Ever since the beginning of network television, Americans have seen the Middle East through the eyes of a handful of men in New York and, later, Hollywood. That picture has yet to depart from the stereotypical perception of Palestinians that, not coincidentally, our government also shares.
A thoughtful depiction of Palestinians by American television would be as rare as an unbiased South African account of the blacks' plight. So it comes as no great surprise to this viewer that the CBS special, "Terrorist on Trial: The United States vs. Salim Ajami," to be broadcast tonight conveys an anti-Palestinian message. Viewers will know whom they should love and whom they should hate.
The program concerns a Palestinian, Ajami, who is captured in Beirut by an American military team and accused of ordering the deaths of Americans abroad.
Ajami is TV's bogeyman. He is the Other, a man threateningly different from us--anti-Western, deceitful and full of hate. Is it any wonder we are appalled when he admits killing women and children?
The power of one TV drama to influence viewers is limited. But no one can doubt the effect of the constant repetition of the myth that Palestinian equals terrorist.
Turn to any channel, to any show from "Hunter" to "The Equalizer," to TV movies such as "Hostage Flight" or "Under Siege." What we see are Arabs lumped together with the likes of Hitler's SS, Attila's hordes and God knows what else. Almost always, the worst of the bunch is Palestinian.
We all condemn attacks by terrorists. Yet these incidents should be viewed rationally and in the proper perspective. For example, more than 18,000 murders were committed in the United States last year. Does this make us a nation of murderers? Is it fair to tag the Irish, the Germans and the Italians as innately terrorist because of actions by the Irish Republican Army, the Baader-Meinhof gang and the Red Brigades? Of course not. Yet no one questions the myth that brands more than 4 million Palestinians as corrupt and brutal.
The producer of tonight's show, George Englund, has said: "In court (Ajami) is given his say--the first time a Palestinian has had such a forum on TV." But the purpose of "Terrorist on Trial" is not to provide a forum for a Palestinian but to dehumanize him. Members of the U.S. Air Force, Marines and government variously describe Ajami as scum, a son-of-a-bitch and a murderer, among other things. As painted in Englund's special, Ajami deserves the slurs. The insult is in presenting him as a typical Palestinian.
"Terrorist on Trial" contends that Palestinians are heartless beings who are opposed to peace. They prefer "to walk up to unarmed people and to shoot them," according to one character in the show. Is this just dramatic language for the purpose of entertaining the viewer? Or do such words have a profound effect on the status of both Arabs and Americans of Arab origin?
Threats and actual bombings have plagued American-Arab organizations and mosques. People have been injured. Alex Odeh, a Palestinian-American who worked to combat discrimination, was murdered by extremists in 1985 in Santa Ana, Calif.
One reason why Palestinians are seldom accorded status as part of the human mosaic is because of what we do not see. Television's Palestinians never appear as enlightened, progressive humanists, or even as ordinary people. They never smile unless tossing a bomb. They never suffer as victims of terrorism. We do not see Palestinians walking their dogs, programming computers, prosecuting terrorists or healing the sick. Yet, like us, the vast majority of Palestinians are peace-loving. In the world today we are all more alike than we are different.
Creators of television programs perpetrate this warped view for several reasons. There's basic ignorance; writers and producers don't know much about Arabs and their societies. There's fear; sympathetic portraits could be considered pro-Arab and/or anti-Israel. And there's racism--Arabs as a subhuman, collective evil.
One would think that our government has a leadership role in eliminating the stereotype and the discrimination, but the opposite has happened. The government has just ordered closure of the Palestine Liberation Organization's information office in Washington, which was the only outlet for expressing Palestinians' views to the American people.
Stereotypes do not exist in a vacuum. When writers and producers continually paint a minority or ethnic group as less-than-human, someone benefits. As George Orwell foresaw, the continual abasement of groups of people on a television screen is a necessary ingredient to their dehumanization. Today's Palestinian demon is the reincarnated Jewish demon that was so useful to Nazi Germany. Today we deplore that portrayal of Germany's Jews as a dark menace. Yet this ugly caricature has been received and transferred to another group of Semites--the Palestinian Arabs.
In the spirit of fair-mindedness, should not producers offer sparks of decency that illuminate, not darken, our perceptions of others? Left unchallenged, lurid myths weaken our ability to understand the commonality of man.
The injustice of the current treatment of Palestinians is recognized in a forthcoming Writers Guild of America proclamation, which states in part: "Honor requires that we, the makers of our nation's myths, consider the plight of these people . . . and help get rid of the Arab stereotypes."
"There is no room for prejudice in our profession," said Milton Berle in 1951. A new generation of writers and producers must heed Berle's advice. When this occurs, we will have begun to unlearn our prejudices. As written in the Torah, Koran and Bible, all mankind is one family in the care of God.