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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 April, 2004, 11:45 GMT 12:45 UK
Images from Iraq haunt US
By Verity Murphy
BBC News Online

The gruesome images of the bodies of four US civilian contractors being mutilated and lynched in the Iraqi town of Falluja have caused outrage across the US.

Many attacking body in Falluja
Crowds used shovels to disfigure the bodies
All the main television stations began their evening news broadcasts with footage of the attacks in which the Americans were pulled from their burning vehicle, decapitated, and two of the bodies left hanging on a bridge.

And while the images of the corpses themselves were pixellated or blurred to tone down the graphic content, nothing was able to tone down the nationwide sense of shock.

Television commentators compared the violence in Falluja to the grisly scenes in Somalia a decade before; scenes immortalised in the book and film Black Hawk Down, in which a US soldier's body was dragged through the streets of Mogadishu by a jubilant crowd.

That abuse hastened the US pullout from Somalia. While the White House insists it will not be deflected from its mission to bring democracy to Iraq, some analysts are saying Wednesday's events could be a turning point in how Americans view the occupation of Iraq.

Taste versus truth

Questions are being asked about why there was no attempt to rescue the contractors when they were attacked by masked gunmen as they drove through the town, a frequent scene of anti-coalition violence.

Burning car in Falluja
The vehicle the group were travelling in was set ablaze
And even it if was not possible to rescue them, why was nothing done to at least retrieve their bodies and spare them the humiliation of what followed?

In what ABC described as "desecration" the corpses were kicked, stamped on, dragged behind vehicles, hacked to pieces by adults and children, before two were finally lynched - their charred remains strung up on a bridge spanning the Euphrates River.

The incident has also ignited a debate on taste and the audience's right to know. The images were graphic, of that there is no doubt, but should an audience be cosseted from the truth; should war be sanitised?

Every war has its iconic images - be it a naked young girl fleeing a napalm attack in Vietnam or a young soldier being dragged behind a vehicle in Somalia - and by their very nature they are disturbing.

Shifting position

The graphic content of the 80 seconds of video from Falluja had news editors struggling once more to balance the need to tell the story with taste and decency.

Both ABC and CBS news showed the abuse in their evening newscasts, but ensured that the corpses were electronically blurred in their footage. NBC went one step further, editing the pictures so that the bodies could not be easily seen.

Iraqis celebrate after hanging the corpses on a bridge
The victims' remains were hung from a bridge
CNN shifted its position through the course of the day. Initially, the news channel refused to show the bodies at all, focussing their report on shots of the burning vehicles and cheering mob.

But as the day wore on they showed increasingly graphic images, culminating with footage of the bodies hanging from a bridge - a decision that was defended by a correspondent saying: "Some images are necessary to fully show the extent of the violence."

Afterwards the channel's news anchor asked the audience "Does today change the way you look at the war?"

Surely this now is the question being asked by the Bush administration - will this change the way Americans view the occupation of Iraq?

The White House says no.

"There are some who want to intimidate the Iraqi people, who want to intimidate the coalition, they want to intimidate the international community and they cannot," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. "We will not turn back from our efforts."

Nonetheless, recognising the effect that such images have had in the past, Mr McClellan also urged caution, telling reporters, "I hope everybody acts responsibly in their coverage."

But in a world used to frontline reporting and instant news, the public has become increasingly inured to violent, shocking images.

The real question is whether the shock of this incident will have worn off when the American people go to the polls in November.

The BBC's Caroline Hawley reports
"There's never been an attack as brutal as this"


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