Monday, May 17, 2004

Shock horror - how media doesn't see the forest for the Iraqi trees 

A few days ago I tried to estimate how much of the Iraqi prisoner abuse is indeed Iraq-specific, and how much of it is a general criminal justice problem common to many different jurisdictions, including the United States itself. Rich Lowry now writes in National Review Online:

"If we insist on having an orgy of self-flagellation about the prison abuses at Abu Ghraib, we might as well gain something from it. That something shouldn't be a change in our interrogation tactics in the war on terror - they don't seem at fault for the perverse acts of a few MPs - but reform of the ongoing scandal that is the U.S. prison system."
The problem seems to be that the media has the attention span and contextual memory of a goldfish (with exception of Vietnam, which three decades on is still neither forgiven nor forgotten). Certain incidents or practices (for example, prisoner abuse in Iraq) are seen in total isolation, with the glare of the spotlight blinding journalists and pundits to the fact that what is happening might not be (and usually isn't) quite unique. This is not to excuse the behaviour in question but to merely point out that things need to be seen in perspective. In the case of Abu Ghraib, to put it in some sort of a context would mean realising that prisoner abuse is not simply an Iraqi problem but a prison problem unfortunately endemic to Baghdad as well as Boston and Bogota.

Michael Novak wrote last year about the tendency by some in the media to count both combat and non-combat related deaths towards the American casualty tally in Iraq. This artificially inflates the total because while combat death obviously only happen in Iraq, American servicemen die of sickness or in accident the world over, wherever they are stationed.

Or take another example - the suicide rate among US troops in Iraq. The Associated Press story from January this year breathlessly reports that:

"U.S. soldiers in Iraq are killing themselves at an unusually high rate, despite the work of special teams sent to help troops deal with combat stress."
You have to scan a lot lower in the story to read the following:

"[T]he military has documented 21 suicides during 2003 among troops involved in the Iraq war. Eighteen of those were Army soldiers... That's a suicide rate for soldiers in Iraq of about 13.5 per 100,000... In 2002, the Army reported an overall suicide rate of 11.1 per 100,000.

"The overall suicide rate nationwide during 2001 was 10.7 per 100,000, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention."
"An unusually high rate"? It's only marginally worse than the suicide rate in the Army during peacetime, and indeed than the "civilian" suicide rate.

Now consider the fact that active military service overseas tends to be more stressful than normal life back in the United States. Also consider that US forces in Iraq are composed mostly of young males between the ages of 18 and 35 - the suicide rate for that demographic back in the US is almost 21 per 100,000, which is 7 per 100,000 more than for soldiers in Iraq (the actual figure I got for 2001, for "suicide injury deaths and rates per 100,000; all races, males, ages 20 to 34" on the National Centre for Injury Prevention and Control website calculator was 20.74). So a little bit of context to the story would have showed that in terms of suicide, Iraq is actually safer that Iowa.

But again, that would spoil a good story.


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