We all remember Jon Benet and Elizabeth Smart. But what happens to
the memory of a murdered girl like Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi?
Two young girls lost. The name of one, Jon Benet Ramsey, is etched
in the collective U.S. consciousness. The other, Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi,
barely registers--if it registers at all.
Spurred by the recent arrest of John Mark Karr, the man who claimed to be Jon
Benet's rapist and murderer, the media has devoted hundreds of primetime hours
to the Ramsey case during the past two weeks, consuming the attention of national
pundits and local newscasters alike. While this degree of media interest is
rare for any case in today's attention-deficit-disorder--and infotainment--afflicted
news world (and especially unusual for what is a 10-year old, cold case file),
media coverage of the Ramsey case is even more disturbing when juxtaposed with
the al-Janabi case.
"If it bleeds, it leads" goes the old newsroom adage. Is
the brutal stalking, gang-rape, massacre, and torching of Abeer--and the murder
and burning of her family--less newsworthy because it occurred during wartime?
Because it happened in Iraq? Because these crimes were allegedly committed by
six U.S. soldiers? Because Abeer was not white, wealthy, or a child beauty pageant
winner posed in kiddie porn-like displays for the camera?
Why are media hours and resources lavished on researching and reporting the
background of one man--even after DNA evidence has proven him not to be the
Ramsey rapist/murderer--but not one five-minute segment, and hardly any newsprint,
devoted to the backgrounds of the six U.S. GIs who allegedly committed the Iraq
atrocity--not even Spc. James P. Barker, the one who has confessed to it? (Others
accused are Sgt. Paul Cortez, Pfc. Jesse Spielman, and Pfc. Bryan Howard; a
fifth, Sgt. Anthony Yribe, is charged with failing to report the attack but
not with having participated. Pfc. Steven Green, also accused, has been discharged
but faces charges.)
In the summer of 2002, the U.S. public faced similar questions when Elizabeth
Smart, a blonde teen from an affluent Salt Lake City suburb, was abducted from
her bedroom one June night. The case garnered hundreds of hours of local, regional,
and national news coverage. Meanwhile, in Milwaukee, the abduction of Alexis
Patterson, an African American girl, went virtually unnoticed by the press.
That same summer, Erica Pratt was named a Time Person of the Week in July 2002.
Erica was a then 7-year-old African American girl who literally chewed her way
free from her captors. Only by her extraordinary feat did she warrant the media's
Jon Benet Ramsey, Elizabeth Smart, Chandra Levy, and Natalee Holloway--these
names we know. But Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi, Alexis Patterson, and Laura
Berenice Monarrez, one of the more than 400 girls and women abducted, raped,
and murdered in the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juarez, are not only gone,
they've been disappeared by the media.
Jon Benet, as almost everyone now knows, was a 6-year-old with blonde, bouncy
curls from a white, wealthy family in affluent Boulder, Colorado. Her rape and
murder is certainly no less vile than the rape and murder of Abeer, an Arab
Muslim girl from a country shredded by war. But the implications in the coverage
are alarming. The lack of in-depth coverage of Abeer's murder is, in effect
and whatever the final outcome, a pre-pardoning for the six U.S. soldiers whose
crimes are deemed unavoidable, if not acceptable, because they occurred during
the U.S. occupation of a foreign country, against a dark-skinned child.
Rape and murder against Jon Benet, on the other hand, are reported as a heinous
anomaly--bad things like that aren't supposed to happen to little white girls
who are safely tucked in their beds.
Ironically, wrong in both cases. Someone is sexually assaulted every two and
a half minutes in the U.S. One in six women has been raped (attempted or completed).
Of rape victims, 44% are under the age of 18, and 80% are under the age of 30.
(For statistics and additional information, see RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest
Clearly, it needs to be the right kind of bleeding to lead the news.
The skin, if not the blood, needs to be the right color. Can there be much doubt
about the differences that race, ethnicity, class, and nationality/geography
make to media coverage in the U.S. today?
To get to Abeer, her family was murdered. They can no longer ask, "What
about Abeer?" So we must.
Tamera Gugelmeyer is a writer and non-profit consultant.