/ 25 February 2024

There’s no murder in media wars

Archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann Sketching Ruins Of Troy
History on repeat: An archaeologist sketches the remains of the city of Troy. The Greek playwright Euripides and Roman poet Virgil wrote of the massacres and the flight of refugees during the fall of Troy more than 3 000 years ago.

What’s a human life worth in words? After someone has died — or been killed — print column inches and radio or television time devoted to them tell their own story.

If the deceased falls into the category of “the great and the good” — often a gross misnomer — the news reports, obituaries, tributes and remembrances from family, friends and colleagues will be copious. 

Alongside what readers learn about the departed, they discern at least as much about the values and leanings of the media carrying the message.

In the case of Alexei Navalny, liberal media were scrupulous in reporting that he had been “killed” rather than merely “died”. Human agency responsible for his killing was also identified, if somewhat variously, as Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, the Russian security establishment or a death squad at the penal colony where Navalny was serving a 33-year sentence. 

The selfsame liberal media, running dogs of the Western consensus and its establishments, show equal conscientiousness in reporting that civilians in Gaza “die”. This linguistic and grammatical portmanteau very usefully removes the agency behind Gazans “dying”.

Palestinians are not “killed”; they “die”. In the event of a cause of death being supplied, it is always some object — humans are miraculously absolved from any role in the mass murder of children, women, the elderly and the disabled. 

Bunker-busting bombs fall from the sky, obliterating an apartment in which there just so happen to be a Palestinian journalist and scores of his family and relatives. All die; all are dead; but no one is killed.

This rancid hypocrisy is a slight but significant marker of the insidious propaganda campaign waged by anti-Palestinian forces globally. Words matter, language counts and the only “truth” worth reporting is one that props up preposterous partisan views.

All this should be cause for shame but in reality, the opposite is true. That frequent contributor to the opinion pages of The New York Times, Thomas Friedman, recently described Arabs and Palestinians as “insects”. 

One has only to recall the genocide in Rwanda, where those who were inciting machete-wielding Hutu militias called the Tutsi and the Twa “cockroaches”. 

Closer to home, we have “movements” and aspirant political parties referring to migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers in similar dehumanising terms.

A mindset like Friedman’s would probably savour the distinctions Afrikaans draws in the killing-and-death stakes. People “sterwe”, “sterf”, “gaan dood” (die). In combat and war, you “sneuwel” (are slain/ fall in battle). Animals “vrek” or “krepeer”. 

But back to Navalny and the wall-to-wall media coverage. Lest it be forgotten — or perhaps it’s not known at all — Navalny cofounded Narod (The People) in 2007, a social movement to protect the rights of ethnic Russians and cut down on immigration from Central Asia and the Caucasus. An Operation Dudula, if you like.

Earlier, in 2007, Navalny had been thrown out of the United Democratic Party, better known as Yabloko, after his nationalist and anti-migrant views became incompatible with the party’s social democratic agenda. So, fallen — yes. An angel — no, unless you are the liberal media on either side of the Atlantic or on the tip of southern Africa.

The question around his death should not be how or why he was killed or how or why he died but whether he chose martyrdom. 

Such an end has great historical resonance with Russian history and is acutely portrayed in Russian literature, perhaps most notably in the novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821 to 1881), particularly Crime and Punishment.

It’s also a point that was raised last week by Alexander Baunov, who noted, “Navalny left one Russia, returned to another, and perished in a third, where political prospects are absent in principle. There are only martyrs.”

A caveat is that Baunov is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, so his remarks need to be read against his workplace’s ideological framework. Nonetheless, in the specific words quoted here, Baunov may well be correct.

In the epilogue to Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky writes: “Senseless and aimless anxiety in the present, and in future a life of self-sacrifice which would bring him nothing in return — that was what his whole life would be like. 

“And what did it matter that in another eight years he would be only 32, and that he could start life afresh? What had he to live for? What would his aim in life be? To live in order to exist? 

“But why, even before he had been ready a thousand times to sacrifice his life for an idea, for a hope, even for a dream. Mere existence had never been enough for him; he had always wanted something more. 

“And perhaps it was just because his desires were so strong that he had regarded himself at the time as a man to whom more was permitted than to any other man.” (David Magarshack’s translation)

To modify the question with which we began: What’s a martyr’s life worth in words? If you are Alexei Navalny, a tsunami of words. And you are the hero-victim of a ruthless killing. If you are a Gazan or West Bank child, a Palestinian male or female, an Israeli Arab, the Global North has no words for you.

There are words, however, painful, perceptive and prescient, of massacres and of the terrifying flight of the refugee. The Greek playwright Euripides (480 to 406 BCE), in The Trojan Women, and Roman poet Virgil (70 to 19 BCE), in The Aeneid, speak to us vividly through centuries. 

Euripides’ play opens after the fall of Troy to the Greeks, the bloody culmination of a 10-year siege of the mighty citadel. The Trojan men, the defenders of the city, have been slaughtered. Only women and children remain, to be parcelled off as slaves to the conquerors.

The most valuable, the choicest prizes, are Hekabe, the queen of Troy, her daughter Cassandra, and her daughter-in-law Andromache, wife of the slain Hektor, leader of the Trojan fighters. 

Helen, wife of the Spartan king Menelaos, whose abduction by the Trojan prince Paris began all the trouble is, of course, spoken for — she will return to Sparta.

Euripides focuses on the women’s terror and anguish at the fates that await them. Almost two-and-a-half-thousand years later, the acclaimed novelist Pat Barker reimagined the story in The Women of Troy.

Arguably the most heart-rending, gut-wrenching moment in Euripides’ play is when the Achaians (Greeks) snatch Astyanax, the infant son of Andromache and Hektor, from his mother and grandmother Hekabe, and fling him from the tallest of Troy’s towers.

This is the latest escalation in Hekabe’s grief. Previously, she has witnessed her husband Priam, king of Troy, butchered in front of her and been denied the right to wash his body and give it proper burial. This is how Hekabe berates and judges the child-killers: “Why? What were you afraid of? That he would rebuild his devastated city?

“That he would resurrect Troy?

“Well, let me tell you why you are afraid, Greeks!

“You are afraid of a little boy because you are nothing!

“You have killed Hektor who fought gloriously with thousands of other Trojans and you have burnt our city. You have killed thousands of brave men and yet — and yet you were afraid of this little boy!

“Fear! Fear without a reason is not what the brave feel!” (Translation by G Theodoridis.)

Virgil gives us the horror as defenceless women and children await the breaching of the final defences to their quarters in the palace. From Robert Fitzgerald’s peerless translation of The Aeneid: “From the interior came sounds of weeping, / Pitiful commotion, wails of women, / High-pitched, rising in the formal chambers, / To ring against the silent golden stars; /

“And, through the palace, mothers wild with fright / Ran to and fro or clung to doors and kissed them.”

The ancient and classical worlds had the epic poet Homer, the tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, and Virgil, the chronicler nonpareil of the refugee and all those made homeless over the millennia.

In 2024, we have the siege of Rafah in southern Gaza, with forced displacement of the population, ethnic cleansing and mass murder playing out by the second on social media. And those under siege do not have the slim chance and choice that Aeneas, the hero of The Aeneid, has: “So in the end / As night waned I rejoined my company. / And there to my astonishment I found / New refugees in a great crowd: men and women / Gathered for exile, young — pitiful people / Coming from every quarter, minds made up, / With their belongings, for whatever lands / I’d lead them to by sea.”