Monday, November 22, 2004

The Fugitive

Sites' description of the shooting of a Jihadi in a Fallujah mosque by a Marine (featured in an earlier post) is now being used by the Associated Press to substantially advance the claim that the Marine fired without provocation.

The NBC correspondent who filmed the fatal shooting by a Marine of an apparently injured and unarmed Iraqi by a U.S. Marine inside a Fallujah mosque has written on his Web site that the wounded man made no sudden movements before the Marine opened fire on him. ...

In the video, as the cameraman moved into the mosque, a Marine can be heard shouting obscenities in the background, yelling that one of the men was only pretending to be dead. The Marine then raises his rifle toward an Iraqi lying on the floor of the mosque and shoots the man. Two other men are seen slumped by a wall. Sites' account said the men, who were hurt in the previous day's attack, had been shot again by the Marines. Earlier in the footage, as the Marine unit that Sites was accompanying approached the mosque, gunfire can be heard from inside.

Although Kevin Sites' weblog posting can be read, at one level, as a defense of a journalist's duty to report what he sees, it is now being used to convey the impression that a Marine now under investigation is guilty of shooting an inoffensive and wounded man. Sites himself does not say the Marine is guilty: he carefully avoids that; but was well aware that a journalist's story could easily be put to uses beyond his control. Describing his own video, Sites said:

We all knew it was a complicated story, and if not handled responsibly, could have the potential to further inflame the volatile region. I offered to hold the tape until they had time to look into incident and begin an investigation -- providing me with information that would fill in some of the blanks. ...

I knew NBC would be responsible with the footage. But there were complications. We were part of a video "pool" in Falluja, and that obligated us to share all of our footage with other networks. I had no idea how our other "pool" partners might use the footage. I considered not feeding the tape to the pool -- or even, for a moment, destroying it. But that thought created the same pit in my stomach that witnessing the shooting had. It felt wrong. Hiding this wouldn't make it go away. There were other people in that room. What happened in that mosque would eventually come out. I would be faced with the fact that I had betrayed truth as well as a life supposedly spent in pursuit of it.

When NBC aired the story 48-hours later, we did so in a way that attempted to highlight every possible mitigating issue for that Marine's actions. We wanted viewers to have a very clear understanding of the circumstances surrounding the fighting on that frontline. Many of our colleagues were just as responsible. Other foreign networks made different decisions, and because of that, I have become the conflicted conduit who has brought this to the world.

Sites had "no idea how our other 'pool' partners might use the footage"; he regrets that while NBC covered the story responsibly "other foreign networks made different decisions". Sites may now even regret that his explanatory web posting is being used by the Associated Press in ways that he did not originally intend. His story might indeed "further inflame the volatile region"; now his well-meant comments might bear on a political atmosphere that may send a man to jail. We can accept his sincerity, but who will accept the consequences?

I wrote in the earlier post that "we need the truth, however ugly. There is due process to protect the innocent from arbitrary punishment." I still believe in the former but can only hope for the latter.