West is Best

A man is being dragged along the cold concrete floor by his collar, out of his solitary cell in an Iranian prison. He is blindfolded. He looks wan and frazzled.

The man dragging him stops when they reach a small, confined space with light streaming in from outside. He abruptly brings the man – journalist Maziar Bahari—to his feet, telling him that the Iranian police had changed his mind about his fate, that he wasn’t innocent, that his efforts to exonerate himself had been futile. Bahari realizes what is happening as his interrogator, Rosewater, cocks his gun and holds the gun to his head. Bahari is pleading for his life, sobbing in desperation. Rosewater goes to shoot his gun – but there are no bullets. Bahari crumples up onto the ground in a ball, weeping. He is then dragged back to his cell.

I began to cry right along with Bahari. But this was just one of the many torture scenes in Jon Stewart’s movie Rosewater, which tells the story of how Iranian-Canadian journalist Bahari came to be captured, imprisoned and tortured by Iranian authorities for 188 days, after being accused of being an American spy while reporting on the 2009 presidential elections in Iran. The film’s title is the name by which we know Bahari’s main interrogator, a reference to his personal odor.

A few scenes later, the movie shows clips of various American political leaders denouncing Iran for arresting Bahari and such inconceivable human rights abuses. But that just made me angry at the United States. As Jon Stewart points out, “As much as we like to believe in American exceptionalism, there wasn’t a lot of moments of, like, ‘We caused this.’” Iran was the only guilty party as far as Bahari’s detention went.

American exceptionalism has manifested itself in our turning a blind eye to our own human rights abuses. The media has followed suit. Western media will show politicians publicly decrying abuses in other countries. But when will it be time to show those leaders decrying the United States? In the mainstream media, the West, and more specifically the United States, seemingly stands upon an indestructible moral high ground. We find it easier and fairer to point fingers at others while ignoring our own grim history of torture, from Latin America to the Middle East. This hypocrisy only works against the progress we hope to make in addressing injustice.

The United States’ hypocrisy on human rights issues was made more apparent when the CIA torture report was leaked, enumerating human rights abuses and “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Mainstream media swarmed around the news unrelentingly, with much-anticipated epiphanies about our own torture tactics and about our use of torture on a widespread basis.. But the U.S. cannot go from supporting international law to arbitrarily making exceptions and choosing to infringe upon the law.

The media coverage, the realizations and public apologies were all transient, and people turned to exalt the United States once more. According to a “New York Times” editorial, “many people… ‘have paid attention to the courage of the U.S.’ in releasing the report, ‘rather than the crime of prisoner abuse.’” The United States was praised, rather than officially condemned, for the crimes against human rights it committed, with people justifying the terrible actions rather than highlighting the hypocrisy in them.

Time and time again, America will publicly denounce countries like Iran, North Korea, China and Israel.And yet, we commit many of the same human rights abuses that those countries do. According to Human Rights Watch, in the State Department’s 2000, 2001, and 2002 Human Rights Reports on Iran, “suspension for long periods in contorted positions” is described as torture. In the 2005 and 2006 reports, sleep deprivation is described as torture. The U.S. practiced these same forms of torture, according to the CIA torture reports, but then refused to call them methods of “torture.” Likewise, according to the 2005 report on North Korea, being forced to kneel or sit immobilized for long periods, being hung by one’s wrists, “being forced to stand up and sit down to the point of collapse” is described as torture, and “prolonged periods of solitary confinement” in the 2002 report on China. Once again, the U.S. practices these same methods of torture. We simply choose not to accurately call these techniques “torture.”

The media failed to adequately cover such discrepancies beyond the days right after the release of the CIA torture report. This hypocrisy was never brought to light. And the United States’ image and record remained largely unmarred.

The few exceptions to this rule came from the U.S.’s most frequent targets for charges of human rights abuses. China spoke out against this façade, posing the question, “How long can the US pretend to be a human rights champion?,” especially after Eric Garner’s death. North Korea and Iran have also fought targeted censure from the United States. Their criticism suggested that the American charade of being a “world policeman” and ultimate protector of global human rights is an unfair one, when the conditions in our own interrogation techniques parallel those used in these other countries.

The United States needs to be held accountable for its actions, just like any other country.This duty, to hold the U.S. accountable, in theory lies with the media. But in practice, the mainstream media has lost sight of this, failing to carry out its most important duty.

The role of the media has been perverted from the full, impartial disclosure of the truth to what could be considered propaganda, abusing personal discretion and wrongfully introducing Western biases. Perhaps more emblematic of this than its coverage of comparative human rights abuses is the way the media deals with the issue of terrorism.  Not only has mainstream media failed to properly condemn the West for injustices committed, but it has actively chosen to cover only those facets of the news that Western audiences would care about. In fact, according to a recent poll from the Pew Research Center, Americans have paid greater attention to terrorist attacks that occur in Western countries, as opposed to such events as the 2013 attacks in Nairobi, Kenya and the 2002 attack in Bali, Indonesia.

In contrast, a good 30% of Americans claimed to have followed the terrorist attacks on the newspaper “Charlie Hebdo” in France. The story made headlines and front pages of publications everywhere—but nowhere did we see the killing of up to 2000 innocent civilians in a terrorist attack by Boko Haram in Nigeria. This disparity in attention can be attributed to the fact that we empathize more with those who are closer to us psychologically and ideologically (and physically). And in turn, the media exploits this empathy, covering the stories that pertain to us the most (e.g., a shooting at a Western newspaper in a Western country supporting Western ideals of free speech).

In actuality, the Western-centric approach contradicts Western ideals and modes of thought. It limits the public as to what they can and cannot think by introducing Western biases into what is reported on and how it is done so.

It is time to change how journalism works; journalists such as Maziar Bahari and Jon Stewart have pointed the way forward. Bahari risked censure, even death, to uncover the truth about the ruthless acts of violence occurring between government officials and citizens in Iran during the 2009 elections. And Jon Stewart actively tried to combat this notion of American exceptionalism in an endeavor to make things right regarding Bahari. Until the United States itself can recognize the error in its own ways, the burden lies with Western media to impartially point that out to the American people so that we may judge for ourselves. Just maybe one day we will come to realize that West isn’t always best.

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