Friday, April 23, 2004

Honoring our Dead and the suppression of images of service member's coffins

I read that Bush has not attended a single military funeral. I think he ought to acknowledge those who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan more publicly.

Russ Kick, editor and publisher of the Memory Hole is trying to publish photos of the coffins of fallen American soldiers on the web. The Bush administration is resisting these images allegedly out of respect for the fallen.

But this story from last year by MSNBC's Martha Brant reports that this administration has allowed some remains to be filmed when it suited their purposes.

Showing remains sometimes seems to depend less on policy than politics. When CIA operative Johnny “Mike” Spann was killed in Afghanistan in December 2001, the DOD had no problem letting the media in to witness the return of his remains to Andrews Air Force Base. But then, his death only stoked support for the war in Afghanistan.

Attempts to change the policy at Dover have failed. Numerous news organizations have complained, but the one lawsuit brought by the ACLU back in 1991 was dismissed. The U.S. District Court of Appeals in Washington said that First Amendment rights did not grant the media access to government property even if it would give people a more accurate—and literal—picture of what’s going on. [Link]

The Seattle Times has a story by Hal Bernton and Ray Rivera about the contractor who was fired for releasing the photo of flag-draped coffins that it ran on the front page.

According to this Bernton and Rivera, the ban on photographing coffins is 13 years old, making the ban prior to the Bush administration.

What's the big deal about the images of coffins, you might ask?

In a separate article, George Lawson wrote the following in the Guardian.

George Bush has so far struggled to locate his chosen photo: the turkey he was pictured serving in Iraq proved embarrassingly to be fake, the "Mission Accomplished" banner under which he parked his plane on an aircraft carrier now looks ludicrously premature. President Bush's handlers might have consoled themselves that there was at least no risk of a bimbo picture coming out but, this week, there was much worse. America started to see the photographs Bush was dedicated to suppressing.

* * * * *

But, in a development which must have made Bush wish he lived under the British system of state secrecy, 350 of these censored images of the dead have been released to an internet lobbyist under freedom of information legislation.

This is a defeat for what was surely one of the most brutish manoeuvres of modern politics. The White House has claimed that they were protecting the dignity of the dead and the privacy of their families, but many families were desperate for their lost to have their moment on the evening news.

The truth is that the invisibility of the military fallen was a decision driven purely by spin. A governing belief of US politics is that the Vietnam war failed partly because news coverage made President Johnson resemble some kind of national funeral director, presiding over the obsequies of young men. Accordingly, Bush's image-handlers quite deliberately decided that neither he nor his war in Iraq would become associated with long, low boxes draped with the American flag. [Link]

I wonder if the authorities will make an exception for the return of Pat Tillman, the former NFL player who was just killed in action.

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