The overlooked obstacles to justice in the Mideast

Alan Lupo

March 13, 1992|By Alan Lupo

IT COMES as a surprise to many Americans to hear the occasional suggestion that Israelis and/or Palestinians are not the only obstacles to peace or justice in the Middle East.

The key word is "occasional," because that is how often the media allude to the other obstacles, such as repression of liberties in Arab nations, civil wars, tribal and family feuds and the spread of Islamic fundamentalism.

Of course, we have covered terrorism, Libya, Iraq, Iran and Lebanon, because terrorism and events in those nations have directly affected us. But you haven't heard much lately about those democratic reforms in Kuwait, have you? Or the fate of Shiites in Iraq? Or the endless civil war in the Sudan?

That we have a skewed version of reality in the Mideast is no surprise. It is the same view we Americans have of pretty much everywhere, including our own back yards.

Our attention span, never a strong suit, shrinks daily. The average radio broadcaster's idea of news is to spit out some headlines, sports, weather and traffic reports every half hour or less. Television news, with some exceptions, still skims the surface, as do too many newspapers. The better papers give some depth, but there is only so much space. The result is that too much gets left out, and few Americans complain unless the story directly affects them.

So, ask the average American who's causing problems in the Mideast, and chances are he or she will blame the Israelis. Anti-Semites most certainly will say this, but even those innocent of that will agree. In so doing, many will also say something smarmy about Arabs in general.

In the interests of leveling the playing field, I choose sporadically to note some of the less pleasant events elsewhere in the Mideast.

Few people will mention, for example, allegations of torture in Egypt, one of our allies and one of the more progressive Arab nations. Last October, Amnesty International mentioned it in a special report. It didn't become a big story. Amnesty contends that the torture of political detainees has been going on since Egypt imposed a state of emergency in 1981 after Anwar Sadat's assassination.

Egypt answered that Amnesty's sources were unreliable and blamed occasional cases on "individual excesses." But the organization didn't buy that.

"Political detainees," it reported, "have been blindfolded, stripped of their clothes and suspended from their wrists, bound or handcuffed together, sometimes in contorted positions, from the tops of door or from barred windows. Victims have described how they have been forced to lie on their backs, their hands and feet bound together, a chair forced up under their armpits, another keeping their knees apart to restrict the body's involuntary spasms as electric shocks were applied repeatedly to their nipples and genitals."

It is an equally safe bet that few Americans will know that a major civil war, accompanied by starvation and repression of liberties, has been going on for over a year in Somalia, since the fall of Mohamed Siad Barre's government.

Africa Watch, a human rights organization, reported last month, "Unknown thousands of civilians have been killed and injured, as both sides indiscriminately attack civilians and civilian targets."

The rights group condemned the international community, especially the U.N., for failing to appreciate the dimensions of the tragedy, to understand the complexity of who is fighting whom and why, and to respond in time with food, medicine and diplomacy.

Let Israel deport four Palestinians, and the United Nations is ready with a condemnation, which our media cover pronto. The media have not been so quick to cover, for example, the killing and repression of the non-Arab Nubas in the Sudan, whose fundamentalist Muslim government, Africa Watch reported in December, prevents "news from the area reaching the outside world."

Yet the media will tell you they are objective or fair in their coverage of the Mideast. That is a lie, and it ought to be put to rest once and for all. Obstacles to peace and justice? The American media, for starters.

Alan Lupo is a Boston Globe columnist.

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