Robert Bales' murderous Afghanistan rampage media reports leave out Afghan voices

After the horrific rampage by a U.S. soldier in an Afghanistan, killing 16 – including three women and nine children – the Western media has maintained an almost perverse focus on the killer, Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, while largely excluding the voices of Afghan eyewitnesses and survivors.  

Aside from a sprinkling of reports in the Associated Press and some probing investigations in The Guardian, virtually all the stories have given prominence to the the perpetrator, while downplaying or shutting out the reactions by Afghan civilians from the southern Panjwai district, where the massacre took place. Below is a quick list of some headlines emerging from the shootings:

  • “U.S. soldier 'can't recall' Afghan massacre” (Agence France-Presse);
  • “Stunned friends recall good deeds of Afghanistan killings suspect" (CNN)
  • “Seeking the roots of a U.S. soldier's shooting rampage” (Reuters) 
  • “Could brain injury have sparked U.S. soldier's rampage in Afghanistan?” (Los Angeles Times) 
  • “U.S. soldier's friends stunned at Afghanistan rampage charges” (Voice of America)

Many articles appear to lend an excuse to Bales' violent killings by discussing his brain injury, his financial woes and the high stress levels on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. Reading articles in the news, North American readers can glean quotes from Bales' friends who recall him as a “polite and friendly” young man, but get virtually no insight the lives of the Afghan civilians mowed down by the U.S. soldier.

When the Arizona shooting rampage happened last year, public sympathy flooded toward the victims (including Arizona Democrat Gabrielle Giffords), almost all of whom were profiled by the press. Translation issues aside, why is there barely a passing recognition in the U.S. media of the shooting victims? What of the mother who lost her two-year-old daughter, or of the two pregnant mothers who Bales shot to death? They are mainly reported as nameless villagers, as though existing in a void prior to the shooting. 

The only Afghan voice that appears to make it into U.S. media during such incidents appears to be that of President Hamid Karzai, a controversial figure within Afghanistan who was widely suspected of having interfered with the last presidential elections. 

Some readers' comments on the first New York Times story on the incident bordered on racist, minimizing the tragedy by pointing to existing violence within Afghan society: 

The Taliban have killed over 400k Afghans, and while US/NATO actions have led to some 30k deaths, the Taliban's atrocities are viewed of with a degree of acceptance. They are perceived as less "foreign," "fellow Muslims," etc, and not "outsiders." The US and NATO are up against a population that views them with inherent suspicion and has no inkling of our history, values or customs. There is no "common page."

The above comment by a reader in the Bay Area, California, was one of the highest rated on the story. 

A handful of readers, however, pointed to the missing Afghan perspective and a disproportionate emphasis on the U.S. Army's response to the incident:

Four little girls, deliberately murdered in addition to many other innocent people and the main focus of this article seems to be sympathy for the poor Western personnel and their "feeling of siege." And we merely promise another "thorough investigation."

The lack of voices from Afghanistan in the media reports about the ramage appears to reflect a broader disinterest in the U.S. toward the region. In 2006, a survey in the National Geographic found that nine in ten American young adults could not locate Afghanistan on a map. Today, North American media cannot seem to locate Afghan voices in the aftermath of Bales' shooting rampage. 

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