Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Pass the Rubber Hoses

Iraq's #1 TV show isn't Lost, Desperate Housewives, or Baghdad Idol. In fact, it's a reality show, best described as a combination of Cops and the War on Terror.

It's called Terrorism in the Hands of Justice, and it runs six nights a week on the state-run Iraqiya television network. Since its debut a month ago, the program has become a runaway hit, a fixture of conversation in Iraq's living rooms and cafes. The format is simple; Terrorism in the Hands of Justice features taped confessions from captured members of the insurgency.

The Boston Globe--no friend of the Bush Administration or the new Iraqi government--calls the show "distressingly reminiscent of the bad old Iraq," noting that many of the confessors appear bruised, as though they've been beaten or tortured.

But the program also seems to provide a morale-lifting boost for the Iraqis. Insurgents are no longer depicted as jihadists or freedom fighters, but rather as thugs and street criminals who attack Americans and Iraqis for pay. The show also depicts Iraqis striking back at the terrorists, reinforcing the impression that police and security forces are slowly gaining the upper hand, and that justice will be served. "I expect to see [my son's] killers on TV," one man told the Globe reporter.

The program does raise some disturbing questions. Some of the confessions seem a little too pat; virtually all of the men claim they joined the insurgency for pay, and many admit to homosexual acts, conduct considered particularly shameful in Iraq's culture. The channel which airs the program is run by American contractors, who sidestep questions about how the confessions are elicited.

But the Globe--predictably--misses an important point. Iraq's struggle against terrorism has a critical psychological component. For far too long, the terrorists and insurgents were depicted as holy warriors or freedom fighters (particularly in the western press), giving them a veneer of legitimacy that was hardly deserved. Terrorism in the Hands of Justice presents another--if slightly skewed--picture of the insurgency, depicting the criminals and opportunists who signed on with the terrorists, in search of a pay check, and the opportunity to inflict pain and suffering on the Iraqis.

Psychological warfare is a brutal, dirty business. During World War II, the U.S. mounted an intense campaign against the Japanese, depicting them as sub-human. Even Hollywood got into the act; just watch any war film made between 1942 and 1945, and you'll see Japanese soldiers depicted as savages, war criminals, or worse. The U.S. government justified such depictions on the "need" to marshal and focus public opinion against our enemy.

As Terrorism in the Hands of Justice illustrates, similar efforts are underway (and perhaps necessary) in Iraq. The U.S. should discourage Iraqi authorities from using torture, but the idea of "exposing" the insurgency is effective, even brillant. Is it working? Hard to say, but attacks in Iraq are down more than 55% in the past two months. Terrorism in the Hands of Justice can't claim sole credit for that decrease, but it is a valuable--and perhaps necessary--psychological technique.

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