September 16-18 this month marked the twentieth anniversary of the massacre of Palestinian refugees in Beirut’s Sabra and Shatila camps by Israeli-backed Lebanese militias protected and supported by Israeli troops under the command of Ariel Sharon.
We may never know exactly how many people — completely defenseless civilians, since PLO fighters had already left Beirut under a US-brokered deal — were murdered on those days. The Israelis acknowledge only “hundreds” while Palestinians and others put the death toll in the low thousands. Last year, British journalist Robert Fisk, who was one of the first journalists to enter the camps after the massacres, uncovered evidence that up to 1,000 Palestinians may have been taken to Beirut’s Cite Sportif stadium after the massacres in the camps and murdered in the following twenty four hours (see “New Evidence Indicates Palestinians Died Hours After Surviving Camp Massacres, The Independent, November 28, 2001). A major part of the problem is that the international community has never insisted on the kind of meticulous forensic investigation of what happened in Beirut, as it has in the case of alleged war crimes committed against Europeans in the former Yugoslavia.
The forgetting of the Beirut massacres, be it careless or willful, runs very deep in the United States. As of September 18, the anniversary of the final day of the massacre in the camps, we have not located one single article by any major American newspaper commemorating the events, updating readers about the survivors, or following up on the attempts to bring the alleged perpetrators to justice. This is all the more remarkable since the man held personally, though indirectly responsible for the massacres by an Israeli judicial panel, Ariel Sharon, is today the prime minister of Israel.
The Sabra and Shatila massacres were not entirely ignored, however. On September 18, The Chicago Tribune ran a brief Associated Press piece headlined “’82 slaughter haunts Palestinian refugees.” The Houston Chronicle, in a move mirrored in several other papers, gave the massacres one sentence in its “Today in History” column, noting without mentioning Israel or Sharon at all that on September 16, 1982, “the massacre of hundreds of Palestinian, men, women and children, by Lebanese Christian militiamen began in West Beirut’s Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps.” The New York Times gave the anniversary precisely one paragraph (number 23 out of 24) in a September 18 news report on a bomb in a Palestinian school that injured a number of children (“Bomb explodes at Palestinian School, Hurting 5 Children,” The New York Times,September 18, 2002). In total however, coverage has been extremely scarce.
Some editors argue that anniversaries are by themselves not newsworthy. National Public Radio’s Foreign Editor, Loren Jenkins, observed that “every day is an anniversary of something,” and while NPR is not planning any specific coverage of Sabra and Shatila this week, it has revisited the camp massacres many times over the years and done a number of reports on the efforts to bring Ariel Sharon to trial in a war crimes court in Belgium. “You cover a story when there is something new to say, not just when there is an anniversary,” said Jenkins who won a Pulitzer prize for his reporting from Sabra and Shatila when he was The Washington Post correspondent in Beirut in the early 1980s, and along with Fisk helped bring the first news of the massacres to the world.
If all media organizations applied this principle, then there would be little cause to complain, or at least if all anniversaries were treated equally. But this September 5-6 was the thirtieth anniversary of the murder of eleven Israeli athletes after they were taken hostage by a Palestinian group at the 1972 Munich Olympics. In marked contrast to this week’s Sabra and Shatila anniversary, the Munich anniversary received blanket coverage.
The list of newspapers that carried the dozens of stories, features and opinion pieces on the events in Munich includes, but is not limited to The Los Angeles Times, Newsday, The San Diego Union-Tribune, The Miami Herald, The Kansas City Star, The Orlando Sentinel, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, The Rocky Mountain News, USA Today, The Tampa Tribune, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, and The New York Times.
The Miami Herald, among its several pieces on the story, ran an opinion column headlined “Anniversary of Munich massacre reminds us; never again?” (September 5). The Los Angeles Times featured a six thousand word piece by its correspondent in Tel Aviv, Alan Abrahamson entitled “Black September; Long before the Twin Towers fell, dream of security at games toppled when Arabs murdered 11 Israelis,” (September 5). The same day the Chicago Tribune ran a three thousand word piece in a similar vein by the same correspondent. The Washington Post featured a reflection by William Gildea entitled “Remembering the shock of an earlier September,” (September 3). The Boston Globe carried a two thousand word feature by John Powers titled “Summer Olympics Terror in Munich; The day the Olympics changed forever,” as well as a news story by the same correspondent headlined “The families haunted by missing details” (September 1). National Public Radio also marked the Munich anniversary with coverage this week, although Loren Jenkins said that this decision was not made by his Foreign Desk, but by another department (each of NPR’s programs has wide latitude to decide which stories it chooses to cover.)
CNN carried several lengthy reports commemorating the Munich attack, but so far has had no coverage of the Sabra and Shatila anniversary except a brief mention that it is among the “headlines around the world.”
The crowning glory of this media halogen light on the events in Munich was an hour long ABC documentary complete with film clips and harrowing accounts, narrated by sports anchor Jim McKay. McKay told USA Today that when the Twin Towers were stuck last year “my instant thought was of Munich,” which he called “the fuse that started Arab terrorism.” (“ABC returns to Munich Olympics, the ‘fuse’ of terrorism,” USA Today, August 29, 2002)
It cannot be argued in justification for the intense media focus this month on the Munich events that they had previously been neglected in contrast, say, to the events in Sabra and Shatila which had recently received some renewed international attention due to the court case against Sharon in Belgium and a BBC documentary about the camp massacres that was shown around the world. The Munich events have also received a great deal of media attention in recent years, much of it surrounding an Oscar-winning documentary entitled “One Day in September.” Sometimes the coverage had no obvious hook, such as an interview with an Israeli athlete who survived the Munich attack, on NPR’s All Things Considered last February 5.
While many of this week’s reports and commentaries made the connection between the September 5-6, 1972 attack on the Israeli athletes, and the September 11, 2001 attack on the Twin Towers, we could find no commentary making a connection between either of these incidents and the deliberate murder of up to thousands of men, women and children in Sabra and Shatila. Perhaps that is for the best, as each of these events ought to stand uniquely on its own terms. But if there is a connection between an event in which eleven innocent people died in Munich and one where more than 3,000 died in New York and Washington just because the events occurred in September, then surely there must be a connection with the deaths of unknown thousands in Beirut? You would think so, except as so often with much in the US media, when the victims are Palestinians and the murderers are Israelis or the allies they armed, trained and protected, a different set of standards applies.
Michael Brown contributed to this article.