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Commentary: News Burnout

Saturday, May 15, 2004

After an emotionally wrenching week of news from Iraq and DC, many of you may be experiencing news burnout. WNYC's Brian Lehrer says tune out for a while if you need a break, but there's a line to be wary of crossing.

Tuesday was a day that may have tested a line for many Americans - a line between being emotionally overwhelmed by events in the world, and politically paralyzed.

That was the day we saw nine hours of earnest hearings by the senate armed services committee on the Abu Grab prison scandal, AND the atrocity of American nick berg being murdered in cold blood on videotape.

Just as Americans were trying to understand how some of our own could have gone so bad, along came this one barbaric video of a cold-blooded beheading that seemed to stop the conversation in its tracks.

But the easy conclusion to come to is not the right one. The easy conclusion is: THEY are more immoral than US. OUR leaders are trying to stop the abuse. Theirs are reveling in it.

But it's not that simple: in fact, our leaders are sending decidedly mixed signals. On his surprise trip to Iraq on Thursday, Donald Rumsfeld made the point that he was serious about stopping the abuse on the one hand, but on the other he led the troops to cheers when he derided news coverage of the scandal and announced:

TAPE: RUMSFELD: I've stopped reading the newspapers.
TROOPS: extended cheer

And let's honor Republican Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma with a special award for most blatantly missing the point of his own hearings, when he said this at Tuesday's armed services committee session.

INHOFE: I'm more outraged by the outrage than by the acts

Memo to senator Inhofe: Al Quaeda is trying to win grassroots support by exploiting people's hopelessness. We're supposed to be doing it by building up their hopes. YOU were Al Quaeda's best PR man this week. And you gave millions of Americans permission to shrug at Abu Graib which is not just morally wrong, it's not in the interest of our national security.

One short e-mail I got from a listener on long island sums up the paralysis of the moment: The e-mail read simply: My most left wing friend and most right wing friend independently made the same comment on Abu Ghraib: "That's what war is like , what did you expect ?"

But rather than reflecting any consensus or common ground, that observation about the left and right wing friends merely symbolizes our polarization on Iraq. That's what war is like. What did you expect? I suspect the left wing friend said it to emphasize how wrong it was to GO to war, while the right wing friend said it to shrug off the abuse as within the bounds of normal in extreme trying times.

Personally, I find the shrug much more threatening to our national psyche. Yes, it's hard to watch the news right now. It's just so awful. But we can't allow ourselves to become cynical and disengaged. Political paralysis would be the ultimate defeat.

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