by Hendrik Hertzberg
The one person most directly responsible for touching off the current frenzy over alleged Koran abuse by American interrogators at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp, more than anybody at Newsweek, was a Pakistani politician named Imran Khan. Khan is an Islamic populist, not exactly a rarity in that part of the world, but with a difference. Several differences, in fact. He is, first of all, a wealthy sports celebrity—a global cricket star for two decades—and a national hero not only for that but also because he built his country’s first cancer hospital. He is a graduate of Oxford, and so thoroughly Westernized that his private life is fodder for the tabloids. After he laid down his cricket bat, he became increasingly devout, and in 1996 he founded his own political party. He is its only member of parliament, but his voice is listened to in Pakistan and beyond. Initially a supporter of General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s President, he now attacks him as an “American puppet.” Khan says he wants Pakistanis to be America’s “friends, but not lackeys.” He has no sympathy with terrorism or dictatorship. He has even suggested that only democratically elected governments should be allowed to vote at the United Nations. In other words, he is pretty nearly the beau ideal of the sort of Muslim leader we want, and need, on “our” side.
Newsweek went to press with its story—three hundred words in the “Periscope” section, written by Michael Isikoff and John Barry—on April 30th. The item’s most sensational assertion, attributed to “sources,” was that “interrogators, in an attempt to rattle suspects, flushed a Koran down a toilet.” The story added that that this “finding,” among others, was “expected in an upcoming report by the U.S. Southern Command in Miami.”
For five days, nothing. Then, on May 6th, Khan, in a press conference in Islamabad, waved a copy of the offending issue and thundered, “This is what the U.S. is doing—desecrating the Koran.” And, rhetorically addressing Musharraf: “This war on terrorism is self-defeating if, on the one hand, you are demanding that we help them”—that is, us—“and, on the other hand, they are desecrating the book on which our entire faith is based.” Khan’s remarks were broadcast repeatedly throughout the Muslim world. The riots began on May 10th; in Afghanistan, seventeen people died and more than a hundred were injured.
Two weeks after the item’s publication, the Pentagon registered its first objection. On May 15th, Newsweek published a four-hundred-word note by Mark Whitaker, the editor, saying that the magazine’s “original source” now “couldn’t be certain about reading of the alleged Koran incident in the report we cited, and said it might have been in other investigative documents or drafts.” Whitaker added, “We regret that we got any part of our story wrong.” On May 16th, after a day of bitter attacks from Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, and others, many of them accusing Newsweek of having blood on its hands, Whitaker issued this one-sentence statement: “Based on what we know now, we are retracting our original story that an internal military investigation had uncovered Koran abuse at Guantánamo Bay.”
In many quarters, including some with no particular ideological or political axe to grind, Newsweek’s stumble is being treated as a journalistic felony on a par with Jayson Blair’s deliberate and repeated fabrications at the Times or CBS News’s gullible trumpeting of the forged Bush-National Guard documents. Not even close. In a careful chronology that Newsweek, to its credit, published in the same issue as Whitaker’s editor’s note, Evan Thomas described Michael Isikoff’s principal informant as “a longtime reliable source, a senior U.S. government official who was knowledgeable about the matter.” Before the “Periscope” item was published, Thomas wrote, John Barry showed a draft to “a senior Defense official,” who steered him away from one detail—that a certain general might be a target of the investigation—but “was silent about the rest of the item.” Newsweek evidently interpreted that silence as confirmation of a sort, thereby justifying its use of the plural “sources.”
Newsweek has been widely pilloried, particularly in the conservative press and blogosphere, for, among other things, lying, fabricating, sympathy with terrorism, and hostility to (in the words of a Wall Street Journal editorial) “American purposes.” The vilification, which is nonsense, takes it for granted that, as Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, put it last week, “Newsweek’s story about Koran desecration is demonstrably false.” It is not. The magazine’s apology and retraction were carefully phrased—more so, it must be said, than the original item. What Newsweek apologized for was the statement that a claim of Koran abuse would be asserted in a forthcoming report from a particular military organization, the U.S. Southern Command. What it retracted was the statement that such abuse had been uncovered by “an internal military investigation.” Left standing was the source’s testimony that he had seen the abuse documented; he was simply no longer sure whether it was in the SouthCom draft or “other investigative documents or drafts.” Newsweek’s apology was an act of journalistic conscience. Its retraction a day later, which some have criticized as knuckling under to White House pressure, was at least equally an act of good citizenship—an effort to help stem outbreaks of violence, for which the perpetrators, not the magazine, are to blame.
Is it really necessary at this late date to point out that the problem is torture and abuse, not dubiously sourced reports of torture and abuse? If the allegations in the Newsweek story seemed credible on their face, not only to its editors but also to government officials (such as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who quickly assigned a general to look into them), perhaps that is because of the long, dismal history of horrors that have already been documented—in many cases, by investigations conducted within the Armed Forces themselves, which are full of men and women who recognize that the honor of their service is at stake.
The worst of these horrors are typified by some that came to light just last Friday, in an extraordinary report by Tim Golden, in the Times, about the routine use of torture at the Bagram Collection Point in Afghanistan, in 2002. The most heartrending passages of Golden’s story, which was drawn from a two-thousand-page confidential Army file provided by an anonymous source, describe the death by torture of a slight, shy, illiterate young Afghan villager who was shackled by the wrists to the wire ceiling of his cell for days, struck more than a hundred times in one day for the amusement of captors who found his agonized screams of “Allah!” funny, and beaten on the legs until the tissue, in a coroner’s words, “had basically been pulpified.” By the time he died, most of his interrogators had concluded that he was guiltless. In common with the Abu Ghraib case and others, only a few lower-ranking officers and (especially) enlisted soldiers have been disciplined in connection with this and other abuses at Bagram.
The indulgence of this sort of depravity goes to, and comes from, the top. President Bush pushed aside the Geneva Conventions. A memo prepared on the order of his White House counsel, now Attorney General, suggested limiting the definition of torture to acts that bring on “organ failure.” And his Secretary of Defense personally authorized “interrogation techniques,” such as the use of dogs and forced nudity, that were expressly designed to outrage the religious customs of detainees. It was a short step from that to fake menstrual blood, sexual humiliation, and abuse of the Koran—other instances of which had been reported long before the current one. Nobody in a position of real authority has ever been held accountable for any of it. Against this background, words like “hypocritical” and “cynical” are inadequate to describe the White House campaign to demonize Newsweek. “Nauseating” is more like it.
We have to be respectful of Muslim sensibilities and Muslim beliefs, and the surest way to do that is to be respectful of our own. Otherwise, we’ll do worse than simply forfeit any hope of support from alienated potential allies in the Muslim world, like Imran Khan. We’ll lose sight of what we’re fighting for, and, little by little, become the mirror of what we’re fighting against.
Source: New Yorker