The murder of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was one of those horrible events which trigger the worst in everyone, when all the wrong lessons are drawn, and all the spite and savagery explode. Even by the 21st century's already sub-vile standards, her assassination managed to inspire an entirely new level of hysteria, opportunism and tactlessness so sphincter-twisting that it makes you wonder if it wouldn't just be better to hand the entire Judeo-Christian world over to the Chinese now, rather than waiting another agonizing 20 years. At least the Chinese have tact, for chrissakes.
On one side of the Global Toilet was President Putin, normally an impressive politician, but who, at critical times, cannot contain his own viciously raw vanity. By keeping silent for two days after her murder, and then finally speaking out only to minimize her importance, Putin came off looking like a regular asshole. Leaving aside for now the issue of whether or not Putin was "right" in minimizing Politkovskaya's importance in Russia -- technically he was largely "correct" -- what mattered was what his nasty reaction revealed about his character. Any skilled politician would have swallowed his petty grudges and embraced her corpse, squeezing out of it as much political capital as possible. This isn't rocket science stuff -- it's just cynical politicking 101, and it's the right thing to do. Why did Putin's normally adept bloodless skills fail him on this occasion? I think for the same reason that Bush fled from the battle scene on 9/11, snagglepussing at Mach-3 to a snakehole in Nebraska until the coast was long clear, rather than flying straight from Florida to DC and looking the part of the fearless hero. He couldn't help himself. Big, unexpected events reveal the smallness in our leaders.
Most Russians I know reacted somewhere between indifference and mild disgust at the murder. But if you read the Russian internet, you'd realize that Putin came off as a weepy liberal: a good part of the "active" community only wished that Politkovskaya had been killed far more slowly, much sooner, and that they could have perhaps been part of the hit team who did it. Nice, really fucking nice.
On the other side -- the side that matters far more to me -- was the West. Unlike Putin, the Western media wasted no time in seizing Politkovskaya's corpse for their own purposes, parading it around and milking it for every ounce it was worth.
What exactly was Anna Politkovskaya's bullet-riddled corpse worth to the West? No surprise here: A juicy opportunity to demonize Putin and Russia.
Immediately after her murder, Reuters showed how her death was going to be spun with the headline, "Outspoken Putin Critic Shot Dead In Moscow." The implication was obvious: Putin ordered it.
Articles noted that she was killed on Putin's birthday, implying that it was a gift to himself. On the eve of his visit to Germany to close a big energy contract. Can you imagine Putin actually ordering the hit on his birthday, just before meeting Merkel for a key energy summit? "Okay, here's the plan, Sechin. I want you to kill Politkovskaya. I know, it's true that her articles have almost no effect on our policies in Chechnya and are ignored by all but a small percentage of liberal Russians, but so what. Oo, she makes me so angry! Once she's out of the way, my grip on power will finally be secured. Mwah-hah-hah! But wait, that's not all. Oh no, I'm much more dastardly than that. See, I'm not asking for much for my birthday, Sechin. Forget the Bulgari watches that you guys give me every year. I want her corpse brought to me with a big red birthday bow tied around it. I want to kill her on my birthday, just before my big meeting in Germany. They'll understand. After all, they're Germans. You know--Nazis, just like me! Deal? Yeah? Oh, goodie! I'm so deliciously evil, even Stewie would envy me. Why, this is going to be the best birthday of my life! Happy birthday to me! Happy birthday to me!..."
But that was just the beginning. The notoriously Russophobic Fred Hiatt at the Washington Post published an editorial that more directly implicated Putin: "It is quite possible, without performing any detective work, to say what is ultimately responsible for these deaths: It is the climate of brutality that has flourished under Mr. Putin."
This is a cheap way of saying that Putin is responsible, but like most Russia-haters, they leave out some obvious contradictions. Such as, for example, is Putin also responsible for the hit on Paul Klebnikov, who was profoundly pro-Putin? And what about all the journalists murdered during Yeltsin's tenure? Did Hiatt or any of the others ever blame Yeltsin -- the one who truly introduced the brutality, corruption and lawlessness into Russia? No, of course not, because Yeltsin did The West's bidding. Crimes committed while being pro-American simply do not exist.
Anne Applebaum, one of the Post's resident neocons, went the extra sleazy mile when she got ahold of Politkovskaya's corpse. In her October 9th column, "A Moscow Murder Story," Applebaum simply lied about the circumstances of her murder, and quite consciously so, when she essentially blamed Klebnikov's inconvenient death, as well as other provincial journalists killed for investigating local corruption, on Putin. Interestingly, in her article she openly narrows her focus on "journalists killed after 2000" -- gee, how convenient. Because that means she wouldn't have to mention all the journalists killed during Yeltsin's term, since that would muddy up the good/evil picture that her entire thesis rests on.
Applebaum is a special case, one of those moral crusaders, the American Anna Politkovskaya, who has made a living courageously exposing state crimes committed by...get this...not her own country, oh heck no! Because her own country only does good! Nope, Anne Applebaum makes her living by sitting in the safety of Washington DC, and exposing crimes committed by a country on the other side of the globe! That country being Russia of course. Hey, give that woman a Pulitzer, will ya?! Hence her book Gulag, packed with all the affected moral outrage that you'd expect. Indeed, one thing that has always filled Applebaum with rage is wondering why Russians don't take her seriously (a question she poses as more abstract -- ie, why don't Russians care about the Gulags as much as Anne does?). Here's why: Can you imagine how much moral authority a right-wing Russian journalist's book about the American genocide of Indians would have in America? Answer: about as much as Anne's book has in Russia. None.
Yes, it's dangerous work to dedicate your life to exposing the horrors committed by a country that your husband hates. Applebaum's husband is Poland's right-wing Defense Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, who also serves in the neocon American Enterprise Institute, the same institute that essentially invented the current Iraq war. The current government that Sikorski serves in, by the way, includes the extreme right-wing party The League of Polish Families, leading to protests from Israel because of the party's open anti-Semitism and xenophobia, and its notorious skinhead youth group. But that's okay by Anne, because Poland likes America and is a member of the Coalition of the Willing. Meaning no hissy articles from Anne Applebaum about her husband's pals or Poland's repulsive history of Jewish slaughter. Nor will you read too many articles by Applebaum about her own country's atrocious crimes committed in Iraq, and the hundreds of thousands her government has killed.
No person could be as far from Politkovskaya as Anne Applebaum. Given all of Applebaum's influence and access, she only uses that power to demonize Russia and whitewash America's fascism. Politkovskaya, on the other hand, speaking from extreme weakness and danger, used what little influence she had to risk all for the victims of her own goverment's cruelty, fighting from within.
Easily the most absurd Politkovskaya article was by the notorious Brit hack Olga Craig, in her piece in the Sunday Telegraph titled "Cross Putin And Die." It begins with an obviously manufactured story of a terrified small-time journalist supposedly fleeing for his life from Putin's Russia -- the invented journalist is given a pseudonym, "Zakayev," he's apparently so scared... and from there, well, you can fill in the blanks yourself. His alleged crime is that he criticized the disgusting crackdown on ethnic Georgians--and yet, there was vicious open criticism of the crackdown as fascistic all over the Russian print and internet media. But supposedly, this guy had to flee for his life -- "Now 'Zakayev' is convinced that someone, most probably a hired hitman with links to the Kremlin, is already stalking his movements." It's pure cartoon bullshit, one of the worst made-up hack stories you'll read in your life.
But the knockout blow was yet to be delivered. Politkovskaya's corpse could not be buried before the Western press squeezed it for the biggest prize of all: Pure, total demonization. The "F" word. Yes, the Economist declared, "It is an over-used word, and a controversial one, especially in Russia. It is not there yet, but Russia sometimes seems to be heading towards fascism."
If Fascism means gas chambers, then all talk of it is utterly meaningless and empty--it's the most over-abused epithet, and simply by acknowledging that doesn't excuse the Economist of rank historial distortion. However, if "Fascism" means what I think they mean -- violence and lies and hate -- then America, which used a lie as a pretext to invade a country on the other side of the globe, completely leveled a city of 300,000, and killed half a million citizens, all the while violently suppressing the truth and anyone who tries to get it out -- is guilty as charged.
The West has used poor Anna Politkovskaya's corpse to do exactly what she fought against: whipping up national hatred, lying, and focusing on evils committed safely far away, rather than on the evils committed by your own country. The West has exploited her death with all of the crudity and cynicism of an Arab mob funeral...only at least the Arabs use their own people's corpses to demonize an enemy that actually kills them. Whereas in this case, the West stole another country's corpse, then paraded it at home in order to whip up hatred against the corpse's birthplace. It would be like the Palestinians slipping into Tel Aviv, grave-robbing Rabin's corpse after his murder, then parading it around Gaza City, ululating hate towards Israel for allowing the great peacemaker to get killed.
That's kind of how Russians reacted when they saw that the West crudely exploited Politkovskaya's murder. The West's crude reaction only increased Russia's crude counter-reaction...
If you ask me, what is most significant for us in the West about Anna Politkovskaya's death, and her courageous life (btw, a big "fuck you" to our nationalist readers who don't agree with this), is not so much what it says about Russia -- it doesn't say much new at all, to be honest, but instead is another chapter in an increasingly depressing story that started under Yeltsin.
Rather, what is significant about her death is this: Why doesn't America have an Anna Politkovskaya? Why don't we have someone as courageous as she was to tell the story of how we razed Fallujah to the ground Grozny-style? How we bombed to smithereens and ethnically cleansed a city of 300,000 people in retaliation for the deaths of four American contractors? Where is the American Anna Politkovskaya who will tell us about how we directly killed roughly 200,000 Iraqis, and indirectly are responsible for about half a million Iraq deaths since our invasion? Why isn't there a single American willing to risk almost certain death, the way Politkovskaya did, in the pursuit of truth and humanity?
One reason why is because they risk getting killed not only by Iraqi insurgents and Al Qaeda terrorists, but also by the highly efficient American forces. (Not that this stopped Politkovskaya, but it stops America's righteous Politkovskaya-bearers.) And even if they get the story out, it gets quashed by the mainstream press, you lose your job, and you get met by a hostile, even bloodthirsty public who doesn't want to hear about it.
Take the case of Yasser Salihee, an Iraqi correspondent for Knight Ridder. Salihee was shot by an American sniper with a bullet to his head on June 24, 2005. At the time, he was gathering material for an investigative piece about how the US was training death squads -- the very same death squads which are now responsible for the savage civil war that kicked into high gear this year.
Salihee was killed; the American sniper was cleared; and Knight Ridder washed its hands, declaring "there's no reason to think that the shooting had anything to do with his reporting work." Imagine an analogous situation in Chechnya, the hue and cry from the Applebaums -- it'd be as inversely loud as the silence over Salihee's death. At least even the Kremlin admits Politkovskaya was killed for her reporting.
Indeed Salihee is just one of a number of journalists killed in Iraq, by far the most dangerous place in the world for journalists. And it's not all the insurgents' fault either. Some more marginal journalists, from Robert Fisk to Dahr Jamail, have written about how US forces in Iraq target journalists for murder. But no one wants to hear that -- so these kinds of reports stay on the margins. Journalists were targeted and killed at Al Jazeera; at first, reports that the Americans targeted them were dismissed as "conspiracy theory" talk, but recently, admissions that Bush, Blair, and a former Blair minister all explored ways to bomb Al Jazeera during the war are finally raising questions. Well, not really. Should be raising questions, leading to impassioned editorials by the Post and Anne Applebaum. But they're not, because they're too busy demonizing Russia.
Giuliana Sgrena, the Italian journalist who was kidnapped last year in Iraq and freed by an Italian intelligence agent, was shot and wounded (the agent was killed) by US forces when she was returning to freedom. She insisted that US troops deliberately targeted her. A smear campaign in the US press -- labeling her a Communist and an anti-American with Stockholm Syndrome-- effectively nullified her story, but even pro-Bush Berlusconi was so incensed by the incident that he started to back away from Bush's war.
Italian TV later discovered evidence that US forces had used an illegal WMD, white phosphorus chemicals, during its destruction of Fallujah the year before. In spite of all the evidence, including burned corpses whose clothes were still intact, eyewitnesses, and even friendly Iraqi ministers who denounced it, the American media largely ignored it. Why the fuck did Italian TV, and not American TV, break this story? Where was Anne Applebaum on the atrocities in Fallujah?
The case of Eason Jordan, CNN's longtime superstar news chief, might explain the mainstream American media's silence. This is what happens when you're a mainstream American media man who dares to tell the ugly truth about Iraq. While hobnobbing with the Global Aristocracy at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January of 2005, Jordan made the mistake of telling his fellow elite what was really happening in Iraq: American forces were "out to get journalists, and some were deliberately targeting journalists."
Within two weeks, the longtime CNN honcho was out of work. His resignation came complete with a Stalin-esque confession that's chilling to read today:
"After 23 years at CNN," he wrote, "I have decided to resign in an effort to prevent CNN from being unfairly tarnished by the controversy over conflicting accounts of my recent remarks regarding the alarming number of journalists killed in Iraq. I never meant to imply U.S. forces acted with ill intent when U.S. forces accidentally killed journalists, and I apologize to anyone who thought I said or believed otherwise."
Yes, he was a wrecker and a Trotskyite, and he begged for forgiveness. Because the man was dead -- in America, losing your job like that, after bad-mouthing America, means you're as good as dead.
A number of journalists have had their careers destroyed for not following the Party Line: Peter Arnett, Ashleigh Banfield, to name two of the most prominent. Meanwhile, the editors at the New York Times and the Washington Post who pushed for war, who spread lies about WMDs and helped bring about the 500,000 deaths reported today (a figure that of course is being attacked and demonized by the same people who cheer an organization's "courage" when such figures are arrived at in Chechnya), get to keep their jobs.
You can see now why we have no Politkovskaya, as badly as we need one. If you go against the "fascist" tendency in your home country, you're targeted for death and career destruction by the government and a bloodthirsty right-wing population. Just as with Chechnya, Iraq has been made too dangerous to work in, and the American government has put a perfectly air-tight lid on information, not even allowing photographs of the coffins of dead American servicemen.
The way Putin managed to bring the media more tightly under his heel than Yeltsin managed during his tenure was by a combination of brute intimidation and career-intimidation. Media heads were pressured, critics were harassed and ruthlessly mocked. Putin also managed to tap into a growing nationalist backlash against the anti-government criticism in the liberal media, much as Republicans constantly tap the American public's rabid patriotism and hatred of the "liberal media" for criticizing or questioning right-wing, militaristic policies. All of the good Russian journalists I know got out a few years ago because it was a bad career, unless you were going to do the equivalent of FOX News, which most refused to do. American journalists, on the other hand, manage to stay working under these circumstances because they can comfort themselves with homegrown lies, such as, "Sure I'd like to print something else, but I don't want to risk it. But the difference is, at least we have the RIGHT to publish what we want about Iraq."
The lesson of Anna Politkovskaya's fearless journalism was completely lost on the West. It's up to Russians to figure out the significance of her murder to their culture and their civilization. But in a West increasingly drowning in lies, war, murder and hatred, the last thing her death should give us is the opportunity to create another enemy, another nation to hate, another regime to be changed.