Wednesday, April 02, 2003

Robert Fisk: the reporter, not the cartoon. Some interesting reportage this morning from Robert Fisk, the reporter for the Independent, a British paper, who is so despised in some circles that conservative US bloggers invented a verb -- to fisk -- after him.

First, some background on fisking, which is ably explained in this piece for the Northwestern Chronicle by David Weigel. Fisk was reporting on the war in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 when he was set upon by a crowd and beaten. Later, Fisk wrote that the injuries he received were the entirely logical response to a US war that had terrorized the countryside and resulted in scores of civilian deaths. The piece has become such a legendary example of liberal self-loathing that you may be surprised at how stark and rational it really is. The entire piece is online at CounterPunch, but here's a relevant excerpt:

And -- I realised -- there were all the Afghan men and boys who had attacked me who should never have done so but whose brutality was entirely the product of others, of us -- of we who had armed their struggle against the Russians and ignored their pain and laughed at their civil war and then armed and paid them again for the "War for Civilisation" just a few miles away and then bombed their homes and ripped up their families and called them "collateral damage".

So what is fisking? Weigel quotes the well-known conservative blogger Eugene Volokh to the effect that it is "a thorough and forceful verbal beating of an anti-war, possibly anti-American, commentator who has richly earned this figurative beating through his words." In actual practice, it takes the form of quoting lengthy excerpts from said antiwar commentator and responding to them, point by point, with a rant of one's own.

The part that the fiskers don't get, of course, is that they have placed themselves in the same position as the Afghan mob that nearly killed Fisk: that is, acting with righteous fury, but out of pure emotion and rage, uninformed by facts and uninterested in truth. I generalize, of course. Fisking can be done brilliantly, just like anything else. But it's fascinating that those who proudly refer to their efforts as "fisking" are deliberately taking the side of the mob.

Anyway, I've gotten rather far afield. I had started by wanting to call your attention to some stuff Fisk has in today's Independent. In one article, he reports being given a tour of a women's college that had been attacked by US bombers, the sort of moral outrage with the Iraqi government has been trying shock the world's conscience. Fisk wasn't buying:

Now let's be fair. College staff have every right to take their own protection against America's notoriously inaccurate "smart" bombs. But did they dig the slit trench? Did they park the civilian trucks and buses, scattered around the empty campus, 30 metres from each other and always under the foliage of trees? And if college personnel normally worked the gates, why was the campus guarded by armed and green-uniformed militiamen? The crater was 20ft deep -- the classic cruise missile's gouge in the ground -- and its blast was enormous. Internal doors were torn from their hinges, desks overturned, beds thrown across rooms. But no one was hurt; indeed, the college had been abandoned long before the attacks.

On the other hand, terrible things are happening to civilians in Iraq, and Fisk here offers a more graphic description of that than is routinely reported in the American press. Here he reports on an attack in Hilla, a suburb 50 miles south of Baghdad:

Terrifying film of women and children later emerged after Reuters and the Associated Press were permitted by the Iraqi authorities to take their cameras into the town. Their pictures -- the first by Western news agencies from the Iraqi side of the battlefront -- showed babies cut in half and children with amputation wounds, apparently caused by American shellfire and cluster bombs.

Much of the videotape was too terrible to show on television and the agencies' Baghdad editors felt able to send only a few minutes of a 21-minute tape that included a father holding out pieces of his baby and screaming "cowards, cowards" into the camera. Two lorryloads of bodies, including women in flowered dresses, could be seen outside the Hilla hospital.

I could not find these images on the websites of either Reuters or the AP, but I guess that's not surprising if the images are as horrifying as Fisk's description of them.

What's clear is that Robert Fisk is one of the best reporters on the scene in Bagdhad, as worth reading as the Washington Post's Anthony Shadid and the New York Times' John Burns, if for different reasons. This is a man who has been turned into a cartoon by the mob mentality of American conservatives. Mock him if you will, but he deserves to be read.

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