What coverage of wanton killings says about our biases
Mar 29, 2012

What coverage of wanton killings says about our biases

Smiling Mass Murderer Robert Bales
It is hard to get people to care about Afghanistan and, despite fighting a massive war there, hard to get it in the news. Most of the thousands of civilians who have died have gone largely uncovered and become a statistic at best. So when Afghanistan does manage to dominate the news cycle, one might reasonably hope that it would be a story that truly gets at the core of the condition and problems in Afghanistan and the media analysis could focus on how to fix those problems. Alas, this was not the case recently. Instead, the story that commanded international attention in a way not seen since the killing of Osama Bin Laden was the mass shooting of 16 civilians by Staff Sgt. Robert Bales.

When a lone wolf commits a wanton act of mass murder that gets national attention, there is a pattern, of sorts, on how the media covers it. They will quickly dive into an attempt to psychoanalyze the killer based on bits and pieces of information from their life, quotes from friends and family, etc. Ideally, a pretty picture is painted that 'explains' how and why this person committed this egregious act.

This was the case for Jared Loughner, the killer behind the shootings that included the wounding of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and of Anders Breivik the killer behind the mass Norway shootings. After the Breivik shootings, I wrote a post noting the similarities and differences between these two that essentially boiled down to the idea that in our attempts at psychoanalysis we try to fit the events in as a sort of tangential justification for our worldview. When it confirms our worldview, we trumpet that aspect loudly and when it doesn't confirm our worldview, it is quickly suppressed from discussion.

With the Afghan civilian massacre, this pattern has been repeated in part. A nationwide quest to try and understand the who and the why of this event is being undertaken. However, it has an unusual twist. Namely, Robert Bales is a decorated fourth term members of the US military; this is the most venerated class in our society. Conversely, the victims - Afghans - are not exactly often put on a pedestal of respect and importance. So the question becomes even more poignant for those attempting to answer it: how could such a seemingly good person commit such a horrific act?

Consider the first several paragraphs of a CNN story whose title informs us that questions remain about the shooting (emphasis added):
Afghans continued to grieve, and continued to fume, as a new day dawned on Sunday, exactly one week after a U.S. soldier -- described by some who knew him as "happy" and a "nice guy" -- allegedly went house to house, shooting dead 16 villagers. 
Much to the villagers' disgust, decorated combat veteran Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales is more than 7,000 miles away from where he is suspected of single-handedly carrying out the grisly attack. 
Attorney Emma Scanlan said in a statement late Saturday that she and two other members of Bales' defense team plan "to spend several days meeting" with their client next week. 
She said others have accurately cast Bales "as a level-headed, experienced soldier." 
"Sgt. Bales' family is stunned in the face of this tragedy, but they stand behind the man they know as a devoted husband, father and dedicated members of the armed services," Scanlan said.
Bales is portrayed as the nice, happy, level-headed, man working in that most venerated position in society: a member of the US military. How could he be anything else? Isn't is just such a huge mystery for us to figure out?

Notice that here, and in most news coverage of Afghanistan, there is essentially no mention of the victims. They do not talk to their families, we do not know who and what the victims were and how much they will be missed. They are faceless victims.

Part of this is simply a question of expense. It is expensive, and dangerous, for a report to go to Afghanistan and talk to the families. Most members of the western press do not speak Pashto or Urdu and the media wants scoops not picking up from Reuters. Unfortunately, that is what real journalism is. Real journalism seeks to provide faces for the faceless, to demonstrate to us the poignancy of the human condition in all its forms, to ask the hard questions and try to answer them.

But another part of this is that we do not currently have the same level of empathy as a society for a group of murdered Afghan civilians as we do for, say, the youths shot by Anders Beivik in Norway. Since they have been so faceless throughout this decade of war, we are desensitized to the idea of Afghan civilians dieing.

Personally, I don't find the psychoanalysis of the individuals to be interesting, although I acknowledge that this kind of thing does interest others. The idea of such a wanton act is so outside of normal human experience it perhaps begs to be explained. Regardless, I highly doubt that we are capable of saying much that does explain why and how someone could do such a thing and I don't think that find a one word quote from somebody who says he was "happy" is ever going to provide us with the deeper explanation we might crave.

Toulouse France Shooting:
After I had written the above early last week, another mass shooting occurred by Mohamed Merah in Toulouse France. The inexplicable wanton nature of the violence against innocent civilians is fairly similar in the two cases. However, the media reaction was starkly difference and in that difference light is shined on our innate biases. Mohamed Merah is not a member of the decorated US military class. He appears to be a loosely associated with Al Qaeda. I hesitate to use the word terrorist for it is difficult to imagine how it could only apply to one of Mohamed Merah and Robert Bales.

In this case there is no mystery according to the public narrative. As a Muslim terrorist, that explains precisely why he commits these acts. There is no need to go to his friends and family, to see how they think he is such a lovely person or ask how this lovely person could commit such a horrific act. He committed it because he is a Muslim terrorist. It so perfectly fits the conventional narrative that there can be no interest in a story from these angles an, unsurprisingly, there was no coverage on this angle.

These events do more than just shed light on the innate biases we have and so quickly turn to when faced with such an event. They also reinforce our biases, and as such we should work to challenge to the conventional narratives.

Update: Glenn Greenwald makes a similar point to the above regarding our discussing of the motives of the afghan shooter. He has compiled a list of all the numerous different rationals for the killing; a list that would never be written for Mohamed Merah.

Update 2: The NYT actually does write a piece along the lines of trying to go in and understand how Mohamed Merah got to where he was. While there undoubtedly are systemic biases in terms of explaining events in terms of our normal narratives, the urge to try and really get at the psychological factors does seem to be dominant. 

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