IN THE IMPERIAL heyday of London's Fleet Street papers, a train wreck was said to be worth reporting if it killed "50 frogs, 500 wogs, or one Englishman." I thought of these distinctions the other day when I received a lovely, unexpected, but unsettling letter from a country, Sri Lanka, that's known all too much mayhem and murder of its own lately. The writer is a little girl named Chathurika who lives in a small town near an enormous cliff-top fortress built by a murderous tyrant 1,615 years ago. Last year, while traveling around researching a book, I snapped her family's picture on a bus and, in the usual way, offered to send a print. She sent a thank-you letter, which is unusual. I replied, and now she has written again; what with the new postal anxieties, the letter took more than a month to arrive.
"May God bless you!" Chathurika began. "How are you? We hope you are keeping well and so sorry about the attack [on] your country. We watched it in the TV and we are really sorry about it. We hope your place has no trouble. Please take care." She wrote that she was in the sixth grade now and enjoying her English studies and asked if I enjoyed my time in Sri Lanka. "We still have terrorism in Sri Lanka. We are living fear. We are sorry you are also having the same problems. What to do? The world is changing for bad isn't it?"
Touching as such sympathy is, I couldn't help feeling a bit ashamed at receiving it and not just because we out here are far from Manhattan. Sri Lanka, like so many lands, has lately known more fear and loss than we can imagine. Some 60,000 Sri Lankans, half of them civilians, have died in an 18-year civil war that nearly none of them wanted. That's proportionate to 800,000 American deaths. It went from tropic paradise to suicide-bombing test bed.
How many American sixth-graders, or 16- or 60-year-olds, know or care a tenth as much about Sri Lanka's troubles as a billion Chathurikas around the world do about ours? No, I'm not insinuating that its war is "America's fault." But Afghanistan shows the consequences of ignoring "inconsequential" countries; in the new globalization, no failed or festering state is an island.
Call it smug solipsism or the innocence of an insular, continental nation: The rest of the world knows us, or knows the America portrayed by Hollywood, CNN, and Al-Jazeera, all too well; we tend to know squat about it. All that's changed now, the pundits proclaim: Sept. 11 ripped America's eyes open, and we'll never turn away again. Even the networks' morning talk shows have gone international, Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz notes in a report on "the New Seriousness." Networks and newspapers preen and groan by turns over the fortunes they're spending on foreign correspondents and "Nation Challenged" sections. But it nearly all goes to saturation coverage of Afghanistan, with nervous glances at Israel and Palestine. The rest of the world is, if anything, even farther off the screen. Heard much about the wars in Sudan and Sierra Leone, or even Colombia, lately? Or about Egypt and Saudi Arabia, where the war we've fought in Afghanistan will eventually play out? How about the dramatic increase in the level of deforestation Brazil's congress wants to allow in Amazonia, which may someday affect us more than Sept. 11. It's a brief note. And attention on Afghanistan will wane soon enough. Take out the American troops, the University of Missouri's Stuart Loory told a reporter, and "that part of the world will disappear from the screen again, just like Vietnam did."
The old myopia showed when the administration persuaded the networks to boycott Osama's previous videotape. And it's shown in the grotesque debate over the reporting of collateral damage in Afghanistan. Fox's Britt Hume shrugs off civilian casualties as no story. Brent Bozell of the right-wing Media Research Center lashes ABC for devoting a total 15 minutes and 44 seconds to civilian casualties in two months— more than NBC and CBS combined!
Defense officials have, meanwhile, shamelessly claimed that they had Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders in their sights a hundred times but refrained from bombing them for fear of hitting nearby civilians. But in the most notorious such incident, when they let Mullah Omar get away, he was at an isolated bunker; the order to fire came too late from central command.
From Nicaragua to Panama, Iraq, and Sudan, U.S. administrations and their cheerleaders have worked ever harder to shield Americans from "collateral" body counts. But not until now did they suggest that it's unpatriotic to even talk about them. Deaths of innocents may be necessary and inevitable in a campaign like this; if so, they should face the issue head-on. The whiff of cover-up just makes the nasty business of war stink worse. And Americans aren't the only ones watching.
Eric Scigliano's media column appears every other week.