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It’s a journalistic atrocity to blur the distinction between murderers and their victims, but that’s what both the New York Times and Newsweek decided to do in their lurid coverage of the Middle East.

Lead stories in each publication featured side-by-side photographs of two dead, strikingly attractive teen-aged girls, one Israeli, one Palestinian. The front-page story in the Times suggested joint victimhood for the two young women, with its outrageous headline: “2 Girls, Divided by War, Joined in Carnage.” It’s the sort of coverage you’d expect for two young men who met on the battlefield as strangers and honorably killed one another.

But Israeli Rachel Levy wasn’t a warrior at all; she was just an exercise-loving, 17-year-old who went out to the market one Friday afternoon with a shopping list from her mother. Nor was the 18-year-old Palestinian girl, Ayat al-Akhras, part of a war in any normal understanding of that word. She didn’t strike out at military targets or industrial facilities, but rather entered a busy supermarket in the hope of slaughtering strangers at random. She wasn’t a victim of bloodshed, but its instigator – making a conscious decision (arrogantly expressed on the suicide video she left behind) to butcher innocent bystanders while taking her own life.

Nevertheless, Newsweek tried to evoke sympathy for this calculating and cold-hearted killer: “A split second later, a powerful explosion tore through the supermarket, gutting shelves and sending bodies flying. When the smoke cleared and the screaming stopped, the two teen-age girls and the guard lay dead, three more victims of the madness of martyrdom.”

In other words, terrorist killer Ayat al-Akhras is just another victim – poor baby!

Imagine if Newsweek attempted to lump together the firemen who gave their lives at the World Trade Center with the hijackers who killed them, and to describe them all as “victims of the madness of martyrdom.” Wouldn’t the grieving survivors in New York and Washington feel outraged by any attempt to compare terrorist demons and innocent office workers, as if all those who died on that same day had been similarly trapped by some larger situation?

Think of the protests that would have developed had the New York Times run a photo of 9-11 mastermind Mohammad Atta beside a picture of some youthful victim who died when Atta’s plane plowed into his building. Would America’s journal of record attempt to link these twin photos with a headline describing: “2 Men, Divided by War, Joined in Carnage”?

If we recognize the obscene nature of any effort to connect evil-doers and victims of the Sept. 11 attack, then why should we accept a similar ploy regarding more recent crimes in the Middle East?

Newsweek suggests that its linkage of two girls, one innocent and one unforgivably guilty, is appropriate because it’s Israel itself that’s the real criminal.

“Rachel did her best to shut out the violence and pretend that Israel was a normal country,” the magazine pompously pronounced. “In another time and another place, they could have been schoolmates, even friends. But the intifada cast them in the role of adversaries and, ultimately, executioner and victim.” Please note the disgracefully manipulative use of language in this passage. Ayat al-Akhras is an “executioner,” not a murderer or terrorist. And it’s the intifada that cast her in this role, not her own conscious decision (despite the peaceful and constructive nature of her large family) to embrace monstrous evil.

The very term “suicide bombers” involves comparable linguistic distortions. This widely employed phrase suggests that the most significant thing about such individuals is their decision to blow themselves up – with no reference at all to their intended victims.

This narcissistic, even solipsistic focus becomes clear in a terrifying article from the April 6 Toronto Globe and Mail, quoting a shy, 13-year-old Palestinian boy who proudly tells reporter Paul Adams, “I can’t wait to be 20, so I can blow myself up.” Of course, it’s alarming enough that he plans his own suicide, but isn’t it even more disgusting that his purpose in doing so is to kill others?

Some commentators rightly suggest that calling such killers “homicide bombers” would be preferable to describing them as “suicide bombers,” but the very word “bomber” seems altogether inappropriate. There’s a military, purposeful ring to that word that doesn’t do justice to the depravity of the act it’s meant to describe. Mentioning a “bomber” brings to mind airplanes and strategic assaults – not the utterly random, utterly purposeless attacks on supermarkets, family celebrations and pizza parlors, perpetrated by mass-murdering Palestinian terrorists.

These distinctions are essential in order to preserve clear thinking about the unfolding struggle in the Middle East.

Establishment publications like the Times and Newsweek attempt to show their “compassion” and “even-handedness” by suggesting that all parties to the conflict are equally victims, and all are equally terrorists. In the process, they dishonor the dead by erasing the necessary dividing line between the blameless and the bestial.

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