Most people would probably agree that cluster bombs are hideous weapons–deadly, indiscriminate, and likely to kill or injure civilians.
So it was no surprise to see this headline on the front page of the New York Times (12/21/12):
Syria Unleashes Cluster Bombs on Town, Punishing Civilians
As the headline indicates, cluster bombs are especially dangerous to noncombatants. And the Times story by C.J. Chivers is a moving account of what it is like to live in such a warzone. It begins:
The plane came in from the southeast late in the afternoon, releasing its weapons in a single pass. Within seconds, scores of finned bomblets struck and exploded on the homes and narrow streets of this small Syrian town.
After the screams and the desperate gathering of the victims, the staff at the local Freedom Hospital counted four dead and 23 wounded. All were civilians, doctors and residents said.
The war in Syria is horrific, and this evidence is especially disturbing. As Chivers notes:
The Syrian government's attack here on December 12 pointed to one of the war's irrefutable patterns: the deliberate targeting of civilians by President Bashar al-Assad's military, in this case with a weapon that is impossible to use precisely.
What kind of government would deploy such weapons, a reader might wonder? The Times gives one answer, if you're reading carefully:
The use of cluster munitions is banned by much of the world, although Syria, like the United States, is not party to that international convention.
But there's more to it than that.
On December 17, 2009, Barack Obama ordered a cluster bomb attack in Yemen that reportedly killed dozens of civilians. The attack was not widely reported; the Times weighed in on it months later, in the midst of a piece (8/15/10) about Obama's shadow war against Al-Qaeda:
As word of the December 17 attack filtered out, a very mixed picture emerged. The Yemeni press quickly identified the United States as responsible for the strike. Qaeda members seized on video of dead children and joined a protest rally a few days later, broadcast by Al Jazeera, in which a speaker shouldering an AK-47 rifle appealed to Yemeni counterterrorism troops.
The Times account is more restrained than its reporting on the attack in Syria:
A Navy ship offshore had fired the weapon in the attack, a cruise missile loaded with cluster bombs, according to a report by Amnesty International. Unlike conventional bombs, cluster bombs disperse small munitions, some of which do not immediately explode, increasing the likelihood of civilian causalities. The use of cluster munitions, later documented by Amnesty, was condemned by human rights groups.
An inquiry by the Yemeni Parliament found that the strike had killed at least 41 members of two families living near the makeshift Qaeda camp. Three more civilians were killed and nine were wounded four days later when they stepped on unexploded munitions from the strike, the inquiry found.
The lesson to be drawn is that, at the very least, the use of cluster bombs against civilians is newsworthy depending on who is using them. If it's an enemy state, like Syria or Qaddafi's Libya, you can expect to read about it, and in clear language on the front page. "Qaddafi Is Using Cluster Bombs in Civilian Area"–that's the page 1 headline in the New York Times (4/16/11). As FAIR's Jim Naureckas noted at the time, the destruction was described in vivid terms: "Where a crowd had assembled for food, bits of human flesh had been blasted against a cinder-block wall."
And an article like this will mention, almost in passing, that our own government does the same:
At the same time, the United States has used cluster munitions itself, in battlefield situations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and in a strike on suspected militants in Yemen in 2009.
Of course, it is much more difficult to report on the United States' secret drone war in a remote part of Yemen. But one Yemeni journalist did that. Abdulelah Haider Shaye provided an indispensable link to the carnage on the ground. (See Jeremy Scahill's excellent piece in the Nation–3/13/12.)
Where is he now? In prison in Yemen, doing time on a dubious terrorism charge. Efforts to secure him a pardon progressed over the past several years, and it looked like Yemeni authorities were willing to free him. That is, until Barack Obama made a phone call to Yemen to express his concern–that the reporter might be released.