By: Sophie McAdam,
In the aftermath of public outrage over the Boston bomb suspect´s Rolling Stone cover, aren´t we forgetting people used to be innocent until proven guilty?
“He was a charming kid with a bright future. But no-one saw the pain he was hiding or the monster he would become.” So begins Rolling Stone magazine´s controversial portrait of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the kid who allegedly planted bombs that killed 3 and injured 264 in Boston last April. Rolling Stone follows this dramatic introduction with a short note from the editor, gently assuring any readers who are rabid with fury that the story ´falls within the traditions of journalism´.
If they mean the tradition of using shock tactics in a cynical bid to generate publicity and sell more copies of their magazine then I agree; sadly that´s nothing new. But in every other way, the Rolling Stone story breaks not only ´traditions of journalism´, but several media laws and ethical boundaries that are crucial in a fair, free, democratic society. Cast your mind back, if you can, to that sunny and carefree pre-9/11 world, where intelligent people didn´t have panic attacks over dark-skinned men on buses carrying electronic cigarettes (it would have been impossible to believe, right?). Back then, the Rolling Stone article would have caused outrage for a very different reason- it assumes the guilt of a man who is still awaiting trial.
Yes, we should be angry. And very concerned. We should be looking very closely at the emotive and dehumanizing ´monster´ label Rolling Stone have pinned to the alleged terrorist and we should be asking: What happens when the trial begins? Will there even be a trial? How can we expect the jurors not to be influenced by mainstream media´s premature guilty verdict? And what if- just what if- Dzhokhar and his brother are innocent?
In 2013: Guilty until proven innocent
Habeas Corpus is the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty. Before 9/11, we took this simple concept for granted. It´s what made western societies so great, with liberty and justice for all. It´s a vital part of a civilized society- and wait a minute, isn´t that why those terrorist boogeymen are so envious of us in the first place? It´s an ancient human right dating back to a time where we were still burning witches, with its first recorded usage in Britain as far back as 1305 (later enshrined as a legal civil liberty in 1679). But in the UK this long-standing law, taken for granted for centuries, was nullified in the blink of an eye by Blair´s 2005 Prevention of Terrorism Act. The situation in the US is no different: having adopted the British system, US law had prohibited the restriction of Habeus Corpus up until 2001, but 9/11 gave the government a convenient excuse to start chipping away at this most basic of liberties.
Is media hysteria justified?
The media, of course, are complicit. “Terrorists are everywhere!” scream news bulletins and newspapers. On buses and the subway, on planes and trains, under your bed and inside your closet! You´re either with us or against us, folks- and don´t you dare complain, it´s unpatriotic. Go shopping, go back to sleep, just shut up. Who cares if you´ve lost a few stupid rights? At least this way, you are safe from the boogeyman. But here are a few sobering facts when you consider the immense time and energy dedicated to whipping up a fear frenzy: you are more likely to die choking on a peanut, being struck by lightning or being eaten by a shark than die in a terrorist attack, which has the unlikely odds of just 1 in 25 million.
Freedom or security? If you choose, you lose
Mainstream media has consistently reflected the state´s official bullshit story that you can´t possibly have freedom and security. But it´s ok, because if you allow the state to ´protect´you- through the collection of your emails and telephone calls, increased airport security, more CCTV cameras recording your every move and terrifying SWAT teams terrorizing innocent families, you will be safer from the ever-present threat of these evil men who ´hate our freedoms´. A good trade-off, right?
Wrong. We are now living in a time where we have neither freedom nor security. In 2011, Habeas Corpus was killed once and for all by an NDAA amendment authorizing the U.S. military to arrest and indefinitely imprison (without charge or trial) any civilian, including its own citizens, anywhere in the world, simply for suspicion of any (intentionally vague) ´belligerent acts´against the U.S government. Activist and veteran journalist Chris Hedges, along with Noam Chomsky and others, has tried to overturn this chilling piece of legislation, but the group lost their appeal this month. This alone should terrify every single one of us.
Hedges called it a ´black day for liberty´ and indeed it is. But not only for journalists and activists who dare to criticize the government, but also those (inevitable) cases where innocent people are accused of terrorism. Could Tsarnaev be one of them? It´s not my intention to speculate, because it is the justice system, and only the justice system, which should decide one way or another. What the Rolling Stone cover really exposes is the death of real journalism, which should be about truth, not conjecture; reporting hard facts, not fear-mongering.
Believe it or not, there are codes of conduct in journalism
Was it ethical, for example, that images of the Tsarnaev brothers be released immediately after the bombings? Don´t forget that at that point, the F.B.I purported to be as much in the dark as the rest of us. “We don´t know who caused this tragedy” was quickly replaced by “we got ´em, and here´s what they look like!” without so much as a “how?” from so-called journalists. What concrete evidence- I mean something more than the fact the brothers wore rucksacks and looked slightly foreign – did police have against them before quickly distributing CCTV images to the baying press?
The publication of Tamerlan Tsarnaev´s Amazon wishlist just hours after the event was another oddity: this was before the PRISM scandal broke, and I for one was baffled. How does the state have immediate access to this guy´s Amazon account? Is the publication of his literary preferences really in the public interest? Why are newsreaders telling us in sad and serious tomes that the elder Tsarnaev brother had ordered a book on the Chechnyan struggle, as though this somehow wraps up the case against him? My bookshelves reflect my own interest in history and politics, and I even have a couple of books about Al-Qaeda, so bite me. If curiosity equals crime then we´ve slipped further into dystopia than I realized.
Apparenly Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had written ´Fuck America´on the inside of his stowaway boat as he lay bleeding from a gunshot wound surrounded by armed feds, along with comments bemoaning the death of fellow muslims at the hands of the U.S. But even if we accept this is true – and put it in the crucial context that Tsarnaev was badly wounded and his brother dead – can a strong Islamic faith and simultaneous resentment of American foreign policy really be taken as proof of terrorism? Most educated non-muslims would now agree that U.S-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were illegal, unethical and frankly barbaric. Critical thinkers should be wary: without a doubt, there are far more questions than answers in the Boston case.
Who needs courts, anyway?
It´s becoming increasingly apparent that anything and everything you do, say and think can and will be used against you, with the mainstream media acting as government´s chief executioner. Trial by media seems to have replaced the courts, leaving heroes of truth and justice like Manning, Assange and Snowden languishing in military prisons, embassies and airports respectively- and, don´t forget, potentially forever. We have slipped so far into Orwell´s nightmare that you could be shipped to Guantanamo or swiftly murdered by the feds before you ever have your day in court.
Every man deserves a fair trial
Habeas corpus wasn´t the only thing to have died after 9/11. Along with it went common sense, good judgement, logical thinking, and empathy for our fellow human beings. We are paranoid, full of hate and fear of ´the other´, and we have traded all our liberties for a security which was not, and can never be, delivered. Day after day, we mindlessly eat what the corporate media feed us, a spaghetti dish of lies and half-truths served with a cup of hysteria to keep us from thinking critically.
I don´t know about anyone else, but the U.S and British governments- along with their yapping poodles in the media- terrify me far more than Tamerlan Tsarnaev´s YouTube account. All of us who care about freedom and justice have an obligation and a duty to call for the press to keep quiet until a jury- one not tainted by screeching, delirious media speculation – has decided whether there is enough real evidence to convict Tsarnaev in a court of law.
Note: This article was amended on 29 July – thanks for the heads up on an inexcusable spelling mistake John….
Sophie is an award-winning feature writer, investigative journalist, campaigner and author. She is a staff writer for True Activist on issues of peace, justice, society, environment and activism. You can find out more or contact her here.