Thursday, December 23, 2004

Haifa Street

The execution of Iraqi election workers on Baghdad's Haifa street was probably not, properly speaking, a murder. It was a political act. There has been no suggestion that the killers of the electoral workers had any personal grudge against them. Probably any electoral workers would have done. While most killers seek to hide their faces and plan their attacks so no one can see them, these killers scorned masks and chose a busy street in Baghdad to carry out their work because they wanted to send a message. According to Abdul Hussein Al-Obedi of the Associated Press:

In Baghdad, dozens of gunmen-- unmasked and apparently unafraid to show their faces-- executed three election officials on Sunday, part of their campaign to disrupt next month's parliamentary ballot. ... The deadly strikes Sunday highlighted the apparent ability of the insurgents to launch attacks almost at will, despite confident assessments by U.S. military commanders that they had regained the initiative after last month's campaign against militants in Fallujah. ... Meanwhile, in a message passed on by lawyers who visited him in his cell last week, Saddam denounced the elections as an American plot. ...

During morning rush hour, about 30 armed insurgents, hurling hand grenades and firing guns, swarmed onto Haifa Street, the scene of repeated clashes between U.S. forces and insurgents. They stopped a car carrying five employees of the Iraqi Electoral Commission and killed three of them. The other two escaped. The commission condemned the attack as a "terrorist ambush."

Two or three dozen people, at the most, would normally have witnessed these events. But due to the great good fortune of the killers, a photographer from the Associated Press was present and pictures of the execution were carried on newspapers throughout the globe, sending the executioner's message not merely to a handful of bystanders to hundreds of millions of readers throughout the world.

Salon says:

A source at the Associated Press knowledgeable about the events covered in Baghdad on Sunday told Salon that accusations that the photographer was aware of the militants' plans are "ridiculous." The photographer, whose identity the AP is withholding due to safety concerns, was likely "tipped off to a demonstration that was supposed to take place on Haifa Street," said the AP source, who was not at liberty to comment by name. But the photographer "definitely would not have had foreknowledge" of a violent event like an execution, the source said.

Here was where the killers really lucked out. The AP photographer, though caught at unawares, who definitely had no "foreknowledge" of what was going down and at the worst expected a street demonstration, did not take cover, even as soldiers and Marines are trained to do when shooting starts. He was made of sterner stuff and held his ground, taking pictures of people he did not know killing individuals he did not recognize for reasons he would not have known about. This -- in the midst of "30 armed insurgents, hurling hand grenades and firing guns" -- as the Associated Press report says. And he continued to take photographs for a fairly long period of time, capturing not just a single photograph, but a sequence of them. Salon continues:

Reporting from the most perilous sectors of a war zone is a complicated business, both in terms of access and safety. The kind of flimsy commentary-with-an-agenda bouncing around the conservative blogosphere right now regarding an AP insurgency against the war effort is not only a disservice to the public but a dishonor to the many journalists who have been injured or killed carrying out their dangerous mission in Iraq.

The journalists who have been killed or wounded in Iraq are rightly honored because noncombatants, belonging to neither side, who have the courage to walk into danger to gather news deserve every distinction than can be bestowed. They should not be confused, nor their memory sullied, by association with individuals who, posing as protected persons, act as mouthpieces of terrorist organizations, which would have been the case if the AP photographer had not been there to innocently cover a demonstration. That is why asking questions about what happened on Haifa Street is so important. It is not, as Salon would have it, a question of an obscure blogger impugning the integrity of journalists. On the contrary, it is about maintaining the integrity of journalists. As the Crimes of War site notes, the protections accorded to journalists are largely provided by custom.

The rights most journalists enjoy in wartime today were won in their respective national political cultures. In the final analysis, field commanders tolerate the presence of the press because of the political power and legal protections the press has acquired in their own local arenas. ... But journalists roaming around the wilder conflicts of the world are forced to live instead by the Dylan dictum: to live outside the law you must be honest. Never pretend to be what you are not or deny being what you are unless your life depends on it.

Every rogue "journalist" who undermines this customary protection -- the men who violate the Dylan dictum and live dishonestly -- impugn journalistic integrity far more than a 'conservative blogger' and serve to increase the already great peril under which legitimate journalists labor.

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.

Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

On Haifa Street.