Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The pitfalls of mourning myopia, and other topics

Dare I breach the national mourning ritual and provide some perspective? Sure, let’s do it.

According to news dispatches, here’s what happened early this week in a galaxy far, far away: In Anbar province, the bodies of 17 Iraqi civilians were found buried in a schoolyard; in Baghdad, 25 civilian bodies were discovered; in Falluja, 10 bodies with signs of torture were discovered; in Mosul, two university professors were shot dead; at a site near Kirkuk, three bodies were discovered; at a checkpoint south of Mosul, 13 Iraqi soldiers were killed in an attack.

Even if you omit the soldiers, that’s 57 dead Iraqis – nearly double the body count at Virginia Tech. Naturally, I am not dismissing the horror of what happened on the home front, or demeaning those whose lives were lost in the campus shootings. But since many Americans tend to be a tad self-absorbed about life in their own backyard – a cultural impulse that is currently being reinforced by the 24/7 cable news coverage – it’s easy to forget, or never to realize in the first place, that random killings of the innocent are a daily fact of life in our war of choice.

The faces and bios of the 32 murdered students and teachers are already being reported and broadcast on the home front, but it should be noted that – in April alone thus far – the known number of slain Iraqi citizens and Iraqi security people exceeds 733. And the website that tallied this number warns that “actual totals for Iraqi deaths are higher than the numbers recorded on this site.” (Update: We can now put that known number at roughly 966. Fresh reports indicate that at least 233 Iraqis were killed or found dead on this day alone.)

Long after the pain of the Virginia Tech tragedy has subsided, Iraqi innocents will continue to be killed in numbers that dwarf what happened here. I am not suggesting that we instantly cauterize our wounds and snuff out our ceremonial candles. But our myopic focus on the death of American innocents does tend to suggest that we assign more value to those lost lives than to those whom we deem to be mere statistics. We wouldn’t really want to leave that impression, would we?


With respect to cable TV news, there was a particularly shoddy incident on the first night of the Virginia Tech coverage. Once again, the impulse to be first trumped the responsibility to be accurate.

The news channels, anxious to identify the shooter but lacking any hard factual information, seized on badly-sourced newspaper report that the assailant was “a Chinese national” who had only recently arrived in the United States on a visa. It all started with a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, who wrote Monday that “authorities were investigating whether the gunman…was a Chinese national who arrived in the United States last year on a student visa. The 25-year-old man being investigated for the deadliest college carnage in U.S. history reportedly arrived in San Francisco on a United Airlines flight on Aug. 7, 2006, on a visa issued in Shanghai, the source said."

So a columnist hears from unnamed “authorities” that they are chasing a tip (probably one of many), and that the tip (which turned out to be dead wrong) involved an adult arriving last year from Shanghai. The columnist decides to go with this material. And then the cable news channels, without knowing whether these unnamed sources in another news outlet have any veracity, decide to go with it as well, citing "uncomfirmed reports."

There once was a time when being right was more important than being first, when journalists (even on TV) actually took the time to weigh the information in their notebooks before deciding whether to use it. But today, with a deadline every moment, there is too often a tendency to just share the raw notebook material with the world. And given the sensitivities today about foreigners in the post-9/11 world this particular erroneous report had the potential to inflame domestic suspicions.

Indeed, even after the news about shooter Cho Seung-Hui was confirmed, some analysts were suggesting yesterday that maybe such tragedies could be averted if we tightened our border procedures. As National Review commentator Candace de Russy argued, “How much checking up on visa applicants do those responsible for granting such visas actually do? That is, just how effective are these officials at identifying signs that an applicant may prove to be dangerous? In the case of Cho, were any such signs missed?”

Take a chill pill, Candace. He was eight years old when he entered the country.


Yet another sign of the Bush administration undercutting on its own spurious spin:

Apparently Pentagon chief Robert Gates didn't get the memo about how the Democrats are supposed to be characterized as defeatocrats who merely want to root for failure in Iraq and make it easier for the terrorists to follow our troops home.

For weeks, President Bush and Vice President Cheney have been arguing that those meddling Dems on Capitol Hill, with their demands for a withdrawal timeline, are undermining American resolve and prompting Osama bin Laden to turn handsprings - yet here was Gates yesterday, speaking to Pentagon reporters: "The debate in Congress…has been helpful in demonstrating to the Iraqis that American patience is limited. The strong feelings expressed in the Congress about the timetable probably has had a positive terms of communicating to the Iraqis that this is not an open-ended commitment.”

A new national poll reports that, by a 58-33 percent margin, Americans trust the Democratic Congress more than Bush to handle the situation in Iraq. Now that Bush's top Pentagon guy has validated the Democratic position, I doubt that those numbers will flip any time soon.


Oy, what a goy: On a lighter note, let’s check in with Tommy Thompson, a Republican presidential candidate who might well be advised to pack up his dreams and fade away. It’s not every day that a White House aspirant wins a Don Imus Award, but this guy qualifies. And he also gets a special mention for most creative excuse.

In Washington two days ago, speaking in front of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, Thompson said: “I'm in the private sector, and for the first time in my life I'm earning money. You know, that's sort of part of the Jewish tradition, and I do not find anything wrong with that."

You can see the problem with that remark. It seems to me that the Christians who built this country during the nineteenth century, long before Jewish immigrants arrived en masse to work sewing machines in the ghettos, and the Christians who controlled Wall Street and who for many decades enforced Jewish quotas in the major law firms and universities – well, it would appear that those folks were “earning money” quite effectively, even though they were not part of the “Jewish tradition”...

Maybe Thompson didn’t run those thoughts through his mind, but clearly he knew that he had said something wrong, because he quickly decided to amend his remarks…and only made matters worse: “I just want to clarify something because I didn't (by) any means want to infer or imply anything about Jews and finances and things. What I was referring to, ladies and gentlemen, is the accomplishments of the Jewish religion. You've been outstanding business people, and I compliment you for that."

This is like a politician addressing a black audience and saying, “For the first time in my life, I am shooting hoops for exercise. You know, that’s part of the black tradition, and I do not find anything wrong with that…What I was referring to is the accomplishments of the black culture. You’ve been outstanding athletes, and I compliment you for that.”

Anyway, Thompson insisted yesterday that he said these things only because he was tired and had a cold. If he stays in the race, let’s just hope that he doesn’t show up sick at any more Jewish confabs, and ask the women for chicken soup.