A Terrorist By Any Other Name

To the Washington Post they were simply “gunmen.” The New York Times non-judgmentally called them “armed men.”

The elite media fastidiously avoid such harsh words as “terrorist” — even to describe those who, last week, rounded up five Iraqi teachers from outside their school, dragged them into a classroom, lined them up against a wall and shot them to death.

The Post was quick to inform readers that “no children were hurt in the attack.” Are we to regard that as restraint on the part of these “gunmen”?

The Times noted that “the killings appeared to have been motivated more by sectarian hatred than any animosity toward the (teaching) profession.” Is that meant to be reassuring?

In a bygone era, reporters would have let readers know in no uncertain terms how thoroughly they despise and condemn those who massacre teachers in a schoolroom. Nor would they have minced words in regard to those who blow up civilians or ritually decapitate “infidels.”

But today, most big-league journalists see it differently. The Reuters news agency loftily insists that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”

Other media moguls will tell you that it is their professional obligation to remain disinterested regarding this war and those fighting it. At key moments, however, that neutrality seems to wear thin _ in a perverse way.

For example, the Post ran the story of the slaughter of the Iraqi teachers not on the front page but on page 19. On page 1 was what the editors evidently judged a more consequential story: It was about Iraqis “scorning” Americans.

“Baghdad’s Karrada district,” readers were told, “was one of those neighborhoods where residents showered flowers on U.S. forces entering the capital” in 2003. (Interesting: How many times have you heard that Iraqis did not celebrate the American intervention against Saddam Hussein?)

The story goes on to say that “car bombings and other insurgent attacks, as unknown in Baghdad before the invasion as suicide bombings were in London until this summer, have killed more than 3,000 people in the capital since late spring.”

The implication is that those who order attacks and those who detonate bombs _ in Baghdad and London _ are less to blame than those Americans who interfered with Saddam’s fabled stability.

The story notes, too, that “kidnapping and other forms of lawlessness since the invasion” have altered the lives of “Baghdad’s comparatively liberated women.”

Striking a similar _ if even less subtle _ note on Meet the Press last weekend, Times columnist Maureen Dowd argued that Sen. Hillary Clinton “is going to have to answer the question about why she voted for an invasion that ended up curbing women’s rights.”

Is it possible that these veteran journalists don’t know that Saddam Hussein murdered _ according to Human Rights Watch _ 300,000 Iraqis? Among those butchered were both men and “comparatively liberated” women. Children, too, by the way.

Kenneth M. Pollack, who served on the National Security Council under President Clinton, has noted that Saddam would “gouge out the eyes of children to force confessions from their parents and grandparents … drag in a man’s wife, daughter, or other female relative and repeatedly rape her in front of him … behead a young mother in the street in front of her house and children because her husband was suspected of opposing the regime.”

Do commentators such as Dowd believe that such acts did not “curb” women’s rights? Would the Post argue that gouging, raping and beheading don’t qualify as “lawlessness”? Alternatively, would they contend that barbarism in pursuit of stability is justifiable? If so, why not propose the U.S. military adopt such tactics? And why cavil about Abu Ghraib?

For decades, too many correspondents covering the Middle East failed to report Saddam’s worst atrocities _ sometimes because they knew little beyond what the dictator’s flacks told them, sometimes to protect their local staffs, sometimes to avoid getting kicked out of the country or tossed into jail themselves.

But what can be the excuse for so many media heavyweights continuing the cover-up now _ overlooking documented history, soft-peddling the murder of innocents by Saddam loyalists and al Qaeda invaders, and shifting blame from terrorists to those fighting them?

This isn’t neutrality. It’s moral vacuity.

(Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies a policy institute focusing on terrorism.)