The Magic Act

Journalists have come up with various tactics to either justify or veil US imperialism’s destructive footprint. Whether this is done intentionally or inadvertently isn’t relevant. One of the most common tactics used by reporters, particularly foreign correspondents, is to use what Mary Pratt has called an “anti-conquest” stance. [Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, Routledge, 1992:7]. It is a stance that allows them to report as apolitical, neutral, and uninterested witnesses while retaining paid employment within and an ideological allegiance to the very imperial nation that has an overwhelming influence in shaping and contorting the world. “Anti-conquest” stances are “strategies of representation whereby European bourgeois subjects seek to secure their innocence in the same moment as they assert European hegemony.” [Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, Routledge, 1992:7].

For example, American journalists reporting on Venezuela are outraged at the poverty but ignore the US sanctions that have created the worsening economic situation in the country. They are angered at the violence of ISIS but avoid saying anything about the broader ecology of violence, displacement, and anarchy that the US invasion, occupation, and installed government created. The sight of joblessness in Senegal saddens them, but they remain silent about the American and EU trading agreements with the country that have created massive unemployment. They wax lyrical about the deaths of Mexicans and the border violence of the wall but never turn their minds towards NAFTA, which led to the devastation of Mexica agriculture and pushed millions off their lands because of starvation and abandonment.

So when the New York Times sent Declan Walsh to Libya to produce a video essay about the destruction of the city of Benghazi, he opens the piece driving around the devastated town and asking, “When I went to Benghazi, I was guided by one main question: How did the city come to this?” [Declan Walsh, “Chasing the Ghosts of Benghazi,” New York Times, May 3, 2018].

It was a bizarre question because Walsh must have known that this city had been devastated by NATO bombardments just a few years earlier, and that eventually led to the downfall of the country’s leader and its entire civic structure. Yet, this simple fact does not appear anywhere in his article, and instead, we find him telling us that it was only when a mob attacked the US ambassador in 2012 that “the real fight began.” [Declan Walsh, “Chasing the Ghosts of Benghazi,” New York Times, May 3, 2018].

Apparently, for this bureau chief of one of America’s leading newspapers, the US and NATO attack on Libya that is singularly responsible for tearing apart the nation, leaving its civil and social structure in tatters, destroying its administrative and governance infrastructure, leaving it trapped in a bitter civil war between militant groups vying for power, and causing the public sodomizing and murder of its leader–an act that Hilary Clinton gloated about during a CBS News interview, exclaiming “We came, we saw, he died!” – was not the “real fight.” [Corbett Daly, “Clinton on Qaddafi: ‘We came, we saw, he died.’” CBS News, October 20, 2011].

So Walsh wanders around like an ignorant tourist or a doe-eyed child, claiming to search for the roots of the city’s chaos, devastation, anarchy, and desperation in Benghazi but never veers anywhere close to the truth or history beyond that “first moment” in 2012 when American lives were lost, and the story became tellable. Nothing before that moment when American lives were in danger matters or is relevant.

By erasing a fundamentally important element of the story–the US and NATO assault on the nation that led to its dissolution and the ensuing anarchy that now envelopes it–Walsh constructs US innocence, erases US imperial violence, and disappears thousands who died as a result of US actions. What he offers us is a city and a country lifted out of history and dropped back into the pages of the newspaper, shorn of our role in its daily horrors, deaths, criminality, violence, and madness. Walsh goes to ridiculous lengths to veil the war and how it has left it burdened with severe social, economic, and political devastation.

Walsh is unwilling to admit, or unable to acknowledge, that Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens represented a war-mongering nation that had attacked and killed thousands in the city alone. He can’t see or is prevented from doing so that the people of Libya had a rational reason for their anger against the US because it had destroyed their lives. He highlights Libyans who sympathize with the US Ambassador and the US itself. “But not every Libyan at the consulate was an attacker that night,” he points out, perhaps to remind us that there remains some hope in this otherwise barbaric nation. “Some…tried to rescue the Ambassador.” He tells us of mourners who came after the killing of the Ambassador. All is not lost for Walsh, whose focus remains on himself and the USA, placing the Libyans as mere bit-players in an always US drama. There is no interest in examining the sources of a people’s anger or the resentments, sorrows, and despair that led to his killing as the representative of the warring aggressor. There is no interest in speaking about the American/NATO war.

Instead, Walsh constructs American innocence, and its ambassador’s death is blamed on the irrational, violent, and barbaric ways of the Arabs. To do this, he reaches for essentialist and cultural explanations that can place the blame for the mess that is Benghazi on the Libyans. They are the militants, they are the irrational, they are the chaos, and they are the confusion. There is “hope” in Libya when and if Walsh finds an affirmation of the US or social desire that reflects bourgeois Western values, e.g., we learn that there is a “glitzy hub for internet startups.” All worlds are only American worlds.

This need to displace American barbarism onto its victims reaches its apogee when Walsh looks out the window of his hotel one night and spots some young men in a car “turning doughnuts” for fun. And suddenly, there emerges that ego-centered writer, one for whom anything and everything that happens to him becomes a decoding moment. Filming some random young men on a random night goofing around in their car in a random parking lot, Walsh sees insight, analysis, and wisdom. These young men and this one car become “like so many young Libyans I met, restless after years of war, impatient to go somewhere and yet turning in circles.”

Culture explains everything. All pathologies are local. Nations are isolated from the influence of others or those of transnational forces. The journalist is the center of all experience; every random experience, interaction, or encounter is transformed into a moment of “communicative relations and decoding operations.” She believes all her experiences offer interpretation, analysis, and insight. [Rosaldo, Renato, The Day of Shelley’s Death: The Poetry and Ethnography of Grief, Duke University Press, 2013:136].

War, invasions, and occupations leave no trace. Murder requires no questioning. Or accountability. Or prosecution for war crimes. A people, their lives and society, torn apart through US and NATO bombardments and the illegal support of rebels and terror groups, are now judged for their struggles, their impoverishment, and their desperation to make a life as not entirely up to the task.

Poof! With a flick of the wrist, a brutal war that killed thousands vanishes, and a new reality that soothes the reader’s soul and prevents them from being troubled in their comfortable lives is offered. Walsh, the magician, misdirects and excites us at the barbarism, chaos, and backwardness of a world he bravely ventured and returned to tell us.

This tactic is typical of US journalists. Again and again, reporting from geographies of US violence, invasions, bombardments, and economic strangulation, they persist in erasing US entanglements, involvements, interventions, and invasions and recasting these geographies as regional pathologies struggle towards modernity, development, civil society, and normalcy.

Like Walsh in Libya, US journalists operate with a deep commitment to US exceptionalism, which blinds them from speaking truthfully about their own nation’s role in the horrors they have come to report. From the debris and death machine of the Israeli occupation of the Occupied Palestinian Territories to Iraq, US journalists seem confused or complicit in either cleansing US imperialism as a force of good or simply vanishing it as a force at all.