Answer to Herb Keinon: Whose interests are served by resurrecting the potent image of Muhammad al-Dura?

Herb Keinon, veteran Israeli reporter, and hardly someone who can be accused of timidity or post-modern masochism, is troubled by the appearance of the Kuperwasser Report. He raises perfectly legitimate concerns which I will try and answer.

Analysis: Words vs. pictures in al-Dura affair

By HERB KEINON

05/21/2013 02:08

It is not entirely clear whose interests are served by resurrecting the potent image of Muhammad al-Dura.

Palestinian boys carrying Hamas flags in the Gaza Strip walk past graffiti showing Muhammad al-Dura.

Photo: REUTERS

CBS News correspondent Lesley Stahl, the tale is told, put together an unflattering piece on former US president Ronald Reagan in 1984, during the heat of that year’s election campaign, trying to show the contradictions between what Reagan had promised during his first years in office, and what he delivered.

Stahl, who wrote about the incident in her 1999 book Reporting Live, said she knew the nearly six-minute segment would have an impact, and thought that the White House would be furious.

After the piece – which showed favorable footage of Reagan over negative commentary – aired, Stahl did indeed receive a call from White House advisor Dick Darman. But he called to praise, not berate, her.

“Way to go, kiddo. What a great piece. We love it,” he told the correspondent.

Stahl, confused because her piece was highly critical, asked, “Didn’t you hear what I said?” To which Darman replied, “Nobody heard what you said. You guys in Televisionland haven’t figured it out, have you? When the pictures are powerful and emotional, they override if not completely drown out the sound. I mean it, Lesley. Nobody heard you.”

The same might be said of the government panel that on Sunday issued its conclusions that the IDF did not kill 12-year-old Muhammad al-Dura in 2000. Were Palestinian leaders to phone the members of the panel, they probably would say that the al-Dura image is so powerful, it is drowning out all the committee’s words.

Here’s the irony. It’s not the pictures, it’s Charles Enderlin’s voiceover with Talal Abu Rahma’s lethal narrative that made these pictures so powerful. Those who look closely tend to come away convinced that they are not looking at a dead (or even injured) boy. But to do that they have to unlearn the suggestion that they are watching a boy die before their eyes.

You can easily answer it doesn’t matter. But it does. No democracy can afford to have a public so stupid that it can be swayed by stupid fakes, especially ones as explosive as this one. Your comparison with the American political scene is superficially plausible, but in that case, what caught Stahl up short was that she showed real footage of Reagan in which he looked good. Imagine what would have happened if she had tampered with footage to make Reagan look evil. She would have set off a huge row, and her career would have been over.

In this case, the Abu Rahma and his colleagues created an explosive narrative – a weapon of cognitive warfare – and used Enderlin as his delivery system. Enderlin’s role gave the explosive global impact that went far beyond the local conflict. It juiced up the forces of global Jihad the world over, it set in motion a perilous and oxymoronic alliance between the most (allegedly) progressive and most (clearly) regressive forces on the planet, it gave dominance to a school of lethal journalism that has continued to whip up that dynamic for the last thirteen years. Although it was not itself an apocalyptic image, it gave wings to the most terrifying form of apocalyptic belief – death cults that believe that one must destroy the world in order to save it. In terms of cognitive warfare, it was a nuclear bomb.

And it should have been caught right away. The next day, serious journalists, looking at the rushes that Enderlin gave them for free, should have been publishing critiques of his work, especially of his cutting the final scene where the boy is neither dead, nor even acting wounded.

If that had happened the matter would have unravelled, and the death cult, with its devastating component of child-sacrifice that this lethal narrative fed would have lost a major driver. So as far as I’m concerned this is as much about lethal journalism and its dominance in Middle East reporting since this incident – Al Durah Journalism.

And, to return to the, by contrast, rather petty issue of Reagan’s pluses and minuses, I’d venture to say that in order for democracies to thrive, especially under current conditions of all-out cognitive war against us in which our own media are the delivery system for their explosive narratives, as well as screens for their abominable behavior, we can’t afford to be that stupid. I think that the way the media have behaved in the past decade is still worse than in the past: compare Leslie Stahl in 1984 with Dan “fake but accurate” Rather in 2004. We may be stupid, we may be swayed by pictures rather than words, but can we afford to be? I’m afraid that if the Western world doesn’t “grow up” at least somewhat, we may not be able to sustain the demanding and exhilarating experiment in freedom that is democracy and freedom of speech.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, upon receiving the report on Sunday, said, “It is important to focus on this incident – which has slandered Israel’s reputation. This is a manifestation of the ongoing, mendacious campaign to delegitimize Israel. There is only one way to counter lies, and that is through the truth. Only the truth can prevail over lies.”

True, and indeed a noble sentiment, one that Netanyahu repeats often.

The only problem is that the panel, as convincing as it might be, did not incontrovertibly demonstrate the truth. Rather, it put out – 13 years after the event – a strongly argued Israeli version of those events.

Nidra Poller has some very profound thoughts about the difficulty of dealing with lethal narratives. They are constructed in such a way that it’s nearly impossible to fight them, especially when the emotional experience they create satisfies the consumer – in the case of Israel a near irresistible moral Schadenfreude among outside observers.

But I disagree with Keinon’s formula. He’s a little like those who winge at the thought of taking up Al Durah without being able to prove the fake “110%.” In fact the committee was quite clear about some key items:

  • the boy is not dead, or even acting wounded in the final scene (Segment 6)
  • Enderlin had no business reporting that
    • the fire came from the Israeli side,
    • the boy was dead in Segment 4,
    • cutting the final scene (Segment 6)
    • stonewalling all these years rather than admitting his mistakes.
  • the consequences for the way journalists have behaved in covering the conflict between Israel and her neighbors have degraded the professional standards of the profession
  • the consequences of this degraded journalism have harmed the societies in which they have taken hold (France and Mohamed Merah).

That’s more than enough for honest intelligent folks to chew on, even if they don’t agree “100%.”

For those who despise Israel, all the learned arguments in the world are not going to convince them that Israel did not shoot the 12- year-old Gazan boy in cold blood. To those who truly know Israel, they do not need this document to know that IDF soldiers do not intentionally target children hiding behind their parents.

And those in the middle – well, they have probably long forgotten the story, inasmuch as it took place in September 2000.

This is sad. I’d expect some denizen of the millennial generation to come up with a “that’s so fifteen minutes ago” argument, but not Herb Keinon. As Ben Caspit put it in a brilliant article:

Has it been 13 years since the al-Durrah incident occurred? So what? Since when should a lapse of 13 years keep us from that primal, perpetual urge to get to the truth? That’s what the media is there for, my dear Mr. Eldar. That’s exactly what it’s there for. If someone would come up to you now with incontrovertible proof that Israel assassinated former Palestinian Chairman Yasser Arafat, would you say: Hold on a minute, people. It happened 10 years ago. Who cares? No, you would jump on the information, because a healthy journalistic impulse compels you to keep digging until you finally uncover the truth.

Is there no shortage of convicted murderers in prison fighting to prove their innocence, even after 30 years in jail? Suleiman al-Abeid, the Bedouin who was sentenced to prison for the murder of Hanit Kikos, protested his innocence until the very last minute, with the help of a very respectable and dedicated group of Israeli patriots who believed that he did not kill her. They still believe that today.

The truth is a vital commodity, especially where we are. If we didn’t kill Muhammad al-Durrah, then I want to know that. If he wasn’t injured in the film clip screened by France 2, then I want to know that too. I also want all the others to know that. And even if they won’t believe it, they must at least hear it. Deep in their hearts they know that despite all the bad things we say and write about the Israeli government, it is still far more reliable than any of the governments surrounding us.

What I’m afraid Keinon and the many others like him might be saying here is, in addition to our enemies, who will never drop that bone as long as there’s the most remote trace of the taste of blood on it – al Durah as symbol of Israeli evil – they also fear that the should-be rational people in the West, the liberals who should care about the truth, the journalists whose job it is to care about the truth – who won’t listen either.

But it’s these folks who are our target audience. They are the people – especially the journalists – who need to learn, when they see that image, that it is a symbol not of Israeli desire to kill children as Osama bin Laden and other blood libelers interpreted it, but a symbol of the incompetence of the media and the devastating impact of that incompetence, fortified with a stubborn, honor-shame reflex to deny any fault. Because we – and here I speak on behalf of democracies around the world, indeed all peoples who wish to live in peace and tolerance of the “other,” – we cannot afford the destructive impact of lethal journalism. We cannot afford to have our public sphere become the sewage dump of toxic, hate- and war-mongering lies, especially those of our enemies.

Until now. Now the image is once again on television.

Now that picture is again in the newspapers. Now those in the middle are reminded about it again and again.

A strong argument can be made that by arguing forcefully against the accepted version of events in this case, by punching holes in the accepted narrative, by demonstrating how events can be edited and manipulated, the government is weakening overall Palestinian credibility and making it easier down the line to knock down fabricated Palestinian stories about Israeli “atrocities” (Think “Jenin Massacre”).

Yes it can, can’t it. Think: Mavi Marmara, Operation Cast Lead/Goldstone Report, Lebanon, Gaza Beach, Pallywood, Operation Pillar of Defense, and whatever is coming next.

But still. Israel, by releasing this report 13 years on, has put this picture back into people’s minds, and it is not entirely clear whose interests are served by resurrecting this potent image.

I’d say that depends on people like you, who work to educate people rather than pander to their weaker instincts. Democracies are not constructed, nor are they sustained by passive, ignorant masses driven by instinct and manipulated by icons, especially icons of hatred. If the Israel haters manage to win this round, then it’s both an critical learning opportunity lost, and a failure on the part of all of us who should know better.

Or, as Darman told Stahl, “When the pictures are powerful and emotional, they override if not completely drown out the sound.”

Or, as Caspit told Eldar: When false pictures unleash terrible hatreds, it’s never too late to get the story straight.

5 Responses to Answer to Herb Keinon: Whose interests are served by resurrecting the potent image of Muhammad al-Dura?

  1. Cynic says:

    Shlomi Eldar whenever he appeared on Israel’s Channel 10 was always crying about the situation the Palestinians found themselves in, but never pointed to where the problems emanated from.
    He always seemed to sob through his tale of woe but never explained the why’s and wherefor’s for the latter day nakbas.

  2. Rich Rostrom says:

    I think that the way the media have behaved in the past decade is still worse than in the past: compare Leslie Stahl in 1984 with Dan “fake but accurate” Rather in 2004.

    Charles Murray put his finger on it here.m He discovered a steady and continual shift of the “intellectual elite” (the “chattering class”) to the political left since 1973, while the rest of society moved slightly to the right. His index showed a gap of 1 or 2 in 1973, 7 or 8 by 1984, 18 by 1998 (when the press came to the rescue of Clinton), and 23 by 2008 (when his chart ends).

    The consensus blind acceptance of anti-Israel and anti-US narratives is a reflection of this shift. The US and Israel are “white”, and therefore wrong – because the highest value of the Left is “anti-racism”.

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