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Harsh Reality TV

The war in Afghanistan may provide images far more horrific than what the networks can conjure up.



You will be at your breakfast table and you will not be able to turn away from the image. An American, impossibly young and healthy, will be looking back at you. The lighting will be bad but you will see the bruises on his face, the redness in his eyes, the sweat glistening on his shaven head. A soldier, he will be in his government-issued brown undershirt. Stripped of his flack-jacket and tunic. Stripped of his bluster and bravado. You will see his fear.

He will speak words that are not his own. His statement will sound bizarre delivered in his Midwestern dialect -- the word order askew, the eyes darting, and the delivery halting as if coached from outside the frame.

When he is finished with his confession the video image will shake and then come to rest on another man, an Afghan wearing the dark wrappings and headdress of the Taliban, speaking excitedly in his own language. And when he is through with his address he will move across the drab room toward the American, who will be seated and bound. The Afghan will be holding a long, curved knife.

And the image before you at your breakfast table will change to a female co-host seated on a sofa at the network morning show. She will be visibly shaken, aided by several minutes of discussions with her producer on just the right tone to portray when the video ends. The male co-host will explain that for reasons of "sensitivity" the network decided to edit the video. He will confirm that the young Ranger was indeed executed slowly and painfully on camera. His eyes will moisten. Fade to commercial.

A car company announces that in this time of national difficulty they are here to help with zero percent financing.

No network will show the actual throat-cutting. For that you'll have to go to any number of Web sites that will let you download it, stream it, or access video-capture images.

Don't think it will happen? Don't be so sure.

The Afghanistan Mujahadin that fought the Russian army in the 1980s slit the throats of many a Russian soldier, then sent the videotapes to the enemy. They did it to demoralize, to horrify. The Taliban seems to prefer hanging its victims from cranes and towers or holding big, outdoor, public executions and amputations, but that might be tough to stage from an underground bunker.

Sheikh Mullah Mohammed Umar, the leader of the Taliban (to call him "spiritual leader" as many do is to marginalize his importance), is fixated on what he feels is the lack of American will to accept losses. Time and again he has brought up Somalia, where a dead American Army Ranger was dragged through the streets of Mogadishu and American viewers got to see the bound, broken body piped into their living rooms. The U.S. pulled out of the country soon after. Umar and his ilk are now awaiting their chance to provide the American viewing audience with an even more graphic postcard from abroad.

One imagines Sheikh Umar and Osama bin Laden must be amazed by the bully pulpit they have at their disposal. They know that any statement they make will be broadcast to the American people soon after, with no checking the verity of the allegations or censoring of the threats or indictments of the U.S. government or its military. When the U.S. National Security Advisor asked the network heads to police themselves and use restraint when broadcasting unedited footage from the leaders of our enemies, it was portrayed by many in the media as an attack on the freedom of the press and heavy-handed White House bullying. Do you think that a tape of the president of the United States rushed to the news channels would be put on the air without any review or editing? Not a chance.

Score one for the bad guys.

So let's accept that the Taliban will execute a military prisoner on camera. Will the media really air it?

Anyone who saw the footage of the dead Ranger in his undershorts being pulled behind the truck in Somalia, which is to say anyone who owned a television set in October 1993, knows the American media has no aversion to airing American military casualties, no matter how brutal.

Anyone who saw the footage of the American and British aircrews captured by the Iraqis in the Gulf War, which is to say anyone who owned a television in February 1991, knows the American media has no moral difficulties broadcasting enemy propaganda spewed from the mouths of injured and threatened captives.

Put these events together in one video and what do you have? Must-see TV.

To call the American media accessory to whatever crime they put on the air is admittedly overstating it. The Taliban will execute whomever they choose to execute, whether or not we get to watch it over a bowl of corn flakes. But a public outcry against any airing of prisoner videos before the fact would send a message to the networks that the public will not allow themselves to be subjected to a propaganda war at the expense of a young man's life or a family's unimaginable horror. And a message from the U.S. television networks to Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based "all Taliban, all the time" network that has the most contact with Umar and his minions, would tell the powers in Kabul that any servicemen they capture will not be used as publicity shills.

Afghanistan must be a miserable place to die. Rudyard Kipling wrote of the perils of fighting there in the early 1840s in a war that claimed 12,000 British soldiers: "When you're wounded and left/On Afghanistan's plains,/And the women come out,/To cut up your remains,/Just roll on your rifle,/And blow out your brains,/And go to your Gawd,/Like a soldier."

Kipling's soldier surely could not appreciate how lucky he was.

Mark Greaney is an international account manager for Sofamor-Danek.

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