Thursday, January 5, 2012

Terrorist or freedom fighter? Let's take this peace journalism idea up a level; a world of death and destruction is just plain stupid


One man’s terrorist is, I’m afraid, always going to be another man’s guerilla fighter. The river between is unbridgeable.

This is a gloomy start for the first entry of the new year, but if we’re going to search for real answers to the war and strife that engulfs us humans, we have to start by being honest. Make no mistake, the peace and joy of our Christmas is an illusion we can afford to create for ourselves. Much of our world cannot.

My colleague, Steven Youngblood, returned home from Uganda just before Christmas having brought together natural enemies one more time in hopes of fostering a thing he calls “peace journalism.” Steve and I have talked about this movement many times, all the way back to the days when we were trying to name what he was advocating in Moldova, I think. Here’s what he wrote on his blog about his pre-Christmas foray in Uganda.

Specifically, government spokespeople from the army, police, and local government and journalists sparred over whether the Ugandan government was justified in banning live coverage of protests earlier this year, and restricting official updates of the investigation of the July, 2010 terrorist bombings in Kampala. Each side played its part, with the journalists crying foul at the heavy hand of the government while the security officials maintained that the moves were designed only to protect people and property. Predictably, no consensus was reached. I did express my opinion that the ban on live coverage represented a journalistic decision, and thus should not have been made by the government.

I told Steve that looked to me like an exhausting list of tangles to work through. In fact, he had written once when his transport was stuck in the mud that he hoped the conference went more smoothly than the trip to it and from his conclusions I would guess the mud he encountered wasn’t just under his wheels.

Every single question in his post -- those raised in this paragraph and those raised in the rest of the piece -- could occupy a semester's study in a journalism ethics class. They are not new and they are not unique to Uganda. They were debated right here in the land of the First Amendment during the race riots of the 1960s. Should journalists cover events that will inflame the passions of others? Should they quote language that will further divide communities and may lead to bloodshed. Should they practice self-censorship and if they don’t, should government step in?

To be honest, I think most, if not all of the questions he enumerated from the conference, are unsolvable. That doesn't mean we shouldn't work on them because every increment toward agreement is good. But the fact that one man's terrorist is another man's guerrilla fighter, a question I've been troubling students with since I started teaching in 1980, is just almost impossible to resolve. And, in many ways, it is the heart of the disagreement. A society with only one word for murder would be in a big philosophical pickle.

Orwell saw this. War is peace. Repression is protection.

You can usually get somewhere in ethics by bringing down the scalpel on a problem, by trying to divide it into its parts and solve each one individually. But the problem with this one is that once you divide it, it gets tougher. If the difference between freedom fighter and terrorist is in eye of the perceiver – in other words, it boils down to the perceptions of the aggrieved vs the perceptions of the privileged -- then both will always see it differently. So you try to define the difference in terms both can agree on. And that is really thorny, as well. Were not Americans involved in terrorist acts against the British? Don't all revolutions begin with terror? Were Americans not ruthless terrorists against the Indians? Was Sherman not a terrorist? And what about the American president who unleashed the mighty power of the atom bomb on the people of Japan? Was that not an act designed specifically to create terror?

Suddenly defining terrorism gets uncomfortably sticky. How is terrorism different from war? Is it not an act of terror (taking the phrase literally) to bomb a village from an airborne drone in an effort to kill several terrorist leaders hiding in the village? What sort of terror does that unleash on the innocent?

I detest the notion of civilized war. ‘Just war’ theories just confound me. War is the breakdown of civilization. War is the breakdown of justice. War is the absence of humanity. To attempt to bring humanity to it is like trying to hold water in your fist.

I know writers and photographers, journalists and movie directors have created a huge body of work finding all those virtues in the throes of war. To be honest, I don’t buy it anymore. I'm just too old to see anything but destruction and waste. I’m not saying good people don’t fight and die and provide examples of loyalty and bravery in war. They do. But the war itself, well, as Edwin Starr once said, “What is it good for?”

I'm afraid the only just position I can find on terrorism is the pacifist position. If you rule all violence out of bounds, then these differences don't matter.

OK, so what then is pacifist journalism? Might as well take the idea of peace journalism to its logical conclusion. Would that simply mean condemning all violence, from capital punishment to war and everything -- terrorism and guerrilla fighting -- in between? A tougher pill to swallow, eh? Martin Luther King, Jr. vs. Malcolm X. Gandhi vs. Che.

You might rightly say that's an easy position for a person who lives in comfort in Missouri in the US of A to take. If you were on the butt end of a repressive and brutal government, maybe you’d sing a different tune. Perhaps. But, maybe it is the only real position on this issue. The only way around the horns of this ancient bull.

I'm thinking Youngblood’s 'security' officials would never buy into such a notion. And, no aggrieved journalist would either. Their jobs sort of depend on violence, or, more precisely, the threat of violence. Terror, in short.

I keep coming back to that Who song, "Won't get fooled again." Check out the lyric somewhere on the Net if you haven't heard it in a while. Would these two sides see the wisdom in it? Because the song takes the long view that most people in strife can't afford to take. If you make a violent revolution, you always wind up in the same place. "Meet the new boss; same as the old boss..." Brilliant lyric. I'm thinking the only real revolution is a non-violent one. The only real change is possible through non-violent strategies. Change from within.

Mankind's record of change through violence doesn't seem to me -- not a world historian but a casual observer -- to be very good. Violence is like lead poisoning -- the more of it you engage in, the more of it remains in the bodies of your people forever. Slavery, for instance, the ultimate violence, can never be cleansed from a country's soul. Not even when a member of the former slave class becomes president. You can run from these things in your history but you can't hide. They aren't just pages in your history book; they are poisons in your system.


And, unfortunately, the beards have all grown longer overnight...

1 comment:

  1. Just when I think I'm finally starting to "get it" and writing well, you go and do something like this. Bastard.