Brother to Dragons

Spin — as in media spin, of the kind that we experience too much of — can be used not only to impart a desired meaning; but to deprive an event of any meaning whatsoever, to rob it of the expected impact it might have in the ordinary course of events. We've seen the technique (which might be labeled 'despinning' or 'reverse spinning') utilized hot and heavy throughout the Iraq War.

The most prominent example is probably the capture and trial of Saddam Hussein, which has been demoted from being a central event in Iraq's postwar history (Did the Nuremberg trials mean as little to Germany?) to something on the fringes, not worth the bother of focusing on. We're seeing the same thing now concerning the death of Al—Queda's Prince of Darkness, Abu Marwan al—Zarqawi.

The way to despin an event is not to ignore it, but to surround it with so many conflicting opinions, interpretations, and comments that they begin to contradict and cancel each other out. The distinct outlines of the event become hazy and uncertain, and in short order the average sane individual, with other, more pressing things in mind, chooses to the ignore whole business rather than go to the effort of deciphering it.

That's what we find in the Zarqawi coverage. We have been admonished, in nearly every news story, not to expect the violence to end, which is the media objecting to an assertion nobody ever made. We have been assured that Zarqawi is now a 'martyr' to terrorists worldwide, as if it would have been wiser to let him continue running around murdering people in the ghastliest manner conceivable. (There's also the question of how much a 'martyr' a man killed by a bomb while sacking out can possibly be. If it was up to me, I'd make him give the virgins back.)

Reuters lost no time in pointing out that Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar and 'others' are still on the loose. (It also demotes Zarqawi to one of a number of 'key fugitives', not quite the phrase that the Sheik of Slaughter —— Al—Queda's own label — generally brings to mind.) The bulk of the piece — by Will Dunham, a name I will be on the alert for in the future — is devoted to pointing out that the U.S. has much more in the way of resources in Iraq than Afghanistan, thus implying that Zarqawi's killing was a sideshow and diversion from serious business. This assertion is backed with quotes from various tame think—tank operatives, their names all new to me.

The sole substantive quote, from the dependable Anthony Cordesman, stating that Zarqawi's role was hands—on, thus rendering him the more critical target, is buried two—thirds in. As a curious sidelight, nowhere does Dunham mention that ObL is probably hiding in Pakistan.

(This seems like a good place to mention a thought that's recurred to me for some time now: in the late 19th century, the figurehead leader of the Indian Mutiny, Nana Sahib, succeeded in eluding the British authorities for over thirty years in an area not all that distant from ObL's current address. Legend has it that at last, a broken man, he stumbled into a police outpost sometime in the 1880s to give himself up only to be tossed back onto the street — the British believed that the uproar he'd cause was more than anything he was worth.)
 
Reuters also makes a half—hearted attempt to pull the Haditha stratagem, which appears to be on its way to becoming a standard feature of every significant story out of Iraq. It wasn't, in fact, Zarqawi. The villagers deny it. They'd have known. The U.S. is making it up. Why? To cover up a war crime, of course:

'This home belonged to displaced people," said a village resident, holding up a teddy bear and a child's knapsack buried in the destruction.

Al—Jazeera's Arab site provides the comic relief, publishing a complaint from a little—known organization, the 'Arab Committee for Human Rights' that the photo of Zarqawi's corpse 'is a violation of the Third Geneva Convention of Human Rights'. We'll have to get back to them on that.

And here's Michael Berg, all over the Net, on every newswire, on the tube. Out of the tens of thousands of relatives of Zarqawi's victims, American, British, Iraqi, Jordanian, the media selected the one individual who would make the most deflating comment. Thousands have been avenged. Tens of thousands of their loved ones will sleep a little better now. But that's not newsworthy.

One of the curious features of these stories is the way they've ignored questions that, one would think, would be among the first any competent reporter would ask. For example, the matter of leadership. Who will succeed Zarqawi? In a handful of instances we learn that Coalitionintelligence is betting on a man named Abu al—Masri.

And who is he? We don't know. All we're told is that he's 'Egyptian—born'. Not another word do we get. What's his batting average, how crazy is he? We're left to dig that up ourselves. (Not a single paper even bothered to point out that this is not Abu Hamza al—Masri, AKA Captain Hook, the Fenway
Mosque's resident lunatic.)

Even more interesting is the assertion that Zarqawi was tracked down thanks to 'Tips and intelligence from Iraqi senior leaders from his network'. What is this about? Are these 'senior leaders' captured Al—Queda operatives, or did somebody actually drop a dime on the Godfather? And if so, for what reason?

Readers of AT will be familiar with the prediction that Zarqawi's end would come when a relative of one of his victims, an inhabitant of a ravaged village, or a tribesman of a murdered sheik took action. Is that what happened? Was it payback in the time—honored Arab fashion? Nobody seems interested, and we're left scratching our heads 
 
Nor did a single report mention the fact, revealed in a story in The London Times

on June 8, that Zarqawi was attempting to expand his reach to the U.S. using the Internet as a conduit.

But even these oversights take a back seat to the media's basic failure of interpretation. The legacy media can be correct in every last detail — that Zarqawi is just one man, that the violence will go on, and still be dead wrong in the greater sense. Because war is not only fought in particulars. It's fought on the symbolic level as well. We see that clearly in the Old Testament, in the stories of David and Goliath, and Judith and Holofernes, and in the Iliad, which is one play of symbol after the next — the river chasing Achilles, the fate of Laocoon, the wooden horse.

Nothing has changed —— we fight wars, even with our AGMs and C4I and lasers, with a mentality differing not one iota from that of the army facing Troy. Historians may debate over the particulars of the Battle of Britain — whether it was, in fact, a turning point, whether Hitler had the capability of invading Great Britain, whether it might not have been wiser to conserve RAF assets, evacuate the towns, and let them burn. But that does nothing to alter the fact that in 1940 the Britons, having suffered defeats that no nation had ever endured and survived, stood up against the Nazi monolith and, one with Troy, one with Masada, turned it back. That is a truth that will survive long after the debates are ended.

And the truth of Zarqawi, the truth that we're supposed to overlook, will also survive. Yes, he was but one man, but he was something else as well: the brother to dragons, the Devil's henchman, the outlander who comes to slay children, the one who looks like us but is not of us. And this week, the F—16s emerged from their caverns, and sat roaring as their masters climbed aboard, and rolled down the runways and off into the deep midnight, and found their prey with beams of pure light... and behold, the Beast is no more.

And that too, is a truth. The media, back when it was called the 'press,' used to have a connection with that form of truth. They have it no longer. Which does not mean that we have to settle for their version of spin, call it what you will. The execution of Zarqawi is a victory in a war where victories will be far apart, with much slogging in between. So let's take the moment to rejoice, and ring out the news, because the Beast is dead, and a promise has been fulfilled.

J.R. Dunn is a frquent contributor.

Spin — as in media spin, of the kind that we experience too much of — can be used not only to impart a desired meaning; but to deprive an event of any meaning whatsoever, to rob it of the expected impact it might have in the ordinary course of events. We've seen the technique (which might be labeled 'despinning' or 'reverse spinning') utilized hot and heavy throughout the Iraq War.

The most prominent example is probably the capture and trial of Saddam Hussein, which has been demoted from being a central event in Iraq's postwar history (Did the Nuremberg trials mean as little to Germany?) to something on the fringes, not worth the bother of focusing on. We're seeing the same thing now concerning the death of Al—Queda's Prince of Darkness, Abu Marwan al—Zarqawi.

The way to despin an event is not to ignore it, but to surround it with so many conflicting opinions, interpretations, and comments that they begin to contradict and cancel each other out. The distinct outlines of the event become hazy and uncertain, and in short order the average sane individual, with other, more pressing things in mind, chooses to the ignore whole business rather than go to the effort of deciphering it.

That's what we find in the Zarqawi coverage. We have been admonished, in nearly every news story, not to expect the violence to end, which is the media objecting to an assertion nobody ever made. We have been assured that Zarqawi is now a 'martyr' to terrorists worldwide, as if it would have been wiser to let him continue running around murdering people in the ghastliest manner conceivable. (There's also the question of how much a 'martyr' a man killed by a bomb while sacking out can possibly be. If it was up to me, I'd make him give the virgins back.)

Reuters lost no time in pointing out that Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar and 'others' are still on the loose. (It also demotes Zarqawi to one of a number of 'key fugitives', not quite the phrase that the Sheik of Slaughter —— Al—Queda's own label — generally brings to mind.) The bulk of the piece — by Will Dunham, a name I will be on the alert for in the future — is devoted to pointing out that the U.S. has much more in the way of resources in Iraq than Afghanistan, thus implying that Zarqawi's killing was a sideshow and diversion from serious business. This assertion is backed with quotes from various tame think—tank operatives, their names all new to me.

The sole substantive quote, from the dependable Anthony Cordesman, stating that Zarqawi's role was hands—on, thus rendering him the more critical target, is buried two—thirds in. As a curious sidelight, nowhere does Dunham mention that ObL is probably hiding in Pakistan.

(This seems like a good place to mention a thought that's recurred to me for some time now: in the late 19th century, the figurehead leader of the Indian Mutiny, Nana Sahib, succeeded in eluding the British authorities for over thirty years in an area not all that distant from ObL's current address. Legend has it that at last, a broken man, he stumbled into a police outpost sometime in the 1880s to give himself up only to be tossed back onto the street — the British believed that the uproar he'd cause was more than anything he was worth.)
 
Reuters also makes a half—hearted attempt to pull the Haditha stratagem, which appears to be on its way to becoming a standard feature of every significant story out of Iraq. It wasn't, in fact, Zarqawi. The villagers deny it. They'd have known. The U.S. is making it up. Why? To cover up a war crime, of course:

'This home belonged to displaced people," said a village resident, holding up a teddy bear and a child's knapsack buried in the destruction.

Al—Jazeera's Arab site provides the comic relief, publishing a complaint from a little—known organization, the 'Arab Committee for Human Rights' that the photo of Zarqawi's corpse 'is a violation of the Third Geneva Convention of Human Rights'. We'll have to get back to them on that.

And here's Michael Berg, all over the Net, on every newswire, on the tube. Out of the tens of thousands of relatives of Zarqawi's victims, American, British, Iraqi, Jordanian, the media selected the one individual who would make the most deflating comment. Thousands have been avenged. Tens of thousands of their loved ones will sleep a little better now. But that's not newsworthy.

One of the curious features of these stories is the way they've ignored questions that, one would think, would be among the first any competent reporter would ask. For example, the matter of leadership. Who will succeed Zarqawi? In a handful of instances we learn that Coalitionintelligence is betting on a man named Abu al—Masri.

And who is he? We don't know. All we're told is that he's 'Egyptian—born'. Not another word do we get. What's his batting average, how crazy is he? We're left to dig that up ourselves. (Not a single paper even bothered to point out that this is not Abu Hamza al—Masri, AKA Captain Hook, the Fenway
Mosque's resident lunatic.)

Even more interesting is the assertion that Zarqawi was tracked down thanks to 'Tips and intelligence from Iraqi senior leaders from his network'. What is this about? Are these 'senior leaders' captured Al—Queda operatives, or did somebody actually drop a dime on the Godfather? And if so, for what reason?

Readers of AT will be familiar with the prediction that Zarqawi's end would come when a relative of one of his victims, an inhabitant of a ravaged village, or a tribesman of a murdered sheik took action. Is that what happened? Was it payback in the time—honored Arab fashion? Nobody seems interested, and we're left scratching our heads 
 
Nor did a single report mention the fact, revealed in a story in The London Times

on June 8, that Zarqawi was attempting to expand his reach to the U.S. using the Internet as a conduit.

But even these oversights take a back seat to the media's basic failure of interpretation. The legacy media can be correct in every last detail — that Zarqawi is just one man, that the violence will go on, and still be dead wrong in the greater sense. Because war is not only fought in particulars. It's fought on the symbolic level as well. We see that clearly in the Old Testament, in the stories of David and Goliath, and Judith and Holofernes, and in the Iliad, which is one play of symbol after the next — the river chasing Achilles, the fate of Laocoon, the wooden horse.

Nothing has changed —— we fight wars, even with our AGMs and C4I and lasers, with a mentality differing not one iota from that of the army facing Troy. Historians may debate over the particulars of the Battle of Britain — whether it was, in fact, a turning point, whether Hitler had the capability of invading Great Britain, whether it might not have been wiser to conserve RAF assets, evacuate the towns, and let them burn. But that does nothing to alter the fact that in 1940 the Britons, having suffered defeats that no nation had ever endured and survived, stood up against the Nazi monolith and, one with Troy, one with Masada, turned it back. That is a truth that will survive long after the debates are ended.

And the truth of Zarqawi, the truth that we're supposed to overlook, will also survive. Yes, he was but one man, but he was something else as well: the brother to dragons, the Devil's henchman, the outlander who comes to slay children, the one who looks like us but is not of us. And this week, the F—16s emerged from their caverns, and sat roaring as their masters climbed aboard, and rolled down the runways and off into the deep midnight, and found their prey with beams of pure light... and behold, the Beast is no more.

And that too, is a truth. The media, back when it was called the 'press,' used to have a connection with that form of truth. They have it no longer. Which does not mean that we have to settle for their version of spin, call it what you will. The execution of Zarqawi is a victory in a war where victories will be far apart, with much slogging in between. So let's take the moment to rejoice, and ring out the news, because the Beast is dead, and a promise has been fulfilled.

J.R. Dunn is a frquent contributor.