I felt like there was something slightly off about this New York Times story yesterday (3/15/12), "In Reactions to Two Incidents, a U.S.-Afghan Disconnect." Reporter Rod Norland wanted to explore why Afghans seemed so much more outraged over the recent burnings of the Quran than they were about a massacre of 16 civilians by a U.S. servicemember. His piece begins:
KABUL, Afghanistan– The mullah was astounded and a little angered to be asked why the accidental burning of Korans last month could provoke violence nationwide, while an intentional mass murder that included nine children last Sunday did not.
"How can you compare the dishonoring of the Holy Koran with the martyrdom of innocent civilians?" said an incredulous Mullah Khaliq Dad, a member of the council of religious leaders who investigated the Quran burnings. "The whole goal of our life is religion."
Norland tells readers that the apparent lack of protest after the massacre
speaks volumes about a fundamental disconnect with their Afghan partners, one that has undermined a longstanding objective to win the hearts and minds of the population. After more than 10 years, many deaths and billions of dollars invested, Americans still fail to grasp the Afghans' basic values. Faith is paramount and a death can be compensated with blood money.
There have been several incidents where American journalists expressed puzzlement over cultural reactions that seem rather understandable–being offended by foreign soldiers raiding your home in the middle of the night doesn't seem strangely "Afghan" to me.
The Times piece goes to several religious leaders to try to understand the idea that the burning of the Quran is likely to provoke more outrage than, say, burning children. I am not sure it's totally advisable to rely on said religious figures to explain cultural reactions that way. (It would certainly not be the best way to understand American culture, for instance.) Readers hear from one academic who cautions against the interpretation that seems to be driving the piece:
"We have to hold our breath here–people are jumping too fast on this idea that Afghans don't care about 16 people being killed, compared to, say, the Quran-burning episode," said Haseeb Humayoon, a social scientist here who has studied the phenomenon of mass protests.
But it's hard not to jump to that conclusion, given the tone of the coverage. As Salon.com's Glenn Greenwald pointed out, an NPR segment dwelled on the same question, with host Robert Siegel Steve Inskeep summing up a comment from a guest: "Human life is already cheap, is what you're saying, and religion is something that's a little more intense."
I guess another way to think about this is to flip the story around. One of the major themes in the U.S. political debate after Quran burnings was outrage that Barack Obama apologized for the incident. After the massacre, as FAIR documented, politicians were remarkably callous, and journalists wondered about the PR implications, or the effect the massacre might have on the war "strategy."
Perhaps a better topic to explore might be the peculiarities of American culture in response to a massacre committed by a member of our military.