By Zhan Li, 09/17/2001

In normal times, it's said that only 5% of Americans eligible for donating blood for emergency transfusion do so, and shortage of blood plasma has been a persistent problem. But after the September 11 attacks, donations swelled the American blood supply to above capacity by the next day. Many, like myself, wanted to give blood but was refused permission due to health reasons (instead, I made a cash donation to the Red Cross), and many others no doubt were turned away after the capacity limit was reached. Blood donations were given in sympathy across the US, and also across the world, even though most blood donations could not possibly reach the disaster areas in time to be of use. Donors gave blood because they wanted to help practically, to have a sense of contact with the direct victims, and also to relieve their own feeling of shocked helplessness. But the act of giving blood is not only practical but is also highly symbolic. What I look at here is how the media treatment of one such symbolic image in relation to other.

A less material response that I, with many, was to seek out messages of shock and sympathy from around the world, out of a need, perhaps, to feel a global community. The major news networks did indeed start communicating such messages, from every part of the world. But the first and most talked of, most remembered, reports on international reactions was of an extremely disturbing kind: TV footage of Palestinians - including children - celebrating the attacks.

The scenes were particularly inflammatory, being broadcast as soon as on the day of the attack itself. The implication was that the celebration was the reaction of *all* Palestinians, and therefore symbolically, a moral indictment of the Palestinian nation. This frequently repeated media image, combined with gravity of the shock, meant that what was actually happening in Palestine at that moment, was understandably not given much care in the general US public's mind at this time. The gravity of the loss of US life seemed to outweigh everything.

But the association of the attacks with the Middle East, and especially the circulation of the controversial footage of Palestinians cheering, also had the knock-on effect of putting the whole Palestinian cause in an exceptionally bad position. Aside from their shared shock at events, the formal, secular leadership, Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority, worried that the influence of fundamentalist militants on its constituency, and that world sympathy and coverage of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict would deteriorate, in the wake of the attacks.

One response from Yasser Arafat is to have, on the morning of the 12th, made the desperate - at least apparently heart-felt - gesture of giving his own blood to the US Embassy in Gaza, as well as bringing hundreds of his supporters, chanting slogans supportive of the US, to give blood as well. In the recent past, personal blood-giving on TV and encouraging public bloodgiving has been one important way that some Arab leaders, such as King Abdullah II of Jordan, have shown solidarity with the Palestinian cause.

Normally, I would have taken some kind of comfort from the media distribution of such gestures, which seem to reaffirm an universal basic desire for conciliation . But that night, something troubled me. It seemed as if Arafat's gesture had almost totally failed to be be reported on by the Western media, at least looking at the major news websites. I first found the Arafat's blood story in a brief Associated Press news article via a "wire feed" (where the stories are automatically transmitted from a central press agency without editing by the subscribing site). But when I used the search term, "Arafat blood", the CNN website came up with nothing. The MSNBC site came up with nothing. The ABCNews site came up with nothing. I rechecked the sites manually - still nothing. The main CNN story on international messages of sympathy mentioned many major countries, and some smaller ones, such as Macedonia, but no Palestinians.

The most widely visited news site - the BBC News - *did* come up with two sentences in the lower half of a general report on international offers of help, posted at just after 1pm Eastern US time that day. This BBC report was the third story in the search results. The top story in the search was a January 1998 report on a speech by Arafat warning that Palestinians would be moved to "sacrifice blood", if the past promises of the peace process were not respected by the then Israeli prime minister Netanyahu. The second-rated story was a political analyst's report on Israel/Palestine entitled "Peace Drowning in Blood", dated October, 2000.

At the time, I didn't know if Arafat's gesture had been covered by the TV networks (though I'd already seen or heard about the "celebrating Palestinians" footage numerous times on TV, as well through the print media and word-of-mouth). I was worried and dismayed - why hadn't this story been given more importance? Perhaps it had been overlooked, or relegated due to the chaotic concentration on US events? But surely, if the image of celebrating Palestinians had been so important from the first day, and had naturally provoked much outrage, shouldn't Arafat's gesture of giving blood - even if it were the case that it was purely "for show" - been given more attention? The major TV and internet news channels were already giving significant coverage to other international messages of sympathy by the second day, but the important, symbolic gesture of Palestinians giving blood in sympathy with the US seemed to me to have failed.

To my relief, reports and images of sympathetic Palestinians gradually became widely circulated on the major media outlets by the third day. Some reports about Arafat had appeared in a few newspapers on the second day. But nonetheless, the more dramatic and circulated images of celebrating Palestinians retained a much greater presence in the public mind. Two people from New York I spoke to 5 days after the attacks, remembered watching the inflammatory image, but not the conciliatory one. And on the Friday night (Sept. 14th), I had watched how Fox TV News' voiceover asking "But who shall the US attack?" overlapped with footage of somber Palestinian children. A minor news story broke out about original CNN filming of the cheering Palestinians - a Brazilian professor claimed that it was old footage of Palestinians cheering the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1991. Many in the US responded to this criticism with outrage. CNN rejected the accusation - and it was also later recanted by its originators - and stated that the real scandal was the Palestinian police and militia's concerted emergency suppression of the controversial film footage and their reported threatening of media crews.

Meanwhile, away from this controversy over mass mediated images, news coverage of Israel's expanding military operations against the Palestinians - the subject of front page coverage and US condemnation only a few days ago - had been marginalized as world attention focussed on talk of US retaliation.

Related Links

Back to expressions