Quare siletis juristae in munere vestro? (Why are you jurists silent about that which concerns you?) —Giorgio Agamben
Background: a firefight
The armed forces of the United States of America laid siege to the Iraqi city of Fallujah in April and later in November of 2004. In order to better understand the role of US news media relative to these assaults, we must begin with an undeniable if rarely repeated reality: US assaults on Fallujah did not begin in April 2004. Let us avoid the unpleasant reminder that during the first Gulf War, Fallujah was among the cities with the highest numbers of civilian casualties—a distinction indebted to precision laser-guided bombs that struck crowded markets in the city center. We can then date assaults on Fallujah to Iraqi Freedom—which, for those who forget, began with the American invasion so named. A Human Rights Watch Report provides background.
Al-Falluja had generally benefited economically under the previous government. Local residents told Human Rights Watch that many of them had worked for the military, police or intelligence. However, Human Rights Watch did not find overwhelming sympathy for Saddam Hussein following the collapse of his government. Many al-Falluja residents told Human Rights Watch that they considered themselves victims and opponents of his repressive rule.
Before US forces arrived on April 23, 2003, the report continues,
tribal and religious leaders in al-Falluja had already selected a Civil Management Council, including a city manager and mayor. The quickly-formed local government was having success in minimizing the looting and other crimes rampant in other parts of Iraq. Different tribes took responsibility for the city's assets, such as banks and government offices. In one noted case, the tribe responsible for al-Falluja's hospital quickly organized a gang of armed men to protect the grounds from an imminent attack. Local imams urged the public to respect law and order. The strategy worked, in part due to cohesive family ties among the population. Al-Falluja showed no signs of the looting and destruction visible, for example, in Baghdad.
However, according to the same report, the community became somewhat “agitated and concerned” when US forces took positions in central Fallujah, including in an elementary school. “Worried local leaders met with US commanders on April 24, explaining that al-Falluja was a religious city and requesting sensitivity from US troops.” Aggressive street patrols continued, however, and on April, 28, the day before city schools were scheduled to open, a demonstration was held outside of the elementary school where US troops were stationed. In what was described by military accounts as a “firefight” and by the leaders in American journalism as a perhaps excessive response to an attack, US soldiers applied continuous machine gun fire for near ten minutes on the crowd, killing seventeen injuring more than seventy. A ballistics report conducted thereafter could find “no compelling evidence” that a shot had been fired on US forces.[3 ]
But to return to the “aggressive street patrols” that began in Fallujah in April of 2003, one might ask why such safekeeping of a city would antagonize its citizens. But this issue needs no return; in Iraq such patrols and their accompanying detentions and collective punishments are ongoing. To ask why they are bothersome to a city’s citizens is furthermore presumptive; these patrols, after all, strip men and women of their rights as citizens. For to the extent that Fallujah was safely kept by US authorities, equally so was the citizenship of Fallujans. A January 2004 trip to Fallujah to speak with a law professor eight months after the arrival of occupation forces addressed these issues in an unexpected way.
The man we went to see in Falluja is Sheikh Haji Barakat, who is a law professor. The problem was that the Sheikh was detained by US soldiers three months ago, and remains in Abu Ghraib prison to this day. This, despite the fact that the US Commander of Falluja has already told his family that the Sheikh is innocent. Each time the family has asked for his release, they get the same promise: tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow.
“Sheikh Haji Baraket,” explains his cousin Khamis, “is a great, honorable man. The Americans accused him of financing the resistance. But even the Sheikh told the Americans his seven sons are involved in the resistance. This doesn’t mean that their father is guilty. But they have detained him illegally anyway.”
Omar is the 20 year old nephew of the Sheikh, who was detained as well. He tells us of being interrogated. The Americans asked him if he was Sunni, when he had last seen his mother, and other odd questions, then released him. He also tells us that when the Americans came to detain him, the door to the house was smashed, papers and passports were taken, the manifest for the family car, and all the money in the house.
Omar states that while in prison the Americans who questioned him wore civilian clothing, and threatened to release German Shepherd dogs on him.
The images are by now well known. Since April 2003, to Fallujans and other Iraqis Colonial India must seem an idyllic dream; Mohandas Gandhi’s once forceful rejoinder to arrest—on what charge?—would in today’s Iraq elicit only the force of laughter from authorities and their torturers (if Haji Baraket becomes at some point enfeebled enough to blurt it out). For the sake of Iraqi Freedom, in Fallujah—as elsewhere in the country—it is first the law that has been put away for safekeeping.
For slaughtered sheep
Nonetheless, in the weeks prior to the first siege of Fallujah, US news media could reasonably consider resistance to the US occupation of Iraq as opposition to “free-market capitalism, sexual freedom, and the importing of Hollywood movies.” Despite such objections, a New York Times survey of Iraqis found “an upbeat sense among most” that their lives were getting better: “Iraqis are starting to express satisfaction with how things are going.” Unsurprising, then, that in the New York Times one read that Spain’s decision to withdraw troops from Iraq—perhaps linked to the recent bombings in Madrid—“constitutes the most dangerous moment we’ve faced since 9/11.”
On March 31st, a US vehicle traveling through Fallujah was ambushed and its four passengers killed. Who were the passengers? According to US national media, they were “consultants” or “contractors” or “security contractors.” What were they doing in Fallujah? On April 1, the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, “food deliveries around Fallujah”; the Washington Post wrote, “helped protect food convoys”; the New York Times wrote, “providing security for food delivery in the Falluja area”; while a Chicago Chronicle headline called the passengers simply, “civilians.” We found only two articles in the deluge that offered any variation at all from this account. One, published in the Washington Post, introduced the slain men as “among the most elite commandos working in Iraq.” The same article explained this fact, however, with a statement from their employer.
Coalition forces and civilian contractors and administrators work side by side every day with the Iraqi people. Our tasks are dangerous and while we feel sadness for our fallen colleagues, we also feel pride and satisfaction that we are making a difference for the people of Iraq.
An article in the Chicago Tribune wrote that the slain passengers worked for a “security company” that issues military-style ranks, uses attack helicopters to train their personnel, deploys for months on end, trains at military installations, and works daily with US commanders in any given war zone. Nonetheless, as the same article concluded, such personnel “are not mercenaries” since they perform “defensive security-related work.” And this is obvious conclusion to draw, when one remembers that the proper owners of Iraqi land and resources are US companies; accordingly any attempt to guard them is a defensive one, as is any attempt to police the Iraqis ordained to serve these interests. At any rate, such coverage was exceptional; indeed, the men killed on March 31, 2004 in Fallujah who had security clearance (meaning they were above the law to which every Iraqi, if he is lucky, is subject), who were heavily armed, and who even wore military dog tags were ubiquitously to referred in terms that could equally well have described teachers, gardeners, janitors, or aid workers. In the three days which immediately followed their deaths and which immediately preceded the siege of Fallujah—April 1st, 2nd, and 3rd—the men were referred to even as “civilians” with banal regularity: ten times in the Los Angeles Times, nine times in the San Francisco Chronicle, twenty times in the Washington Post, sixteen times in the Chicago Tribune, and twenty-five times in the New York Times. During only these few hours that the US military had time to build support for a retaliatory siege, then, and in only five of the most respected national newspapers, readers read eighty times of the death and mutilation of American civilians in Fallujah.
A natural question to ask might be: how were civilians in Fallujah depicted during this time? Seven of the most circulated newspapers in the United States ran front page photos of Fallujans either congregating in front of the bodies of the dead Americans as they hung from a bridge or of Fallujans beating those bodies while on the ground. The major US news media found themselves reflecting on their respective portrayals of the event. Typical of these reflections were those offered by New York Times, which fell under the heading, “Issues of Taste.” The question was “how to show what happened without offending viewers and readers?” to which the article concluded, “showing kids celebrating while dragging bodies through the street was essential to the report.” For the concern centered not on the people of Fallujah, who they were taking great pains to represent, but on the contrary, that the present moment resembled another a decade earlier in Mogadishu—since “that moment shifted public opinion and eventually led to American pullout.” But the New York Times could not have put it better than the marine it quoted: “the insurgents in Falluja are testing us. They’re testing our resolve. But it’s not like we’re going to leave. We just got here.” In the national press, this resolve was more than ample: it was overwhelming. What the New York Times called a “brutal outburst of anti-American rage” was not only a “Saddamist Insurgency” to quote the Chicago Tribune, but also a “celebration” of “cheering, dancing”; in the Washington Post, “townspeople went on a rampage”; in the Washington Times, “cheering crowds reveled in a barbaric orgy.” As the San Francisco Chronicle reported, what occurred was “an act of savagery shocking even by the blood-stained standards of Iraq’s worst trouble spot”—“sheer bestial violence” that doubled as “a town fete.” These were “just random killings of any westerner” with “no rhyme or reason to [them] whatsoever.” An eyewitness account that circulated nationally recorded that “‘The people of Fallujah hanged some of the bodies on the old bridge like slaughtered sheep,’ resident Abdul Aziz Mohammed said gleefully.” Though in the context that was provided it was hardly necessary, a Fallujan taxidriver assured readers of the New York Times that “everyone here is happy with this. There is no question.”
The question of how to respond was handled with equal resolve. As the New York Times reported, the event had brought to a halt the “American progress toward the establishment of a western-style democratic state.” By April 2nd, concerns were being raised in all corners that the lack of a swift military response may be disquieting evidence that Americans have indeed become “tolerant of violence.” The means available for such a response were implied, perhaps, by statements such as, “whoever did this were less than animals,” as a family member of one of the dead Americans was quoted in the New York Times. Other newspapers were less oblique; an unsigned op-ed in the Washington Post questioned whether “this country can be demoralized and defeated by acts of savagery.” It went on to state that “it is critical that the US commanders respond forcefully to Fallujah and step up the counteroffensive against the Sunni insurgency.” We should remember, then, that beside the lives of four American soldiers of fortune killed last April—or, in the language of the time—slaughtered sheep, were the residents of Fallujah, not quite citizens, not quite sheep for slaughter; they, a city’s mothers, fathers, babies, and grandmothers were but “jubilant locals” who, beasts that they had shown themselves to be, would “need to be defanged.” As one newspaper put it, in response to a Fallujan’s words that “‘we wish that they would try to enter Fallujah so we’d let hell break loose’”: “The man will get his wish...only the when and how had yet to be decided.”
When and how came hours later, in what even the handpicked members of the Iraqi National Council would condemn as collective punishment, and what their Washington masters would call Operation Vigilant Resolve. The purpose, tirelessly repeated again and again was to “regain control of the restive city”—Fallujah, which, remember, had begun post-Saddam Iraq according to Human Rights Watch as a self-governing city of relative “law and order.” Remember too that the same Human Rights Watch report “did not find overwhelming sympathy for Saddam Hussein” but instead many who “considered themselves victims and opponents of his repressive rule.” Truth, however, posed little obstacle; the US news media ably presented its readers with an entirely different city, one that was not only “restive” but “lawless” and a “hotspot” and “flash point” for violence, as well as a “volatile center of support for [Saddam Hussein].” Later in the month, rumors would become findings, New York Times reports straight from the Pentagon’s mouth that Saddam Hussein’s former officers “are responsible for the majority of attacks today” in Fallujah. In the New York Times, fighting on the ground was introduced with the announcement that marines “fought block by block to flush out insurgents” and “were setting up checkpoints and seeking out suspected insurgents” in the city, its readers were reminded, where “American security contractors were killed and their bodies mutilated.” This reminder became obligatory both to explain US military presence in Fallujah and to suggest what another New York Times article made explicit: that as a result, the US marines were forced to abandon “a friendlier side of the American military” in exchange for “heavier weapons and tougher tactics.”
While such “tougher tactics” were unfit to print in the national press, they were apparent to anyone present in Fallujah. While the New York Times reported an April 9th a US pause in fighting “to allow residents to bury scores of dead, and to open routes into the beleaguered city for food and urgently needed medical equipment,” in fact only three of the sixty trucks with relief supplies that arrived at Falluja were permitted entry into the city; probably not worth mentioning is that several of these trucks were fired upon before being denied entry and dispatched. The report two days later, from the New York Times, that “troops hold fire for negotiations,” was again flatly untrue:
three of my friends agreed to ride out on the one functioning ambulance for the clinic to retrieve the wounded. Although the ambulance already had three bullet holes from a U.S. sniper through the front windshield on the driver’s side, the fact that two of them are westerners was the only hope that soldiers would allow them to retrieve more wounded Iraqis. The previous driver was wounded when one of the snipers shots grazed his head.
What I can report from Falluja is that there is no ceasefire, and apparently never was. Iraqi women and children are being shot by American snipers. Over 600 Iraqis have been killed by American aggression, and the residents have turned two football fields into graveyards. Ambulances are being shot by the Americans. And now they are preparing to launch a full scale invasion of the city.
This is difficult for me to see, particularly after being there yesterday and seeing an ambulance with 3 bullet holes in the driver’s side of the windshield. Seeing slain women and children, elderly, unarmed people. All killed and/or wounded by American snipers. In the last week there have been over 600 Iraqis slain in Falluja alone, with thousands more wounded.
The targeting of ambulances by the US military was practiced with enough vigilance in Fallujah that the Iraqi Minister of Health on April 17 publicly pressed Paul Bremer to account for it. Bremer explained that the US authorities believed ambulances to have been used by fighters—offering, as a response, the very definition of collective punishment. Obstructing medical care, however, in some cases may have required more vigilance, as the following two medical accounts demonstrate:
The Americans shot out the lights in the front of our hospital, they prevented doctors from reaching the emergency unit at the hospital, and we quickly began to run out of supplies and much needed medications.
One of my doctors in Falluja asked the Americans there if he could remove a wounded patient from the city. The soldier wouldn’t let him move the victim, and said, “We have dead soldiers here too. This is a war zone.” The doctor wasn’t allowed to remove the wounded man, and he died. So many doctors and ambulances have been turned back from checkpoints there.
Such vigilance, too, is substitutable with the right hardware, if used illegally. A widely understood US military practice among the residents of Fallujah was the use of cluster bombs and flechettes. At Fallujah General Hospital, two orthopedic surgeons, Dr. Abdul Jabbar and Dr. Rashid spoke testified to this. Dr. Abdul Jabbar reported that “Many people were injured and killed by cluster bombs. Of course they used cluster bombs-we heard them, as well as treated people who had been hit by them.” Dr. Rashid agreed, saying, “I saw the cluster bombs with my own eyes. We don’t need any evidence. Most of these bombs fell on the families. The fighters—they know how to escape. But not the civilians.”
He added: “Not less than 60% of the dead were women and children. You can go see the graves for yourself.” At Noman Hospital in Al-Adhamiya, a doctor there too said of the people who came in from Fallujah from ten days earlier, that “most…were children, women and elderly.” At Yarmouk Hospital, a lead doctor reported that he saw American soldiers killing women and children, calling the situation in Fallujah “a massacre.” The New York Times preferred the designation “tremendously precise.” And it was an apt one, according to one Fallujah resident, who after having escaped to Baghdad testified that US warplanes were bombing the city heavily prior to his departure, and that Marine snipers continued to secure residents of the besieged city, shot by shot. “There were so many snipers, anyone leaving their house was killed.” In the New York Times, this was called “an acute willingness among insurgents to die.”
A doctor working in a temporary emergency clinic in Fallujah during April’s siege posed a question on Democracy Now!, which he repeated:
When you see a child five years old with no head what can you say? When you see a child with no brain just an open cavity what can you say? When you see a mother just hold her infant with no head and the shells are all over her body?
The doctor’s question is a good one, and for a reason: in April of 2004, as a city was invaded and its residents were fleeing, hiding, or being massacred, there was considerable public awareness in the United States of human beings whose bodies had been mutilated in Iraq, thanks to our news media. But among thousands of references to mutilation in that month alone, we have yet to find one related to anything that happened after March 31st. So, today, we pose the Iraqi doctor’s question once again, this time looking backward: when you saw an Iraqi baby girl with no head, what did you say? Well, that depends on who you are. If you’re the New York Times, you said nothing; if you’re Paul Bremer, you probably said vigilant resolve.
(1) “Violent Response: the US army in al-Falluja,” Human Rights Watch, June 2003.
(2) See front page accounts in the New York Times et. al. on April 30, 2003.
(3) Ibid; see section 5, “Ballistic Evidence at the School.”
(4) “Iraq Diary-Baghdad Street Sweepers; Collective Punishment and Kabobs in Falluja,” Dahr Jamail, January 12, 2004.
(5) “Killing Iraq with Kindness,” New York Times, Ian Buruma, March 17, 2004.
(6) “One Year Later,” New York Times, Unsigned editorial, March 19, 2004.
(7) “Axis of Appeasement,” New York Times, Thomas Friedman, March 18, 2004.
(8) "Slain Contractors Were in Iraq Working Security Detail," the Washington Post, Dana Priest and Mary Pat Flaherty, April 2, 2004.
(9) “Iraq violence drives thriving business,” Chicago Tribune, Kristen Schanberg, Mike Dorning, April 2, 2004.
(10) “7 of Top 20 Papers Published Front-Page Fallujah Body Photos,” E&P News, Charles Geraci, April 1, 2004.
(11) “To Portray the Horrors, News Media Agonize,” New York Times, Bill Carter and Jacques Steinberg, April 1, 2004.
(12) “4 From US Killed in Ambush in Iraq; Mob Drags Bodies,” New York Times, Jeffrey Gettleman, April 1, 2004.
(13) “Iraqi Mob Mutilates 4 American Civilians,” Chicago Tribune, Colin McMahon, April 1, 2004.
(14) “Descent into Carnage in a Hostile City,” Washington Post, Sewall Chan, April 1, 2004.
(15) “Four Americans Mutilated,” the Washington Times, April 1, 2004.
(16) “Horror at Fallujah,” San Francisco Chronicle, Colin Freeman, April 1, 2004.
(17) “4 From US Killed in Ambush in Iraq; Mob Drags Bodies,” New York Times, Jeffrey Gettleman, April 1, 2004.
(18) “Acts of Hatred, Hints of Doubt,” John Burns, New York Times, April 1, 2004.
(19) “General Vows to Hunt Killers, Retake Fallujah,” Chicago Tribune, April 2, 2004.
(20) “Families of Men Slain by Mob Focus on Their Lives, Not How They Died,” New York Times, Abby Goodnough, Michael Luo, April 3, 2004.
(21) “A Response to Fallujah,” Washington Post, unsigned op-ed, April 1, 2004.
(22) “Why America Won’t Cut and Run,” Chicago Tribune, unsigned op-ed, April 1, 2004.
(23) “General Vows to Hunt Killers, Retake Fallujah,” Chicago Tribune, April 2, 2004.
(24) “Marines Battle guerrillas in streets of Falluja,” New York Times, Eric Schmitt, April 9, 2004.
(25) “Acts of Hatred, Hints of Doubt,” John Burns, New York Times, April 1, 2004.
(26) “Hussein’s Agents Behind Attacks, Pentagon Finds,” Thom Shanker, New York Times, April 29, 2004. Although not a shred of evidence is provided to substantiate the claim, one might ask all the same why alleged crimes of the former regime against Fallujans or anyone else justify crimes (incidentally, much greater crimes) on the part of US-led forces against those Fallujans.
(27) “Up to 12 Marines Die in Raid on Their Base AS Fierce Fighting Spreads to 6 Iraqi cities,” New York Times, Jeffrey Gettleman and Douglass Jehl, April 7, 2004.
(28) “Marines Battle guerrillas in streets of Falluja,” New York Times, Eric Schmitt, April 9, 2004.
(29) “When do we begin calling this a War again?” Dahr Jamail, April 9, 2004.
(30) “Troops Hold Fire for Negotiations at 3 Iraqi Cities, “ New York Times, John Burns, April 12, 2004.
(31) “Slaughtering Civilians in Falluja,” Dahr Jamail, April 11, 2004.
(32) “No respite from the Violence,” Dahr Jamail, April 12, 2004.
(33) “Iraqi Minister of Health presses Bremer and IGC to explain U.S. Targeting of Ambulances in Falluja,” Dahr Jamail, April 17, 2004.
(34) “Fallujah Doctors Report U.S. Forces Obstructed Medical Care in April,” News Standard, Dahr Jamail, May 21, 2004
(35) “Cluster Bombs in Falluja, Harassment of Patients by Soldiers,” Dahr Jamail, April 19, 2004.
(36) “Their wide ‘kill radius’ renders flechettes particularly deadly. Their use in heavily populated areas contravenes two basic principles of the laws of war. The first is the prohibition against indiscriminate attacks, which means that forces cannot use weapons or mount attacks that do not or cannot distinguish between civilians and military objectives. The second is the requirement to take all feasible precautions to avoid or minimize harm to civilians when choosing method and means of attack,” from “Israel: Stop Using Flechettes in Gaza,” April 29, 2003.
(37) “Atrocities Continue to Emerge from the rubble of Fallujah,” Dahr Jamail, May 11, 2004.
(38) “Cluster Bombs in Falluja, Harrassment of Patients by Soldiers,” Dahr Jamail, April 19, 2004.
(39) “Troops Hold Fire for Negotiations at 3 Iraqi Cities, “ New York Times, John Burns, April 12, 2004.
(40) Abu Muher, quoted in “Fallujah Residents Report U.S. Forces Engaged in Collective Punishment,” News Standard, Dahr Jamaril, Apr 23, 2004.
(41) “Marines Use Low-Tech Skill to Kill 100 in Urban Battle,” New York Times, Jeffrey Gettleman, April 15, 2004.
(42) “US Marines Shoot Ambulances in Fallujah,” Democracy Now! April 13, 2004.
(43) This would be incomplete without elaboration. Of the 55 articles in the New York Times covering Fallujah between April 1 and May 11, 2004, there was a lone article devoted to the matter of the US attack of a civilian population. That article was entitled “War Reports from Civilians Stir Up Iraqis Against US,” written by Christine Hauser and published on April 14, 2004. A truism from Human Rights Watch—“one needs to verify the information directly”—is used to deftly make the point that “the chaos of battle complicates the task of those seeking the truth.” The complication wasn’t one that the article or the newspaper thereafter cared much to deal with. In the article, General John Abizaid was called as an expert witness: “the Arab press, in particular Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, are portraying [our] actions as purposely targeting civilians and we absolutely do not do that. I think everyone knows that.” As the title of the article perhaps indicates, the news was not so much that atrocities were occurring as it was that alleged atrocities may impede the war effort. “[Such] accounts of the American offensive on Falluja, mounted after the ambush and mutilation of American security contractors here, are the ones many Arabs in the region are hearing.”
It cannot be said, however, the language of international law was lost on the New York Times. On April 7th, Marlise Simons reported that “Iraqis meet with War Crimes Trial Experts.” But there she discussed prospects for bringing Saddam to trial, not his (disappointed) US masters, who at that moment had already embarked on the earliest stage of a massacre. On April 8th, the Geneva Conventions were cited, but as inapplicable to the present situation. On the 9th, US generals used the New York Times to assure readers that US forces in Fallujah have been “judicious in the use of force.” In case these messages did not get through, the New York Times reported Fallujans “have changed the landscape of the war dramatically since the ambush and killing last week of four security guards in Falluja,” suggesting that there is no longer a clear distinction to be drawn between fighters and civilians in Fallujah: “you never know which are going to come up and kill you” (“Under Falluja Sun, Gun Fire and a GrimTask: Wait it out,” John Kifner, Apil 19, 2004) and “the big problem now is that friendlies, civilians and bad guys are all mixed together” (“A Full Range of Technology is Appled to Bomb Falluja,” Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker, April 30, 2004). Indeed, if the same standards are applied to Fallujans as were applied to the four North Carolina men who died in Fallujah on March 31st, not some, but every Fallujan subject to vigilante resolve was civilian..