Not a sparrow falls to earth
Nidra Poller's backgrounder to the Mohammed Al-Dura defamation trial, in which the state-run France2 network has sued three persons for daring to question the authenticity of a television program which may have sparked an intifada in 2000, raises several issues, to which I will add another. The first is whether the sequence which showed a child and his father being under fire for 45 minutes by Israeli soldiers was authentic. It seemed outrageous to suggest it at the time, but now, with the availability of outtakes which clearly show large parts of the sequence were staged; outtakes viewed and condemned by the French mainstream media journalists who were given access to them, their producers now make a minimalist claim. That the 45 minutes were really 27 minutes: and the twenty seven minutes were "were reduced to roughly 24 minutes of staged scenes, and 3 minutes of doubtful material, including 1 minute of the al-Dura scene". Yet in what Poller calls, the "phlogiston theory" of television journalism, France2 claims that while nearly all of it is fake, no one can prove that the 1 minute al-Dura scene isn't. Yes, it is all dross. But there is a nugget of gold! Moreover it doesn't matter because even if it were all dross; the scenes depicted by France2, one defender argued "corresponded to the general situation" in Israeli occupied territory. The "fake but true" defense has a long and distinguished history.
The second issue Poller raises is whether the media, especially in France, has not granted itself a license to fiction. Where "the burden of proof is not in the image, not in the witness, but in the purpose served: do they illustrate the cruel inhumanity of Israelis? Yes? Then they are valid ... A new kind of journalistic “ethics” has shifted the burden of proof from the originating source of the report to the challenger, placing the latter in the impossible position of proving that something did not occur."
The third issue, of course, is whether France can live with such a lie. Whether anyone cares for the truth. Whether liberties are not themselves stifled, or reduced to triviality, by the dark blanket of falsehood.
My own fourth question is rather simple. Who killed Mohammed Al-Dura? Who is responsible for the death of that child? Frankly I would say that I don't know. But it has occurred to me, as it did when I saw the Associated Press photograph of a poor election worker being executed on Baghdad's Haifa Street just as an ace journalist happened by, that the primary suspects must be those with the most to gain. It is a terrible suggestion, but it alarms me for reasons far less lofty than the very good ones already suggested by Nidra Poller. The murder of a child is a thing lightly forgotten in today's world. Who shall yet be his witness? And if he were murdered, possibly for footage, who shall be his avenger? Poller informs us that "the trial will take place in the august halls of the Tribunal de Grande Instance in Paris on the 14th of September 2006". And our test, both as men and as a civilization, is whether we the living shall be his witness or pass him by on that day and cast his little body upon the bonfire of our narratives.
There will be those argue that whoever pulled the trigger, it was the Israeli occupation that killed Mohammed Al-Dura. But if indirect causation is admissible, why stop there? Why not argue that the Holocaust which drove the establishment of Israel drove the occupation which killed Al-Dura? But such assignments of guilt as are the province of poets and historians are beyond any court. Our human problem is more prosaic: who actually killed Mohammed Al-Dura? But for those looking for a larger answer, try this: the camera killed the little boy. A man and a boy cringing in a crossfire at no great distance from two groups of armed men was the obvious target of neither: no side's marksmanship could be that bad. But they became the center of a second drama within the first. Anyone present would sense the obvious question and the camera kept on Al-Dura -- hoping? Is that too much of a word to use? -- for the "shot". It was a sentence waiting for the punctuation. And it came when eventually someone, or some ricochet, or some unaimed shot provided the clinching scene. I have often wondered whether 60 men would take the trouble to kill an unknown election worker on Haifa street without the assurance of front page coverage. If looks could kill? Oh, but they can.