Retraction Distraction

It might be the most insincere "retraction" in the history of modern journalism. Newsweek had little choice but to disavow its brief report of Koran desecration at Guantánamo Bay. Under tremendous pressure from the White House, and with 17 people having died so far in anti-American riots in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere that showed few signs of abating, retracting the story was the simplest way to put a lid on an explosive situation.

The only problem is that Newsweek's original brief report was not only correct but actually understated the problem.

The blog BooMan Tribune ( lists 13 published reports, prior to Newsweek's blurb, of similar problems—of Guantánamo guards throwing, stomping on, flushing, and even urinating on the Koran in front of devout Muslim prisoners. The reports include accounts of former Guantánamo prisoners published in the British press, the claims of detainees in Rasul v. Rumsfeld, Human Rights Watch reports, and references in current stories in The New York Times and Los Angeles Times. The only mystery surrounding these riots is why they didn't happen sooner.

Right-wing commentators are already busy lumping the Newsweek saga in with Dan Rather's Bush National Guard service story as evidence of the recklessness of the liberal media. The comparison is apt. In both cases, squawking by the right-wing echo chamber has successfully eclipsed the fact that, whatever problems might have arisen in the news-gathering process, the underlying accusations were true. And in parsing the Newsweek mea culpas, the question seems to be where Newsweek's anonymous government official saw references to the Koran being flushed down a toilet—not whether the events in question actually happened.

Most ludicrous of all have been the denials from the Pentagon, which has insisted that the Army shows respect for all religious and cultural customs of the detainees. This is demonstrably untrue in light of what was revealed at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, a prison where abuses were crafted by the director of the prison at Guantánamo. Blatant, calculated disrespect for the religion of detainees was a favorite practice of guards seeking to enrage or humiliate prisoners. Not surprisingly, the BooMan report also chronicles numerous allegations of Guantánamo guards and officials denying the use of prayer mats, disorienting detainees so that they wouldn't know the proper direction in which to pray, interfering with prayer calls, and silencing praying prisoners, as well as the abuse of Korans.

Newsweek's brief blurb didn't do any of this justice. It's remarkable that reaction to this scandal—not the Newsweek report but the abuse itself—throughout the Muslim world took Americans by surprise. As with Abu Ghraib, such practices do immeasurable harm to America's reputation. They come in the midst of a "war" effort that should be relying not on military conquest but on swaying the hearts and minds of ordinary Muslims so the attacks by fanatics like Al Qaeda are isolated and unpopular, rather than being seen as striking a blow for Muslims everywhere. Instead, from Iraq to Palestine to Guantánamo and beyond, the Bush administration's actions since 9/11 could have been scripted by bin Laden himself, so thoroughly have they offended the sensibilities of Muslims.

In that sense, it's not surprising that the Bush administration's response to unfavorable news that stirs Muslim passions is not to decry the abuses or to stop them, but to blame the messenger. The only thing different about Newsweek's account of Koran desecration from other such reports is that a high-ranking government official confirmed it, shattering the wall of silence and lies that is the preferred Bush mode of operations. It also comes as no surprise that the instinctive Bush response is to try to rebuild the wall, rather than take responsibility for what that wall was erected to prevent us from seeing. It's the only way these people seem to know how to do business.

The result is that current and former prisoners at Guantánamo whose accusations predated Newsweek have far more credibility, in Muslim eyes, than the U.S. government. Newsweek's retraction was intended to put a lid on the anti-American riots and wave of Muslim disgust that followed. It won't work, because it won't be believed. This particular report of the desecration of Korans is consistent with what's been reported before, particularly by non-U.S. media, so it's not going to go away.

The retraction by a U.S. media giant says something about the state of freedom of the press in America. Sadly, in the ironically named Land of the Free, we have to turn to alternative media and to the Internet to find anything approaching the real journalism practiced routinely in other countries. That—not the accuracy of the original story—is what Newsweek's retraction teaches us.

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