Mar 1 1993

Somalia: The L.A. Metaphor

The locale may have been on the other side of the world, but the media language was straight outta of South Central. From George Bush’s warning about “armed gangs ripping off their own people” to media tales of a land of drug-crazed looters, we were urged to see the U.S. intervention in Somalia as a replay of the L.A. riots.

Certainly, for all that the media repeated that this was a “humanitarian mission,” there was a great deal of focus on the “enemy.” Time magazine (12/14/92) head­lined its report “Taking on the Thugs,” with a two-page photo of armed Somalis who, we were informed, were “the forces of anarchy.” Newsweek, in one hype- laden issue (12/14/92), described “a land of restless young men—and AK-47s,” a nation under the control of “teenagers high on drugs” and “illiterate young men from the bush.”

No Somalia report was complete without a mention of khat, the mild stimu­lant that came to be portrayed as a sort of East African crack. NBC’s Tom Brokaw (12/7/92) was exceptionally shrill in a personal report on the dangers of khat (which he mispronounced like the English word “chat”), painting a pic­ture of pre-teen “dealers” of a narcotic “related to cocaine.”

Elsewhere, coverage hewed close to the stereotypes of “black-on-black” vio­lence that have become familiar from LA. to Durban: feuding gangs/tribes/ clans destroying their own cities in senseless, ahistorical violence. Guns are re­ported to have spread rapidly and apparently spontaneously. Most of all, Somalis were presumed to lack the wherewithal to handle their own affairs: Either they were victims or they were perps. Coverage inevitably got a bit bizarre when the two overlapped: A Somali detained for “looting” a bag of food ex­plained to CBS (12/5/92) that “I took it because I was hungry”—provoking Dar Rather to smirk, “He’s still hungry, and maybe a little sore.”

In this scenario, it was up to U.S. troops to be the “cavalry,” in Colin Powell’s phrase that was quickly picked up by the press corps. “When con­fronted with real force,” ABC’s Jim Laurie confidently speculated (12/4/92), “the young, untrained gunmen who roam the streets will simply disappear.” In one evocative turn of phrase, Time’s Strobe Talbott (now joining the Clinton State Department) referred to Somalia as “humanity’s burden.” The presumed color—and nationality—of humanity was left for the reader to judge.