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Media Fatigue

By Daniel Henninger

"Where is the press? Where is the media to see this massacre? Count our dead. Count our body parts." The man complaining this week about the media's inadequate coverage of the Lebanon conflict was a village mayor, Hussein Jamaleddin, whose words and the loss of his son in an Israeli strike were quoted by Associated Press reporter Hussein Dakroub. Later that day, another AP reporter, Hamza Hendawi, filed a graphic description of the funeral: "Weeping as he walked in a funeral procession hours later, Jamaleddin pulled at the limbs of the dead, carried to a cemetery in the bucket of a yellow front-loader."

Writing on this page about Lebanon last week, Riz Khan, the host of a program on Al Jazeera's forthcoming English-language TV channel and a former anchor for CNN International, described "the American media's sanitization of the conflict," and "those observing war from the safety of their living rooms."

Indeed, "those observing war from the safety of their living rooms" have become the most important political force engaged today in modern warfare. There is now a belief, held for different reasons by pacifists and propagandists, that if the media forces the people in America or Europe to see and read the bloody details of these conflicts, then public opinion will force their leaders, as Kofi Annan would put it, to stop the fighting.

Authentic antiwar novels, movies and paintings have tried for a long time to make audiences so acutely aware of the horrors of war that they would turn against the idea of war. Francisco Goya's 85-print "Disasters of War" dates to 1810. As the war in Lebanon began to fill the prime-time hours on American TV, Turner Classic Movies broadcast "All Quiet on the Western Front," Lewis Milestone's 1930 film of Erich Maria Remarque's novel. The battle scenes, depicting the mass slaughter of trench warfare in World War I, are almost unbearable to watch even now.

With the possible exception of Eddie Adams's photograph in 1968 of a South Vietnamese police chief shooting a Viet Cong prisoner in the head, none of these efforts has had much effect. Vietnam, the first "living room war," generally appeared only on the half-hour network newscasts. That has changed. In our time, war--its grime, fatigue, rubble, flaming colors, wounds, dirty deaths and tears--can play nightly and day after day before the eyes of entire national populations.

Today, print and electronic media are integrated as a force depicting war's carnage and cost. Mere reportage as in WWII has been succeeded by an implicit journalistic moral obligation to delegitimize the use of armed force, "the killing," for political goals. On July 21 as the fighting began, the New York Times's front page published a photograph of a dead person in a black plastic body bag over the headline, "In Tyre, the Dead Wait for the Bombings to End." In the days since, the paper's front-page photographs have been not so much standard journalism as Goya-like compositions on the disasters of this war. If Riz Khan believes the American press is offering a "sanitized" version of Lebanon, I would say he is overreaching.

The way war arrives in living rooms nowadays has an effect, and the effect often is revulsion. How could it not be? The thousands of replayings in 2004 of photos from the prison at Abu Ghraib had a political effect. The published photographs and videos of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's humiliations and beheadings of Western captives also had a political effect. One's emotions and politics are routinely jerked now from revulsion to hatred and back.

In a February speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld admitted that the government doesn't cope well with the way the events of war appear in contemporary media. "There's never been a war fought in this environment before," Mr. Rumsfeld said. "For the most part, the U.S. government still functions as a five-and-dime store in an eBay world."

The war in Lebanon may be an important case study in the way governments, and the public, manage war in an eBay world. The fulcrum event was the bombing at Qana.

Earlier images of human carnage had already brought calls for a cease-fire. At Qana, Israel's bombs purportedly killed more than 20 children, and this reality of course took the form of pictures transmitted globally and continuously of small dead bodies held aloft, often by the same Lebanese rescue worker, for cameramen and photographers. A New York Post headline over a dead-child's photo said: "Enough." Calls for a cease-fire went up from France, Spain and the U.N.; Israel, in the face of what was reported as "international outrage," declared a sudden, 48-hour cessation. It appeared that the modern means to make palpable the horrors of war had trumped politics to simply "stop the fighting."

But then, against this new political reality, Israel resumed military operations. Unlike in the U.S., where Abu Ghraib's photographs quickly sent segments of the political class into active opposition, Israel's political class refocused on the means necessary to achieve its strategic objective--defeating Hezbollah (with U.S. support crucial). A belated ground invasion began this week. Also unlike in the U.S., Israel's population centers were under constant military attack, rather than for one morning. Thus, preventing national extinction remains the more potent moral argument.

Images of war serve diverse purposes today. At Qana, the images' intent is to elicit a moral indictment of Israel's tactics and of war generally; at Abu Ghraib, to refute President Bush's stated nobleness of purpose in Iraq. Zarqawi's camcorder inside his house abattoir was meant to dispirit his American opposition "in the safety of their living rooms."

But whatever the purpose, a world in which people get fed streams of awful images to drive political conclusions produces a familiar effect: They eventually become inured to the images. Human wells of moral outrage are deep, but not bottomless. If emotional outrage is the basis on which they are expected to make judgments about politically complicated events like Lebanon, many will turn away, rather than subject themselves to a gratuitous, confusing numbing of their sensibilities. This is not progress.

Daniel Henninger is deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page.

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