THE MEDIA COVERAGE of the killing of 24 Iraqis at Haditha has given rich new definition to the phrase "rush to judgment." The coverage, plus the reaction of antiwar politicians like Democratic representative John Murtha, amounts to a public verdict of guilty, rendered against a handful of Marines, before an investigation of the bloody incident is completed or a trial (if there is one) held.
An egregious example was MSNBC host Chris Matthews's interview with Murtha on May 17. Asked to "draw us a picture of what happened in Haditha," the congressman said he'd tell "exactly" what occurred. "One Marine was killed and the Marines just said we're going to take care. They don't know who the enemy is. The pressure was too much on them, so they went into houses and they actually killed civilians."
"Was this My Lai?" Matthews interjected, referring to the slaughter of more than 300 civilians by American soldiers in Vietnam in 1968. "Was this a case of--when you say cold blood, Congressman, a lot of people think you're basically saying you have got some civilians sitting in a room [or] out in a field and they're executed."
"That's exactly what happened," Murtha replied.
Murtha, of course, doesn't really know if the Haditha civilians were killed in cold blood. There's no way he could know. He's been briefed by Marine Commandant Michael Hagee, but so have other key members of Congress. Republican Duncan Hunter, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, talked to Hagee and did not conclude either that the case was all but closed or that 24 Iraqis had indeed been executed. Murtha, an ex-Marine, claims to have other Marine sources, but it's doubtful any of them were in Haditha on November 19, 2005, the day of the killings. So Murtha is winging it--and in a particularly shameful way.
But Murtha's accusation is only the worst example of prejudicing the case against the Marines. There are others:
* The press has repeatedly likened the Haditha killings to the My Lai massacre, an invidious comparison if there ever was one. Newsweek, for instance, wrote that Haditha "may turn out to be the worst massacre since My Lai." True, the magazine writes that "the scale" of Haditha "should not be exaggerated" and the 24 Iraqis killed are "a fraction of the 300-plus lined up and murdered at My Lai." But with the facts in Haditha so sketchy or in serious dispute, the mere association of Haditha with My Lai is, to say the least, tendentious.
* In breaking the Haditha story last March, Time relied heavily on statements from a 9-year-old girl, a self-styled human rights activist with credibility problems, and a doctor who has publicly expressed his hatred of America. Since then, Time has issued three corrections. A video of the 24 dead bodies and the places where the killings occurred was not taken by "a Haditha journalism student," as first reported, but by a 43-year-old Sunni Muslim who heads the two-person "Hammurabi Human Rights Group." Nor is that group associated with Human Rights Watch, the respectable if anti-American outfit, as the magazine had said. The magazine also allowed that it could not confirm that an alleged photo taken by a Marine, suggesting the killings were executions, even exists.
* The nastiest swipe at the Marines came in a cartoon in the Chicago Sun-Times by Jack Higgins. It showed dead men with their hands behind their backs. One had the word "Haditha" on his body. Underneath were the words, offered as an ironic counterpoint: "We will be greeted as liberators." The cartoon was based on a photo, not of the 24 slain civilians but of 19 Shiite fishermen executed by Iraqi insurgents in Haditha. The photo had appeared in the Times of London, which misidentified the dead as U.S. victims. To its credit, the Times promptly apologized, and so did the Sun-Times and Higgins. Another cartoon, this one in the Arizona Republic, showed the Marine emblem and said USMC stood for "United States Massacre Cover-Up." An investigation by an Army general later found there was no coverup in the case.