It is a fundamental precept of the tourism business that success depends on making sure that people see what they come to see. Observers of the Thomas Friedman phenomenon know that it can be a wildly successful formula in journalism as well.
The career that has wracked up three Pulitzer Prizes began in earnest in 1982 when Friedman, then 28, was in Beirut to cover the First Lebanon War for The New York Times. The young reporter quickly catapulted himself to the front ranks of American journalism for his coverage of the massacre perpetrated by Christian Phalange militiamen in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. Lebanon had experienced larger massacres before Sabra and Shatila, but this time Israeli troops were posted nearby, so the world was mesmerized with the question of what they knew of the atrocities and when they knew it.
Tom Friedman never had any doubts. Here’s how he described the events in his bestseller From Beirut to Jerusalem:
Israeli soldiers did not see innocent civilians being massacred and they did not hear the screams of innocent children going to their graves. What they saw was a ‘terrorist infestation’ being ‘mopped up’ and ‘terrorist nurses’ scurrying about and ‘terrorist teenagers’ trying to defend them…. Many Israelis had so dehumanized the Palestinians in their own minds and had so intimately equated the words ‘Palestinian,’ ‘PLO,’ and ‘terrorists’ on their radio and television for so long…that they simply lost track of the distinction between Palestinian fighters and Palestinian civilians.
What evidence did Friedman have? Here’s his very next sentence: “The Kahan Commission, the Israeli government inquiry board that later investigated the events in Sabra and Shatila, uncovered repeated instances within the first hours of the massacre in which Israeli officers overheard Phalangists referring to the killing of Palestinian civilians.”
It’s fascinating that Friedman would cite the Kahan Commission Report as evidence that Israeli troops ignored the cry of the innocents. Because the Kahan Commission investigated that very charge and concluded the exact opposite.
Here’s what the Kahan Commission found:
It was alleged that the atrocities being perpetrated in the camps were visible from the roof of the forward command post, that the fact that they were being committed was also discernible from the sounds emanating from the camps, and that the senior IDF commanders who were on the roof of the forward command post for two days certainly saw or heard what was going on in the camps. We have already determined above that events in the camps, in the area where the Phalangists entered, were not visible from the roof of the forward command post. It has also been made clear that no sounds from which it could be inferred that a massacre was being perpetrated in the camps reached that place. It is true that certain reports did reach officers at the forward command post – and we shall discuss these in another section of this report – but from the roof of the forward command post they neither saw the actions of the Phalangists nor heard any sounds indicating that a massacre was in progress.
Here we must add that when the group of [Palestinian] doctors and nurses met IDF officers on Saturday morning, at a time when it was already clear to them that they were out of danger, they made no complaint that a massacre had been perpetrated in the camps. When we asked the witnesses from the group why they had not informed the IDF officers about the massacre, they replied that they had not known about it. The fact that the doctors and nurses who were in the Gaza Hospital – which is proximate to the site of the event and where persons wounded in combative action and frightened persons from the camps arrived – did not know about the massacre, but only about isolated instances of injury which they had seen for themselves, also shows that those who were nearby but not actually inside the camps did not form the impression, from what they saw and heard, that a massacre of hundreds of people was taking place.