Atrocity Porn

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“This is a massacre,” the frantic Libyan woman, speaking by telephone while cowering in her apartment in Tripoli, told CNN’s Anderson Cooper.

“I hope you know that people around the world are watching and praying and wanting to do something,” Anderson told her, as if he were a stage prompter hinting at a performer’s next line. Whether or not she had been given a copy of the script, the caller performed as expected: “[T]he first step [is to] make Libya a no-fly zone. If you make Libya a no-fly zone, no more mercenaries can come in…. There needs to be action. How much more waiting, how much more watching, how much more people dying?”

It’s entirely possible, perhaps even likely, that the subject of Cooper’s interview was simply a terrified but resolute woman who risked her life to describe the violence devouring her country amid the death throes of Khadaffy’s police state.

It’s likewise possible that her call for international action to impose a no-fly zone was a desperate plea from a victim, rather than an act of media ventriloquism in which an anonymous figure endorsed the first plank of a military campaign proposed by the same neo-conservative kriegsbund that manipulated us into Iraq.

 Surely it was a coincidence that the “Cry in the Night” from Libya was echoed on the same network a few nights later by Iraq war architect, former World Bank president, and accused war criminal Paul Wolfowitz, who several days prior to Cooper’s dramatic broadcast called for a NATO-enforced “no fly zone” over Libya.

In fact, the day following that interview, an ad hoc group calling itself the Foreign Policy Initiative, which coalesced from the remnants of the Project for a New American Century, published an “open letter” to Mr. Obama demanding military intervention — beginning with a no-fly zone — in Libya.  The neo-con framework for managing the Libyan crisis would create a regional protectorate administered by NATO on behalf of the “international community.” This would nullify any effort on the part of Libyans, Egyptians, Tunisians, and others to achieve true independence.

On previous experience with media campaigns on behalf of humanitarian conquest, my incurable cynicism leads me to hear in Cooper’s “Cry in the Night” a faint but unmistakable echo of the tearful, palpably earnest testimony of “Nayirah” —   the wide-eyed Kuwaiti girl who, using an assumed name to “protect her family,” described what had befallen her country in the wake of the Iraqi invasion.

Bravely composing herself as she recounted horrors no human eyes should behold, the precociously self-possessed 15-year-old volunteer nurse related to the Congressional Human Rights Caucus how Iraqi soldiers stormed into the al-Addan Hospital, tore newborn infants from incubators, and hurled them to the floor. A short time later this testimony was “confirmed” by others who offered similarly anguished testimony before the UN Security Council.

During the three-month build-up to the January 1991 attack on Baghdad, the image of Kuwaiti “incubator babies” was endlessly recycled as a talking point in media interviews, presidential speeches, and debates in Congress and the UN. A post-war opinion survey found that the story of the “incubator babies” was the single most potent weapon deployed by the Bush administration in its campaign to build public support for the attack on Iraq.

This atrocity account was particularly effective in overcoming the skepticism of people espousing a progressive point of view.

“A pacifist by nature, my brother was not in a peaceful mood that day,” recalled Christian Science Monitor columnist Tom Regan, describing his sibling’s reaction to “Nayirah’s” testimony. “We’ve got to go and get Saddam Hussein — now,” Regan’s brother insisted.

“I completely understood his feelings,” Regan pointed out. After all, “who could countenance such brutality? The news of the slaughter had come at a key moment in the deliberations about whether the U.S. would invade Iraq. Those who watched the non-stop debates on TV saw that many of those who had previously wavered on the issue had been turned into warriors by this shocking incident. Too bad it never happened.”

“Nayirah” was not a traumatized ingnue who had witnessed an act of barbarism worthy of the Einsatzgruppen; she was actually the daughter of Saud Nasi al-Sabah, Kuwait’s ambassador to the United States (and a member of the emirate’s royal family). Her script had been written by the Washington-based PR firm Hill & Knowlton, which — under the supervision of former Bush administration Chief of Staff Craig Fuller — had put together a campaign to build public support for the impending war.

It wasn’t difficult to convince the public that Saddam was a hideous thug. Selling the idea of a major war in the Middle East was a more daunting proposition. In late 1990, Hal Steward, a retired Army propaganda officer, defined the problem for the administration: “If and when the shooting starts, reporters will begin to wonder why American soldiers are dying for oil-rich sheiks. The U.S. military had better get cracking to come up with a public relations plan that will supply the answers the public can accept.”

The image of newborn Kuwaiti infants being ripped from incubators was an updated riff on a classic war propaganda theme performed by British intelligence — and its American fellow travelers — in their efforts to provoke U.S. intervention in World War I.

The WWI-era equivalent of the Kuwaiti “incubator babies” were the Belgian infants who were supposedly spitted on bayonets by hairy-knuckled Huns in Pickelhaube helmets. German soldiers did this to amuse themselves once they could no longer sate their prurient interests by raping Belgian women and then amputating their breasts. So the American public was told, in all seriousness, by people working on behalf of a secretive British propaganda committee headed by Charles Masterman.

In 1915, an official Commission headed by Viscount James Bryce, a notable British historian, “verified” those atrocity stories without naming a specific witness or victim. This didn’t satisfy Clarence Darrow, who offered a reward of $1,000 to anyone who could produce a Belgian or French victim who had been mutilated by German troops. That bounty went unclaimed.

“After the war,” recounts Thomas Fleming in his book Illusion of Victory, “historians who sought to examine the documentation for Bryce’s stories were told that the files had mysteriously disappeared. This blatant evasion prompted most historians to dismiss 99 percent of Bryce’s atrocities as fabrications.”

War emancipates every base and repulsive impulse to which fallen man is susceptible. So it’s certain that some German troops (like their French, Belgian, British, and American counterparts) exploited opportunities to commit individual acts of depraved cruelty. But the purpose of the war propaganda peddled by the Anglo-American elite, as Fleming observes, was to create a widespread public image of Germans as “monsters capable of appalling sadism” — thereby coating an appeal to murderous collective hatred with a lacquer of sanctimony.

I’ve described agitprop of this variety as “atrocity porn.” It is designed to appeal to prurient interests and manipulate a dangerous appetite — in this case, what Augustine calls the libido domimandi, or the lust to rule over others.

The trick is to leave the target audience at once shivering in horror at a spectacle of sub-human depravity, panting with a visceral desire for vengeance, and rapturously self-righteous about the purity of its humane motives. People who succumb to it are easily subsumed into a hive mind of officially sanctioned hatred, and prepared to perpetrate crimes even more hideous than those that they believe typify the enemy.

Rhetoric of that kind abounded during the French Revolution, particularly the Jacobin regime’s war to annihilate the rebellious Vendee. It also figured prominently in the Lincoln regime’s war to conquer the newly independent southern states. However, it’s difficult to find a better expression of that mindset than the one offered in an editorial published in 1920 by Krasni Mech (The Red Sword), a publication of the Soviet Cheka secret police:

“Our morality has no precedent, and our humanity is absolute, because it rests on a new ideal. Our aim is to destroy all forms of oppression and violence. To us, everything is permitted, for we are the first to raise the sword not to oppress races and reduce them to slavery, but to liberate humanity from its shackles … Blood? Let blood flow like water … for only through the death of the old world can we liberate ourselves forever.” (Emphasis added.)

In pursuing his Grand Crusade for Democracy, Woodrow Wilson was squarely in that tradition, extolling the supposed virtue of “Force without stint or limit … the righteous and triumphant Force which shall make Right the law of the world and cast every selfish dominion in the dust.” To fortify the American “war will” through a steady diet of atrocity porn, the Wilson administration created a Department of Public Information that liaised with its British equivalent, as well as quasi-private British propaganda fronts such as the Navy League. That organization, Fleming points out, included “dozens of major bankers and corporate executives, from J.P. Morgan Jr. to Cornelius Vanderbilt.”

Through absolutely no fault of his own, Anderson Cooper is a great-great-grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt. Of considerably greater interest is the fact that as a student at Yale, Cooper spent two summers as an intern at Langley in a CIA program designed to cultivate future intelligence operatives.

When asked about Cooper’s background with the CIA, a CNN spokeswoman insisted that he chose not to pursue a job with the Agency after graduating from Yale. The same can be said, however, of many of the CIA’s most valuable media assets. 

As Carl Bernstein documented decades ago, the CIA “ran a formal training program in the 1950s to teach its agents to be journalists. Intelligence officers were ‘taught how to make noises like reporters,’ explained a high CIA official, and were then placed in major news organizations with help from management. ‘These were the guys who went through the ranks and were told, ‘You’re going to be a journalist,’ the CIA official said. Relatively few of the 400-some [media] relationships described in Agency files followed that pattern, however; most involved persons who were already bona fide journalists when they began undertaking tasks for the Agency.”

By way of an initiative called “Operation Mockingbird,” the CIA built a large seraglio of paid media courtesans. This was carried out through the Office of Policy Coordination, which was created by Allen Dulles and Frank Wisner  — the latter being the official who went on to organize coups (and the attendant propaganda campaigns) against governments in Iran and Guatemala. (Wisner’s son and namesake, incidentally, was a vice chairman at AIG — the CIA’s favorite global insurance conglomerate — until 2009; more recently he was tapped by the Obama administration to serve as a back-channel contact with Hosni Mubarak and Omar Suleiman.)

The tendrils of “Operation Mockingbird” extended through every significant national media organ, from the Washington Post and Newsweek to the Time-Life conglomerate, from the New York Times to CBS. As a result, according to former CIA analyst Ray McGovern, the Fourth Estate “has been captured by government and corporations, the military-industrial complex, the intelligence apparatus.” It is, in everything but name, an appendage of the Regime. This is clearly seen every time the Regime decides the time has come to mount another campaign of humanitarian bloodshed abroad.

Having “learned nothing from the horrors that they cheer-led like excitable teenage girls over the past 15 years, these bohemian bombers, these latte-sipping lieutenants, these iPad imperialists are back,” sighs a wearily disgusted Brendan O’Neill in the London Telegraph. “This time they’re demanding the invasion of Libya.”

On O’Neill’s side of the Atlantic, the Fleet Street Samurai are peddling “rumors of systematic male rape” in Libya. Others insist that the prospective war in Libya would in no way resemble “the foolishness of the Iraq invasion” — just as similar self-appointed sages promised that the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, each of which has lasted at least as long as the Vietnam War, would not be “another Vietnam.”

For some reason, this brings to mind the image of Bullwinkle repeatedly trying to pull a rabbit from his hat, blithely batting aside Rocky’s complaint that the trick “never works” by exclaiming, “This time for sure!” This time, we’re supposed to believe — or at least, pretend to believe — that the atrocity accounts are true, that military action sanctified by the “international community” is a moral obligation, that warlust and hatred are virtuous, and that the impending bloodshed will be a cleansing stream.

As is the case, one supposes, with any other variety, war pornography is nothing if not predictable. However, unlike Bullwinkle’s inept attempts at thaumaturgy, war porn is a trick that seems to work every time.

William Norman Grigg [send him mail] publishes the Pro Libertate blog and hosts the Pro Libertate radio program.

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