Covering the Guilty, Ignoring the Victims

17 Afghans killed, and all we care about is Robert Bales. Steve Saideman on media bias.
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March 20, 2012

As an American ex-pat living in Canada for the past decade, I have felt far more shame than I ever expected to feel. Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, the Koran burnings last month, and, now, the massacres in Panjwai raise the question of accountability in very powerful ways and draw a sharp contrast between the American way of doing things and Canada’s way (where one killed captive in Somalia led to many top figures losing their jobs). However, sometimes the lines are not as sharp as we might want to draw them.

In the wake of the recent Panjwai massacres, I have had a running conversation on Twitter with Roland Paris about the fact that the American media is far more concerned with the shooter, Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, than with his victims. The New York Times and other outlets have been overly curious about Bales’ background, while failing even to list the names of the Afghans who were killed. In fact, the first outlet to list the victims was Al Jazeera English.

Admittedly, covering the Afghans is hard, while researching an American-based soldier is easy. But this tendency to cover the killer rather than the victim is not unique to war – it is the American media’s typical response to criminal coverage in general. Looking back, it seems clear that we know far more about the serial killers – John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, etc. – than we do about their targets, people whose names we know not. I think much of this is driven by the desire to understand the events, where agency lies entirely with the killers. The victims did little to become victims besides being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The killers, on the other hand, are making the choices, and are thus the objects of our curiosity. And this is not just an American tendency: Russell Williams, a former colonel in the Canadian Forces who was convicted of murder and rape, is the object of books featured in Canadian bookstores, and his victims are not.


This sort of response to criminal behaviour is borne in part out of a desire to explain, but also to provide some accountability. Who is responsible for Robert Bales’ crimes? The answer is: Robert Bales. Other soldiers have had similar life experiences – multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, marital problems, and concussions – but only this one has gone on a killing spree. Still, we might also acknowledge individual responsibility and collective mistakes. For one thing, fighting in two brutal wars over 10 years has a variety of costs, including, perhaps, an increased probability that something like this might happen. I do think we are smart and judicious enough to hold the individual accountable via court martial while also recognizing that this massacre would have been less likely to happen had the U.S. not invaded Iraq (the “original sin” for the 21st century). 

While Canada and the U.S. share this tendency to focus on the criminal rather than the victims, I do think there are some differences: I have not yet seen convicted or failed Canadians getting a second act the way Americans have. Perjurer Oliver North gets to be a pundit. Dick Cheney lacks the discretion he should have had to retire into silence. And today, Lynndie England is getting media attention regarding the recent massacre despite serving time for her part in the Abu Ghraib crimes. While we may not want to deprive convicted war criminals of their right to free speech, I often wonder whether they have a right to be heard. Such individuals rarely have messages that enlighten and inform. England’s latest statements, for instance, remind us that some people never learn, which makes it even more important that we do. We need to figure out how to prevent people like her from being shameless advocates of hate in the aftermath of committing war crimes.

Photo courtesy of Reuters