caught behind â€œenemyâ€ lines in Iraq on March 23rd, one week after Rachelâ€™s murder. As a result of the battle that ensued, Jessica is recovering from multiple injuries, including a head wound, a spinal injury, and fractures to her right arm, both legs and her right foot and ankle. She has already been through multiple surgeries.
From the moment of her rescue, Jessica has been hailed as a true American heroine. She has been offered college scholarships and honored for emptying her weapons into Iraqi capturers. Already, she has been the subject of a People Magazine cover story and a recent â€œA&Eâ€ television special titled â€œSaving Private Lynch.â€ There will be books and movies, with corporate moguls offering lucrative contracts for the story of her life and ordeal (mega-publisher HarperCollins has already announced a book contract for the Iraqi lawyer who is credited with helping rescue Lynch; see http://abclocal.go.com/wpri/news/5903-iraqlynch.html ). Still, no financial compensation can overcome the damage she experienced in service to the imperial dreams of Bush, Rumsfeld, and other Chicken Hawk Masters of War, who â€œhide in their mansions,â€ as Bob Dylan put it forty years ago, â€œwhile young peopleâ€™s blood, flows out of their body and gets buried in the mud.â€
Look for the masters in the White House to richly mine Jessicaâ€™s story for domestic political advantage. The corporate-plutocratic Bush administration is perversely drawn to Jessicaâ€™s working-class origins, which fit nicely with its disingenuous effort to sell Dubyaâ€™s regressive domestic policies â€“ tax cuts for the super-rich and social service cuts for the poor and the rest of us â€“ as an expression of populist concern for the Little Guy.
Worthy and Unworthy Victims
Those who honestly scrutinize the Orwellian machinations of the White House, the Pentagon and Americaâ€™s corporate-state media will hardly be surprised to see Rachelâ€™s tragic story slip further into the corporate-crafted â€œpopular cultureâ€™sâ€ historical dustbin while Jessicaâ€™s harrowing tale is highlighted for months to come. The relevant text here is the second chapter, titled â€œWorthy and Unworthy Victims,â€ of Noam Chomsky and Ed Hermanâ€™s path-breaking Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of The Mass Media (New York, NY: Pantheon, 1988), published as the Cold War was nearing its partial conclusion with the collapse of the Soviet deterrent to American global ambitions. â€œA propaganda system,â€ the authors noted, â€œwill consistently portray people abused in enemy states as worthy victims, whereas those treated with equal or greater severity by its own government or clients will be unworthy.â€
As the different media treatments accorded to Rachel and Jessica suggest, this analysis continues to hold relevance in the â€œpost-Cold War eraâ€ and applies to American as well as overseas victims.
The Rachel-Jessica dichotomy is hardly the only example of the living propagandistic distinction made between â€œworthyâ€ and â€œunworthy victimsâ€ by recent US media. As American bombs rained upon innocent Afghans during the initial campaigns of George W. Bushâ€™s post-9-11 â€œwar on terrorism,â€ the New York Times and other newspapers provided detailed and highly personalized obituaries of individuals killed in the September 11th attacks â€“ the ultimate officially worthy victims in American history (millions of African-American slaves and obliterated Native Americans would certainly be just as deserving in an honest and non-racist record). These write-ups were sensitive, compelling and appropriate but no major American media outlet saw fit to provide comparable, individualized treatment for the thousands of Afghan civilians who lost their lives as â€œcollateral damageâ€ in Americaâ€™s war on the Taliban and al Qaeda.
In the current â€œwar,â€ Americans have learned a great deal from â€œtheirâ€ media about the Kurdish and Iranian victims of Saddamâ€™s past and US-approved gassings. They learn next to nothing about Israelâ€™s many past and contemporary Palestinian victims, including 2000 people killed just since 9-11. The Palestiniansâ€™ situation remains hopelessly mysterious and devoid of meaningful context for Americans, thanks to biased US coverage and commentary. Americans have seen what ought to be heart-wrenching images of killed and injured Iraqi civilians. Still, the most terrible images are filtered out for fear of their potential affect on world and US opinion and Americans never hear or read the compelling life stories of innocent Iraqi victims of the American invasion. Things are different for US casualties and POWS, featured and honored in national and local media, which dutifully played along with the Big Bush Lie that put Jessica and other expendable Americans in harms way in Iraq in the first place â€“ the preposterous idea (taken seriously nowhere outside the US) that Saddam represented some kind of serious threat to Americans and the world.
This is hardly surprising. To this day, the US populace has been trained by the American corporate communications and entertainment empire to think of the Vietnam War in terms of the pain it inflicted on the American psyches and not in terms of what it did to the Vietnamese, who lost millions as the price for daring to resist invasion by the most powerful nation on earth. The American losses â€“ including 58,000 dead â€“ in Vietnam were considerable and disproportionately concentrated among the poor and working classes, but they were nothing on the absolute or especially the proportionate scale experienced by the people of Vietnam.
It Hurts to Kill: â€œLike I Just Did What the Lord Says Not to Doâ€
â€œA Picture in My Head I Will Never Be Able to Get Rid Ofâ€
Consistent with this perversely narcissistic American Vietnam Syndrome, reporters covering â€œOperation Iraqi Freedomâ€ have generated sensitive reports on the difficulties faced by US soldiers handling the emotional trauma that results from killing Iraqis. An article that appeared in The New York Times early in the â€œwarâ€ under the title â€œHaunting Thoughts After a Fierce Battleâ€ related the moral crisis Sgt. Mark N. Redmond faced after killing untold numbers of Iraqis resisting the invasion of their homeland by superior American forces. â€œI have my wife and kids to go back home to,â€ Redmond told Times reporter Steven Lee Myers. â€œI donâ€™t want them to think Iâ€™m a killer.â€ Redmond â€œdid not,â€ Myers noted, â€œwant to dwell on the details of the deaths his weapons caused.â€
The article concluded with the comments of Army chaplain Mark B. Nordtsrom, who belongs to a branch of the Mennonites with a pacifist theology. Noting that American troops had â€œkilled thousandsâ€ in the â€œlast few days,â€ this â€œpacifistâ€ minister observed that â€œnothing prepares you to kill another human being. Nothing prepares you to use a machine to cut someone in two.â€ â€œIt bothersâ€ US soldiers, Nordstrom observed, â€œto take life, especially that close.â€ It is apparently easier on the soul to kill from 30,000 feet or from a distant air-conditioned missile targeting office. â€œThey want to talk to me,â€ Nordstrrom told Myers, â€œso that they know that I know they are not awful human beings.â€
Even more chilling is an April 11th Wall Street Journal story by war correspondent Michael M. Phillips. Phillips told the story of a group of Marines sharing experiences and reflections sitting in a circle in the ruins of the Iraqi Oil Ministryâ€™s employee cafeteria. He related the anxieties of Marine Cpl. James List, 21, who was â€œworried that for the rest of his life heâ€™ll be haunted by the image: a clean-shaven, twenty-something Iraqi in a white shirt, lying wounded in an alleyway and reaching for his rifle â€“ just as Cpl. List pumped two shots into his head. â€˜Every time I close my eyes I see that guyâ€™s brains pop out of that guyâ€™s headâ€¦Thatâ€™s a picture in my head that I will never be able to get rid of.â€™â€
Another Marine interviewed by Phillips reports â€œan eerie feelingâ€ after shooting a wounded Iraqi in the back of the head. It was â€œlike,â€ a â€œSeargent Pierreâ€ reflected, â€œI just did what the Lord in the Bible says not to do.â€ Pierre carried out the traditional â€œeye-thumpâ€ procedure whereby US troops make sure that freshly killed enemy soldiers are â€œreally deadâ€ by poking them in the eye with a rifle muzzle.
Cpl. Anthony Antista initially celebrated after he shot dead two Iraqi soldiers, â€œbut the exhilaration quickly gave way to guilt.â€ His comrades misunderstood him when he repeatedly told them, â€œHey, I shot two people.â€ Fellow soldiers thought he was â€œbragging,â€ but â€œwhat he was really doing,â€ notes Phillips, â€œwas trying to find someone who might understand how bad he felt.â€
Dying Arabs as Twitching Game Animals: â€œIt Passed and I Shot the Guy Some Moreâ€
According to Phillips, the members of Bushâ€™s invasion force were â€œonly beginning to deal with the psychological painâ€ resulting from â€œhaving inflicted [mass] deathâ€ on civilians and soldiers in a poor and practically defenseless land. But some of the cafeteria circleâ€™s participants seemed, well, ok with the experience. The low point of Phillipsâ€™ article is provided by a â€œLt. Moore, 26,â€ who â€œtried to comfort his troops by relating his own experience as a hunter, growing up in Wasila, Alaska.â€ According to Phillips, in a passage worth quoting at some length, Moore:
shot his first caribou at the age of seven or eight, he told them. It was thrilling to see the animal fall. When he got closer, however, he saw the caribou was still alive, still convulsing in pain. The boy was unsure whether he was supposed to feel good or bad. Over years of hunting caribou, bear, and other animals, he grew accustomed to eye thumping and death. So when Lt. Moore looked down from a staircase in the building in Baghdad and saw three Iraqis below, he didnâ€™t hesitate. The men had been wounded by a burst of machine gun fire, but they were still moving [twitching perhaps like freshly shot Alaskan game]. The lieutenant shot one man point-blank in the watched the results; the next man was twitching and got the same treatment. â€œItâ€™s gross, but hereâ€™s the thing,â€ the lieutenant told his Marines. â€œThat queasy feeling â€“ I donâ€™t get that at all.â€
By Phillipsâ€™ coolly crafted account, Mooreâ€™s cold-blooded sentiments were shared by Marine Sergeant Timothy Wolkow, 26, who reported an initially â€œqueasy feelingâ€ after the first time he shot an Iraqi. â€œIt went away,â€ Wolkow related, â€œand I shot the guy some more.â€
One wonders â€“ did the Israeli bulldozer driver feel at all â€œqueasyâ€ when he first drove over Rachel Corrie? If so, the feeling must have passed because he quickly put his machine in reverse to crush her â€œsome more.â€ Perhaps the Pentagon should reach out to Israel, offering some of their pastoral services and encounter group techniques to this undoubtedly troubled victim of the homicide he carried out against an unworthy victim resisting racist aggression in the Middle East.
A Modest Proposal
God knows we should provide therapy for veterans returning from Iraq â€“ especially the Moores and Wolkos among them: itâ€™s the soldiers who arenâ€™t haunted by their assignment in Iraq we ought to be most worried about. Returning veterans could also use a scholarship to Evergreen State College or some other academic institution where they might receive an honest education in the real purposes and anti-democratic making of US foreign policy (all-too-rare in American â€œhigher educationâ€). Such an investment would help them develop Rachelâ€™s capacity to exchange herself for official, state-designated enemies and to resist George W. Bushâ€™s determination to wage permanent war on the Arab world and other future unworthy victims of American empire.
Perhaps no group needs such an education more urgently than the owners, managers and other key staff of the American corporate-state media, which deserves special credit for enabling and indeed driving the horrifying new wave of US imperialism. As for Bush, he majored in History at Yale, with results that are clear for all to see. Z
Paul Street (firstname.lastname@example.org ) is an urban social policy researcher in Chicago, Illinois.