Oscars, hoops mustn't divert our attention from Iraq war

March 25, 2003|By MICHAEL OLESKER

PRECISELY 17 seconds into the University of Maryland's televised basketball game on Sunday, Xavier called time out and CBS, working the clock, switched immediately to news anchor Dan Rather.

"Baghdad is burning," Rather said. His voice had the solemnity of Edward R. Murrow's when that journalist stood on a London rooftop during World War II's Battle of Britain.

Rather sat in a studio in New York. He had maps and charts illustrating U.S. forces moving through the Iraqi desert in the bloodiest combat of the war, of mounting American casualties, and of Baghdad, a city of about 5 million human beings, enduring the fires of hell. All of this deeply superficial analysis lasted about 30 seconds.

"We break news," Rather declared, trying not to throw his arm out of joint as he patted his network on its own back. "And we break in when any important news breaks."

The next time we heard from him was an hour and eight minutes later. It was the end of the halftime break, and Rather was sandwiched between the cola commercials and the second half of basketball action. Maryland was ahead by 17, but American forces were down by at least 16 -- those killed in the day's unexpectedly intense fighting. More Allied troops were taken prisoner. A U.S. Patriot missile mistakenly shot down a British fighter jet, killing two. And Baghdad was still burning. Apparently, none of this was considered "important" breaking news, at least not compared with something as vital as college basketball.

It is not television I wish to disparage, nor even Rather, who has long since won his Gunga Dan stature by leaving the television studio to do actual reporting. It is the disparity between what we tell ourselves we are watching, and what we are seeing. And it is the notion of entertaining ourselves with basketball games and Academy Award shows while, half a world away, people on both sides of the lines die and cities burn and the images become a kind of sensory blur.

Those who wondered if the NCAA basketball tournament (or the Academy Awards) might be called off on account of war miss the point. Our national leaders, the architects of this war, want us to divert ourselves. The national psyche must not be discomforted. By the time we learned more about five U.S. prisoners of war, Maryland's basketball lead had shrunk from 17 points to three. In the American way of life, Xavier's inside punch seemed more immediately threatening than the war.

It is one thing to hear reports of Iraqi women and children being used as human shields -- "terrible," we tell ourselves, flipping channels between ballgames and Oscar presentations -- and another to have our own lives disturbed even slightly. When that happens, Washington has real problems on its hands.

"Seeing [the war] in living color," U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings was saying yesterday, "with their kids watching, too" -- that takes an emotional toll. (Cummings took at least a little while off from the war to watch Maryland play basketball.)

The president declares it unseemly for Arab television to show American prisoners of war. Of course it is -- but is it worse than showing smoke rising from burning buildings in downtown Baghdad? Yes, absolutely. Because, from a distance, the smoke and the crackle of explosives are indistinguishable from holiday celebrations. But these prisoners of war are Americans -- and their human scale is captured quite vividly within the dimensions of a TV screen.

Such an image rattles us, brings the war too close to home. Most of us can only estimate what combat feels like. I've never been to war, but I can offer one comparison. Eighteen months ago, a few days after the terrorist attacks, I went to New York to write about the damage.

By this time, we all had some perception of the destruction at the World Trade Center -- or thought we did. I was still on the New Jersey Turnpike -- just outside Jersey City -- when I spotted that dark cloud of smoke over downtown New York, still several exits away.

Nothing on television had prepared me for something so catastrophic. I found myself sobbing out loud. In downtown New York, trucks hauled huge steel girders that had been twisted like paper clips. The vastness of the destruction was impossible to translate on a television screen.

And yet, in New York, the damage was limited to one confined area. There were two hits from terrorist airplanes, and then nothing more. In Baghdad, the bombing goes on day after day, and the generals reach for new language to describe the firepower.

But language fails. And so do pictures. They are too small, and they compete for our attention with basketball games and movie awards shows. In such a mix, they become just another form of diversion.

Except that the ballgames and the other programs eventually end. Americans, with our famously short attention spans and our expectations that this war would end quickly, will grow restless.

This weekend, Maryland heads for college basketball's Sweet 16. Maybe the war will be over by then. If not, the thinkers in Washington will have to find new programming to take our minds off the fighting.

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