By Moustafa Bayoumi
16 May 2018
It is the peculiar fate of oppressed people everywhere that when they are killed, they are killed twice: first by bullet or bomb, and next by the language used to describe their deaths. A common condition of oppression, after all, is to be blamed for being the victim, and that blame gets meted out in language designed to rob the oppressed of their very struggle.
Such a situation has for decades been the tragic destiny of the Palestinians, who are themselves so routinely assigned the blame when they are killed by Israel – and not just by the Israeli government but by the American media and political establishment – that we have now basically come to expect it.
But we don’t have to accept it. By paying close attention to the language of the media, we can see how this double death of the oppressed occurs, and we can learn how to resist such an insidious way of framing the Palestinian struggle.
Consider the headlines. On Monday, the Israeli military killed more than 60 protesters in Gaza. The deadly violence was one-sided – no Israelis were killed – and disproportionate. In the midst of the carnage, the New York Times sent out a tweet about its story on the bloody events. “Dozens of Palestinians have died in protests as the US prepares to open its Jerusalem Embassy,” read the tweet.
Have died? Really? We should note how the passive voice in this tweet hides the one performing the action, which is exactly what passive voice constructions can do. In this tweet, Israel is assigned no responsibility for killing protesters. On the contrary, Palestinians appear, simply and almost mysteriously, to “have died”.
The tweet was too egregious for many, including the director Judd Apatow. “Shame on you,” he tweeted. “This is like calling Trump’s lies ‘factual inaccuracies’. Please tell me an intern is running your Twitter feed.” Good for him.
To be fair to the New York Times, the headline in Tuesday’s physical paper (still a thing) was much clearer. “Israelis Kill Dozens in Gaza,” it read, though one is still left wondering who these “Israelis” are. Wouldn’t “Israel” be a more accurate noun? The military represents the state, after all, and not individual citizens.
But the Times is hardly alone in these obfuscating headlines. The Washington Post’s lead story on the massacre is headlined “Gaza buries its dead as death toll from protests at fence with Israel rises to at least 60.” Again, the headline leaves us wondering who killed the people of Gaza. Are we to assume that the protests – and not the Israeli military – killed these people?
The Wall Street Journal has a video on its website with the headline “Clashes Over New US Embassy in Jerusalem Leave Dozens Dead”. Frankly, this headline is even worse than the others. To label this massacre as “clashes” is not only disingenuous but also grossly misleading, as is the idea that the Palestinians were only protesting against the new US embassy in Jerusalem. Gaza’s Great Return March was organized in significant measure to draw attention to the plight of Palestinian refugees, who make up around 70% of the population of the Gaza Strip.
And then there’s the ever-present “leave dozens dead” in the headline, which again tells us nothing about who shot whom, suggesting instead that “clashes” rather than people kill while insinuating that Palestinians are, once again, basically responsible for their own slaughter.
It’s almost as if bullets just hang in the air, waiting for Palestinians to walk deliberately into them.
Headlines like these are the journalistic equivalent of US ambassador Nikki Haley telling the UN’s security council that “no country in this chamber would act with more restraint than Israel has”. Such language works not only to buffer Israel from criticism but also and more fundamentally to shield Israel from accountability.
Over 70 years ago, George Orwell wrote that modern political language “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable”. It saddens me to see how nothing has changed. And nothing will change until we demand more from the purveyors of today’s political language. Palestinians deserve better. We all deserve better. And no one should have to die more than once.
Moustafa Bayoumi is the author of the award-winning books How Does It Feel To Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America