Yesterday’s Sunday New York Times showcased, as the Times is wont to do, an interesting juxtaposition of articles on its front page.

Paul Wong
Johanna Hanink Parlance of our times

Lead story: “Israel tells U.S. it will retaliate if Iraqis attack.” Close second: “Bush’s push on Iraq at U.N.: Headway, then new barriers.”

Neither of these headlines gave any sort of indication that the people at the Times are secretly pushing for that oh-so inevitable preemptive strike. The stories themselves didn’t give that me that impression either – the one about the United States, the United Nations and Iraq seemed an impressive piece of evenhanded and frank news analysis. What was most interesting about yesterday’s page-one design decision was how these two stories appeared in the context of the smaller one that was printed, still on the front page, but below the fold.

“Long in dark, Afghan women say to read is finally to see” ran in the vein of last year’s Nov. 13 front-pager “In a fallen Taliban city, a busy, busy barber.” The story is compelling, carefully crafted, designed to elicit a hard emotional response from the reader. Carlotta Gall recreates the scene of Afghan women, crowded around their teacher (with pointer in hand), nursing babies and trying to control toddlers, chanting the “Afghan” alphabet: Alef, Be, Te …”

It’s hard not to be affected by this kind of story. A photo accompanying the piece captured a moment in a classroom when veiled and barefoot women sat on the floor, intently focused on the characters chalked on the blackboard – another: An adorable little girl with a tattered book open, mouthing her alef-be.

Classes are springing up faster than women can register for them thanks to the lift on the Taliban’s ban of educating women, a lift that was U.S.-slash-Northern Alliance military-incursion induced. The article made our entire nation, through a literary and photographic cameo, party to a heartrending display of the quiet triumph of Afghanistan’s women. Now, we can see for ourselves how a pocket of Central Asia has brightened with a little tweaking from the United States – and yesterday we saw all this right below stories that should make us think about whether we need to invade Iraq. How convenient.

However incidental the placement might have been, it should be enough to cause us to question into what framework we are putting an Iraqi invasion. The Afghanistan incursion was on many counts a disaster. The government remains unbelievably unstable; President Karzai’s life remains constantly at risk. Despite calls for and promises of post-shelling nation building, the Afghan people have perhaps benefitted most notably from what the United States took away – burkas and beards. Sans al-Qaida (perhaps), they are still left with a country steeped in poverty and a political situation marked by volatility.

An examination of the current situation regarding Iraq in the framework of the social benefits of U.S. military action is also misleading. After the United States invaded Afghanistan last year, an equal number of analyses of the sociology of liberation (remember that catchphrase – the liberation of Kabul?) found their way onto the pages dedicated to reporting the search for terrorists. Adding a human touch to the War on Terrorism certainly helps President Bush’s case – a heartwarming, tear-jerker of a story here and there makes the shelling of a city a lot easier to swallow.

It’s important to recognize that there is a motivational distinction between national defense (or offense) and social development. If it’s “liberation” – equal rights, religious, media, speech freedoms – that we’re after, we shouldn’t frame it in a policy of punishment. If it’s regime change for purposes of national – our nation’s – security, then we can’t soften the blows with exuberant pictures of men being shaven and shorn for the first time in years. If there’s going to be a war, maybe we can justify it. But it needs to be justified through the reality of the political situation, not through the international fluff pieces floating around the front pages of influential newspapers.

It will be a wonderful thing if some good comes out of a U.S. strike on Iraq. Sadly, our very recent track record in Afghanistan makes that sort of hope to be a feeling that must be predicated by enormous optimism. This war will require candidness of purpose, honesty which cannot be compromised by an emotional appeal. Pretty soon we’ll be going in there to get rid of Saddam Hussein because it suits us – so let’s not pretend it’s for the good of the Iraqi people.

Johanna Hanink can be reached at jhanink@umich.edu.

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