Tuesday, May 20, 2003

Why "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" is remarkable - Two takes

The American Prospect
January 28, 2002
Can Buffy's Brilliance Last?
By Garrett Epps
A visiting professor at Duke, Garrett Epps recently published To an Unknown God: Religious Freedom on Trial.

When future critics ask whether turn-of-the-century American TV produced any works of genius, the verdict on the entire medium -- all 128 channels of it -- is likely to depend on their assessment of a cult teen hit currently airing on UPN, with syndicated reruns on FX.

At first glance, Buffy the Vampire Slayer seems indistinguishable from the WB's rancid Dawson's Creek or the American Pie movies: An all-white cast of impossibly nubile women and muscular men (they call themselves "the Scooby gang") pretend to be teenagers while modeling the latest in Southern California teen slang and sportswear. But there's a difference: The other shows paste a veneer of realism over a fantasy of adolescence; Buffy adopts a facade of fantasy to cover a portrayal of the teen years as they really are. The show is a worthy successor to school stories like Nicholas Nickleby, Stalky & Co., and The Catcher in the Rye When I was 12, I stumbled across George Orwell's "Such, Such Were the Joys," a scathing memoir of his days at a minor British prep school. I was transfixed: As a student at a segregated southern boys' day school that self-consciously modeled itself on the English public schools (except, as Buffy might say, for the whole "education" part), I was amazed that an adult really understood. Such a small place -- with its snobbery of wealth and station, its sadistic teachers and bullying classmates, its cult of team sports, and its unremitting anti-intellectualism -- becomes, for children immured in it, an entire cosmos of danger and significance, to be survived, if at all, only by guile, silence, and inner escape. Like Orwell's essay, the best of the school-story genre exert a horrid fascination that even much great adult narrative cannot match.

No matter what kind of school they attend, teenagers live in a world resembling that of ancient Greek mythology: Uncaring and capricious adults, like the Olympian gods, hold arbitrary power over their lives, ritual mistakes may bring irrevocable ruin, and each day offers a chance to answer the riddle of the Sphinx and learn, for good or ill, who they really are. In that world, "small" things -- first loves and best friends, small successes and seemingly monstrous failures -- matter as much as or more than the larger crises that lie ahead in adulthood. The overwhelming fact that teens know and adults seek to ignore is that what happens in those years does matter almost as much as it seems to at the time. The identities we take on then -- class brain, prom queen, rebel, popular jock, geeky misfit -- play out insistently under the surface of our later lives.

Most pop-culture re-creations of adolescence focus on the electric sexuality that teens swim in -- the obsession with dating and looks, music and dancing, making out and scoring. But Joss Whedon, creator of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series and its precursor, the 1992 theatrical film, focuses instead on his characters' all-encompassing fear. For Whedon, high school literally is the mouth of hell, and the ill-equipped teens must rely on their own resources to survive such perils as a seductive substitute teacher (she's actually a huge praying mantis), a bullying potential stepfather (he's a homicidal robot), or a demon who persuades the local chapter of "Mothers Opposed to the Occult" to move from locker searches and a school-library purge at Sunnydale High to full-fledged witch burnings at city hall.

Whedon's dramatic triumph is Buffy's tortured romance with Angel, played by the gifted comic actor David Boreanaz. Angel was my own high-school nightmare, the "older guy" who bewitched the girls with mystery, muscles, and menace -- and just a hint of a heart of gold. Whedon's older guy is a 245-year-old vampire cursed by Gypsies with a soul. He fights evil and then wanders off in search of babes to lure to his graveyard bachelor's lair. On Buffy's 16th birthday, matters proceed to their inevitable consummation, and the curse truly kicks in: The loving, gentle Angel reverts to vile vampirehood, spreading terror among the Scoobys and -- even worse -- vicious gossip among the boys of Sunnydale. As a depiction of male sexual ambivalence and fecklessness, the story surpasses anything ever shown on HBO's Sex and the City.

The dimwitted adults in Sunnydale carry on as if the fate of the entire cosmos were not at stake in each weekly episode. Only Giles, the kindly librarian (Anthony Stewart Head), treats the Scoobys with respect, helping them find their way through each tiny apocalypse with a mixture of kindness, erudition, and wry mockery.

Though it has links to Dickens and Kipling, Buffy is, of course, different in one important regard: It is a story of female self-discovery. Buffy, the heroine, discovers that underneath her silly first name and petite cheerleader looks she is really what every teenager longs to be: a unique and important being with gifts that matter to the world. In her post-feminist case, the talents are superstrength and killer reflexes, and her life's mission is to save the universe while looking fabulous. For most of us, the discoveries are more mundane. But what matters to surviving adolescence is that the moment of self-recognition does come.

This brings us to the other brute teenage fact: sex. I first began watching Buffy because its star, Sarah Michelle Gellar -- known to the faithful as "SMG" -- is hypnotically beautiful. But soon I began corralling my children ("Watch Buffy or I won't let you do your homework") because the program treats teen sexuality with a moral seriousness missing in the rest of the teen-exploitation genre.

It goes without saying that our infatuation with vampires derives from the unholy power of sex to unbalance the human soul. The original Dracula was the quintessential Victorian-era seducer. With his continental accent and bedroom eyes, he stood for the return of the repressed -- big time. What is interesting is that the myth survived the repression that spawned it. By the dawn of the 1970s, Count Yorga, played by Robert Quarry, appeared as the consummate swinger, soullessly pursuing pleasure across a landscape of emotional entropy. (I discovered vampires at this low point. As an undergraduate, I kept inviting young women to vampire flicks, hoping that terror would drive them into my manly arms. Wise girls, they invariably fled back to their dorm rooms, knowing that what I really wanted was to bite their necks.)

Sex is omnipresent in Buffy, but it has been transformed for the era of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. In Sunnydale the vampire's kiss offers no pleasure, only loneliness and death. The bodily-fluids metaphor is patent; but the lesson goes deeper. Advocates of "abstinence" clothe their message to the young in religious, economic, or public-policy terms that are, to most teens, utterly irrelevant. In a society where Viagra poster child Bob Dole barks after Britney Spears in commercials, by far the most consistent adult pressure on teens is not to abstain from anything but to score early and often.

For cultural reasons I cannot pretend to fathom, our society has eroticized the adolescent body more thoroughly than any previous one of which I am aware. In advertising, in popular entertainment, and even in the lubricious piety of media prophets like William Bennett, American adults betray an unbecoming obsession about what children may be up to underneath the sheets.

Though their glands are unquestionably supercharged, many teens are reluctant, frightened, or even repulsed by sex. But too often they are coerced by conformism and pop culture into experimenting before they are ready. (The only other convincing portrayal of this painful rite of passage I've seen came during the too-short run of the magnificent TV series My So-Called Life.) Buffy dramatizes the case for waiting in the only terms the adolescent mind can grasp: If it doesn't feel good, don't do it. Sunnydale is packed with largely male bloodsuckers who will do almost anything to get into a girl's veins; a moment's weakness or inattention will leave her dead -- a physical death that is a powerful metaphor for the inner necrosis of unfeeling promiscuity. (Female bloodsuckers also lurk in Sunnydale's shadows, though we see less of the havoc they wreak.)

But Buffy's triumph during its early seasons is its problem today. "Where do we go from here?" sang the cast at the end of a special musical episode this fall. Adolescents grow up: Those awkward bundles of promise slowly congeal into more defined, and sometimes duller, adults. That's happening to the Scoobys now. Two years ago, they graduated from Sunnydale High after a moving ceremony at which Mayor Wilkins ate Principal Snyder. Now the gang are young adults. Willow Rosenberg, valedictorian and computer geek (played by the unlikely sex star Allyson "Band Camp" Hannigan) has become a powerful witch; her troubled romance with the vulnerable Tara (Amber Benson) is the most complex lesbian relationship a TV series has ever attempted. Class clown Xander Harris (Nicholas Brendon) is uneasily facing marriage to the terrifyingly monogamous former revenge demon Anya (Emma Caulfield). Their concerns are now less I Was a Teenage Werewolf than I Dream of Jeannie. The danger is that the show -- like Fox's once electrifying X-Files -- will drift into ignominious self-parody.

But where there's undeath, there's hope. Last season, a league of monks from another dimension created a "sister" for Buffy. (Has any older sibling ever not suspected that a younger one is a super-natural interloper?) The new character, Dawn -- played by the winsome Michelle Trachtenberg -- is now a freshman at Sunnydale High, dealing hesitantly with peer pressure, shoplifting, gym class, and really cute vampires. If Joss Whedon can surround this new potential slayer with a suitable crowd of Scoobinis, there's hope for the series.

For each of us, adolescence mercifully ends; the drama itself rolls on, with new tearstained, pimply faces in the archetypal roles. Growing up entails loss as well as gain; it will be sad if the passing years rob us of Buffy's brilliant satire.

The Weekly Standard
May 20, 2003
Where Do We Go from Here?
A farewell to "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and a look back at the show's ten best episodes.

Jonathan V. Last

"BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER" is the best show in the history of television.

How about that for a declarative statement. Is it an arguable one? Sure. "M*A*S*H," "Mary Tyler Moore," "Seinfeld," "Cheers," "The Honeymooners," "I Love Lucy"--they're all great shows. They're also all half-hour comedies. Besides "Buffy," what other hour-long drama belongs on the short list? Probably "Homicide: Life on the Street." That's about it.

What makes "Buffy" so good? For one thing, it's got layers. Unlike "ER" or "Hill Street Blues" or "St. Elsewhere," "Buffy" isn't just a straight drama. It deals with larger themes--good and evil, honor and duty, faith and disbelief. And then there's the acting and the writing and the satire and . . . well, you get the point.

Tonight "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" ends its seven-year run. The final episode will probably be a disappointment because an honest appraisal of the last few months would admit that the show has been uneven and at times downright embarrassing. While this may be a sign that "Buffy" is leaving at the right time, it's more likely a consequence of economics. The first half of season seven was as good as "Buffy" has ever been. Then the show's star, Sarah Michelle Gellar, decided that she was leaving the series when her contract expired at the end of the season. While her move wasn't entirely unexpected, the show's staff seemed taken aback and the writers had to construct a concluding arc in the space of a few weeks.

Series mastermind Joss Whedon has said that he normally plans story arcs one or two years ahead of time, so it's not unreasonable to give the show the benefit of the doubt. And it would be unhinged to allow the lackluster last dozen episodes to affect a final reckoning of "Buffy"'s place in the firmament.

I'll leave that job to the wise souls at Entertainment Weekly, but for now it's worth recalling the ten best episodes of "Buffy."

1 - Amends (3.10): Buffy's worst hairstyle, Angel's finest moment, the show's greatest triumph. In one of the most explicitly religious hours of television ever aired (second only to "The Crossing," the James Cromwell-centered episode 7.15 of "ER"), Angel, the vampire with a soul, is haunted on Christmas Eve by the First, a thinly-veiled version of Satan. In a suicide attempt, Angel climbs the hill overlooking Sunnydale and waits for the sun to rise. Overpowered by guilt, he tells Buffy, "It's not the demon in me that needs killing, it's the man." And then he asks her, "Am I a righteous man? Am I a thing worth saving?" In response he gets a Christmas miracle: Sunnydale's first-ever snowstorm, which blots out the sun for a day, saving Angel and allowing him to stroll through town on Christmas morning.

"Amends" deals more smartly with the ideas of evil, faith, and redemption than any Christian drama--which is all the more remarkable since Whedon, who wrote the episode, appears to be a studied agnostic.

2 - Once More, with Feeling (6.7): As triumphant as it is audacious, "Buffy: The Musical" doesn't just have great song-and-dance numbers, it contains a pivotal revelation for the series as well. Buffy lets drop to her friends that, while they thought they were rescuing her from a demon dimension when they resurrected her at the beginning of the season, they had actually ripped her out of heaven.

And if that wasn't enough, Whedon--who not only directed the episode but wrote the script, score, and lyrics--gives us this line in a lovers' duet as Anya worries whether or not Xander will still love her "When I get so worn and wrinkly / that I look like David Brinkley."

3 - Becoming I/II (2.21/2.22): Pure, old-fashioned superhero drama for the second season finale. Buffy fails her chemistry final, gets expelled from school, and has to kill her boyfriend in order to save the world. It's comic-book stuff, executed with verve and precision. There's adventure, tragedy, true love, and a sword fight.

4 - Hush (4.10): Demons come to Sunnydale and steal everyone's voices. It's the scariest episode of "Buffy" and, remarkably, has almost no spoken dialogue. The characters communicate by scribbling on little dry-erase boards. With a score including Camille Saint-Saens's "Danse Macabre," "Hush" is a reinvention of the silent movie.

5 - Something Blue (4.9): Willow casts a spell causing her wishes and spontaneous exclamations to come true: Giles goes blind and Xander becomes a demon magnet, while Buffy and her nemesis, the vampire Spike, fall in love and get engaged.

It's the funniest episode in a series that's often hilarious: In full-on sorority-girl mode, Buffy throws herself into wedding planning. She brings home a plastic bride and groom for the wedding cake and proudly shows them to Spike:

Buffy: Aren't they a perfect little us?
Spike: I don't like him. He's insipid. Clearly human.
Buffy: Oooo--red paint. We could smear a little on his mouth . . . the blood of the innocent!

6 - Passion (2.17): While it features the first death of a major character, "Passion" is most notable for the pitch-perfect writing of Buffy's relationship with her watcher, Giles. Although Giles loves Buffy like a daughter, he knows that he isn't her father. There are no Hallmark moments, only subtle, underplayed beats--a look here, an averted glance there. In "Passions" Buffy comes into conflict with Giles's lover interest, Jenny Calendar. Without either hesitation or fanfare, Giles makes clear that his allegiance is to his slayer.

7 - Who Are You? (4.16): In a coda to season three, Buffy and the rogue, bad-girl slayer Faith switch bodies. The charm of seeing the two actresses impersonating the impersonations of one another and riffing on each other's acting tics is worth the price of admission by itself. It's like an entire episode of the last scene of "Boogie Nights" where Mark Wahlberg does Dirk Diggler doing Robert De Niro doing Jake LaMotta. Anyone who loves "Inside the Actors Studio" will love "Who Are You?"

8 - The Body (5.16): People die all the time on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." And not just extras, either. Sometimes beloved featured players are dispatched. In "The Body," Buffy's mother dies and the result is grim and tragic because there's no demon involved, no supernatural powers at work. Joyce Summers dies of an aneurysm while lying on the sofa in her living room. Buffy comes home to find her mother's body and calls
9-1-1. There's nothing the paramedics can do. Buffy vomits, calls her friends for help, and then has to pick her little sister up from school and break the news to her.

"The Body" is the series' most difficult episode because it's real--and not real in the way "ER" or "The Practice" or "Law & Order," all hyper-versions of reality, are real. At some point, most of us will experience a day like Buffy has in "The Body" and we sense that the writers have gotten nearly every detail of that day--right down to the absence of a musical score--right.

9 - Help (7.4): A stand-alone episode about a girl who can see the future, "Help" is more touching and beautiful than it has any right to be. Cassie is a student at Sunnydale High who tells Buffy that she knows she'll be dead by next Friday. Buffy suspects suicide until Cassie tells her "Believe me, I want to be here, do things. I want to graduate from high school, and I want to go to the stupid winter formal. I have this friend, and it would be fun to go with him. Just to dance and hear lame music to wear a silly dress and laugh and stuff. I'd like to go. There's a lot of stuff I'd like to do. I'd love to ice skate at
Rockefeller Center. And I'd love to see my cousins grow up and see how they turn out 'cause they're really mean and I think they're gonna be fat. I'd love to backpack across the country or, I don't know, fall in love, but I won't. I just never will."

Buffy, who spends her life helping others fights desperately trying to save Cassie. She cheats death over and over until destiny brushes her aside.

10 - Prophecy Girl (1.12): The first season's finale also dealt with fate and free will. Buffy uncovers a prophecy that she will die if she confronts the demon trying to take over Sunnydale. She frantically tries to give up her job as the slayer. A remarkable episode about duty and fear and choice that hinted at the series' long-term promise.

Honorable mention:

Restless (4.22) Fool for Love (5.7) What's My Line? I/II (2.9/2.10) Conversations with Dead People (7.7) Halloween (2.6) Selfless (7.5)

WHEDON and his writing staff started out by making a series grounded in the comic-book world--everywhere you look in "Buffy" there are superhero overtones (I'm personally convinced that season three was drawn from the Teen Titans series "The Judas Contract"). As she grew up Buffy went from a scared, reluctant hero to being, in her own way, a small blonde Batman--a loner trying to mete out justice and save those innocents she found along the way.

But while "Buffy" takes its operatic themes and moral sensibility from comic books, its humor and lightness of touch are more akin to BBC fare like "As Time Goes By." And at every turn the show gives the audience what they need, not what they want. Buffy's mother and watcher are two sympathetic, single adults? Give them an adversarial relationship. The series is widely acclaimed for its witty dialogue? Shoot an episode in silence. Buffy and Angel have a tormented love affair? Banish him to another show.

And it is this, finally, which brings us the secret of Buffy's success: Despite the vampires and Satanic priests, the mermen and possessed ventriloquist dummies, "Buffy" is a classical format with a tragic heroine at its center. Buffy can see happiness, but never be truly happy. She can have friends, but never have intimacy. She can fight for a world she wants to live in, but will die before she gets much of a chance. All of which makes her a hero; that she's self-aware, that she understands her lot, makes her tragic.

That "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" showed us these tensions, the fears of loneliness, the power of redemption, the fleetingness of faith, makes it the best show ever on television.

Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.

Thursday, May 15, 2003

Who Shot Mohammed Al-Dura? (James Fallows)

The Atlantic Monthly
June 2003

Who Shot Mohammed al-Dura?
by James Fallows

The image of a boy shot dead in his helpless father's arms during an Israeli confrontation with Palestinians has become the Pietà of the Arab world. Now a number of Israeli researchers are presenting persuasive evidence that the fatal shots could not have come from the Israeli soldiers known to have been involved in the confrontation. The evidence will not change Arab minds—but the episode offers an object lesson in the incendiary power of an icon

The name Mohammed al-Dura is barely known in the United States. Yet to a billion people in the Muslim world it is an infamous symbol of grievance against Israel and—because of this country's support for Israel—against the United States as well.

Al-Dura was the twelve-year-old Palestinian boy shot and killed during an exchange of fire between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian demonstrators on September 30, 2000. The final few seconds of his life, when he crouched in terror behind his father, Jamal, and then slumped to the ground after bullets ripped through his torso, were captured by a television camera and broadcast around the world. Through repetition they have become as familiar and significant to Arab and Islamic viewers as photographs of bombed-out Hiroshima are to the people of Japan—or as footage of the crumbling World Trade Center is to Americans. Several Arab countries have issued postage stamps carrying a picture of the terrified boy. One of Baghdad's main streets was renamed The Martyr Mohammed Aldura Street. Morocco has an al-Dura Park. In one of the messages Osama bin Laden released after the September 11 attacks and the subsequent U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, he began a list of indictments against "American arrogance and Israeli violence" by saying, "In the epitome of his arrogance and the peak of his media campaign in which he boasts of 'enduring freedom,' Bush must not forget the image of Mohammed al-Dura and his fellow Muslims in Palestine and Iraq. If he has forgotten, then we will not forget, God willing."

But almost since the day of the episode evidence has been emerging in Israel, under controversial and intriguing circumstances, to indicate that the official version of the Mohammed al-Dura story is not true. It now appears that the boy cannot have died in the way reported by most of the world's media and fervently believed throughout the Islamic world. Whatever happened to him, he was not shot by the Israeli soldiers who were known to be involved in the day's fighting—or so I am convinced, after spending a week in Israel talking with those examining the case. The exculpatory evidence comes not from government or military officials in Israel, who have an obvious interest in claiming that their soldiers weren't responsible, but from other sources. In fact, the Israel Defense Forces, or IDF, seem to prefer to soft-pedal the findings rather than bring any more attention to this gruesome episode. The research has been done by a variety of academics, ex-soldiers, and Web-loggers who have become obsessed with the case, and the evidence can be cross-checked.

No "proof" that originates in Israel is likely to change minds in the Arab world. The longtime Palestinian spokesperson Hanan Ashrawi dismissed one early Israeli report on the topic as a "falsified version of reality [that] blames the victims." Late this spring Said Hamad, a spokesman at the PLO office in Washington, told me of the new Israeli studies, "It does not surprise me that these reports would come out from the same people who shot Mohammed al-Dura. He was shot of course by the Israeli army, and not by anybody else." Even if evidence that could revise the understanding of this particular death were widely accepted (so far it has been embraced by a few Jewish groups in Europe and North America), it would probably have no effect on the underlying hatred and ongoing violence in the region. Nor would evidence that clears Israeli soldiers necessarily support the overarching Likud policy of sending soldiers to occupy territories and protect settlements. The Israelis still looking into the al-Dura case do not all endorse Likud occupation policies. In fact, some strongly oppose them.

The truth about Mohammed al-Dura is important in its own right, because this episode is so raw and vivid in the Arab world and so hazy, if not invisible, in the West. Whatever the course of the occupation of Iraq, the United States has guaranteed an ample future supply of images of Arab suffering. The two explosions in Baghdad markets in the first weeks of the war, killing scores of civilians, offered an initial taste. Even as U.S. officials cautioned that it would take more time and study to determine whether U.S. or Iraqi ordnance had caused the blasts, the Arab media denounced the brutality that created these new martyrs. More of this lies ahead. The saga of Mohammed al-Dura illustrates the way the battles of wartime imagery may play themselves out.

The harshest version of the al-Dura case from the Arab side is that it proves the ancient "blood libel"—Jews want to kill gentile children—and shows that Americans count Arab life so cheap that they will let the Israelis keep on killing. The harshest version from the Israeli side is that the case proves the Palestinians' willingness to deliberately sacrifice even their own children in the name of the war against Zionism. In Tel Aviv I looked through hour after hour of videotape in an attempt to understand what can be known about what happened, and what it means.

The Day

The death of Mohammed al-Dura took place on the second day of what is now known as the second intifada, a wave of violent protests throughout the West Bank and Gaza. In the summer of 2000 Middle East peace negotiations had reached another impasse. On September 28 of that year, a Thursday, Ariel Sharon, then the leader of Israel's Likud Party but not yet Prime Minister, made a visit to the highly contested religious site in Jerusalem that Jews know as the Temple Mount and Muslims know as Haram al-Sharif, with its two mosques. For Palestinians this was the trigger—or, in the view of many Israelis, the pretext—for the expanded protests that began the next day.

On September 30 the protest sites included a crossroads in the occupied Gaza territory near the village of Netzarim, where sixty families of Israeli settlers live. The crossroads is a simple right-angle intersection of two roads in a lightly developed area. Three days earlier a roadside bomb had mortally wounded an IDF soldier there. At one corner of the intersection were an abandoned warehouse, two six-story office buildings known as the "twin towers," and a two-story building. (These structures and others surrounding the crossroads have since been torn down.) A group of IDF soldiers had made the two-story building their outpost, to guard the road leading to the Israeli settlement.

Diagonally across the intersection was a small, ramshackle building and a sidewalk bordered by a concrete wall. It was along this wall that Mohammed al-Dura and his father crouched before they were shot. (The father was injured but survived.) The other two corners of the crossroads were vacant land. One of them contained a circular dirt berm, known as the Pita because it was shaped like a pita loaf. A group of uniformed Palestinian policemen, armed with automatic rifles, were on the Pita for much of the day.

Early in the morning of Saturday, September 30, a crowd of Palestinians gathered at the Netzarim crossroads. TV crews, photographers, and reporters from many news agencies, including Reuters, AP, and the French television network France 2, were also at the ready. Because so many cameras were running for so many hours, there is abundant documentary evidence of most of the day's events—with a few strange and crucial exceptions, most of them concerning Mohammed al-Dura.

"Rushes" (raw footage) of the day's filming collected from these and other news organizations around the world tell a detailed yet confusing story. The tapes overlap in some areas but leave mysterious gaps in others. No one camera, of course, followed the day's events from beginning to end; and with so many people engaged in a variety of activities simultaneously, no one account could capture everything. Gabriel Weimann, the chairman of the communications department at the University of Haifa, whose book Communicating Unreality concerns the media's distorting effects, explained to me on my visit that the footage in its entirety has a "Rashomon effect." Many separate small dramas seem to be under way. Some of the shots show groups of young men walking around, joking, sitting and smoking and appearing to enjoy themselves. Others show isolated moments of intense action, as protesters yell and throw rocks, and shots ring out from various directions. Only when these vignettes are packaged together as a conventional TV news report do they seem to have a narrative coherence.

Off and on throughout the morning some of the several hundred Palestinian civilians at the crossroads mounted assaults on the IDF outpost. They threw rocks and Molotov cocktails. They ran around waving the Palestinian flag and trying to pull down an Israeli flag near the outpost. A few of the civilians had pistols or rifles, which they occasionally fired; the second intifada quickly escalated from throwing rocks to using other weapons. The Palestinian policemen, mainly in the Pita area, also fired at times. The IDF soldiers, according to Israeli spokesmen, were under orders not to fire in response to rocks or other thrown objects. They were to fire only if fired upon. Scenes filmed throughout the day show smoke puffing from the muzzles of M-16s pointed through the slits of the IDF outpost.

To watch the raw footage is to wonder, repeatedly, What is going on here? In some scenes groups of Palestinians duck for cover from gunfire while others nonchalantly talk or smoke just five feet away. At one dramatic moment a Palestinian man dives forward clutching his leg, as if shot in the thigh. An ambulance somehow arrives to collect him exactly two seconds later, before he has stopped rolling from the momentum of his fall. Another man is loaded into an ambulance—and, in footage from a different TV camera, appears to jump out of it again some minutes later.

At around 3:00 P.M. Mohammed al-Dura and his father make their first appearance on film. The time can be judged by later comments from the father and some journalists on the scene, and by the length of shadows in the footage. Despite the number of cameras that were running that day, Mohammed and Jamal al-Dura appear in the footage of only one cameraman—Talal Abu-Rahma, a Palestinian working for France 2.

Jamal al-Dura later said that he had taken his son to a used-car market and was on the way back when he passed through the crossroads and into the crossfire. When first seen on tape, father and son are both crouched on the sidewalk behind a large concrete cylinder, their backs against the wall. The cylinder, about three feet high, is referred to as "the barrel" in most discussions of the case, although it appears to be a section from a culvert or a sewer system. On top of the cylinder is a big paving stone, which adds another eight inches or so of protection. The al-Duras were on the corner diagonally opposite the Israeli outpost. By hiding behind the barrel they were doing exactly what they should have done to protect themselves from Israeli fire.

Many news accounts later claimed that the two were under fire for forty-five minutes, but the action captured on camera lasts a very brief time. Jamal looks around desperately. Mohammed slides down behind him, as if to make his body disappear behind his father's. Jamal clutches a pack of cigarettes in his left hand, while he alternately waves and cradles his son with his right. The sound of gunfire is heard, and four bullet holes appear in the wall just to the left of the pair. The father starts yelling. There is another burst. Mohammed goes limp and falls forward across his father's lap, his shirt stained with blood. Jamal, too, is hit, and his head starts bobbling. The camera cuts away. Although France 2 or its cameraman may have footage that it or he has chosen not to release, no other visual record of the shooting or its immediate aftermath is known to exist. Other Palestinian casualties of the day are shown being evacuated, but there is no known on-tape evidence of the boy's being picked up, tended to, loaded into an ambulance, or handled in any other way after he was shot.

The footage of the shooting is unforgettable, and it illustrates the way in which television transforms reality. I have seen it replayed at least a hundred times now, and on each repetition I can't help hoping that this time the boy will get himself down low enough, this time the shots will miss. Through the compression involved in editing the footage for a news report, the scene acquired a clear story line by the time European, American, and Middle Eastern audiences saw it on television: Palestinians throw rocks. Israeli soldiers, from the slits in their outpost, shoot back. A little boy is murdered.

What is known about the rest of the day is fragmentary and additionally confusing. A report from a nearby hospital says that a dead boy was admitted on September 30, with two gun wounds to the left side of his torso. But according to the photocopy I saw, the report also says that the boy was admitted at 1:00 P.M.; the tape shows that Mohammed was shot later in the afternoon. The doctor's report also notes, without further explanation, that the dead boy had a cut down his belly about eight inches long. A boy's body, wrapped in a Palestinian flag but with his face exposed, was later carried through the streets to a burial site (the exact timing is in dispute). The face looks very much like Mohammed's in the video footage. Thousands of mourners lined the route. A BBC TV report on the funeral began, "A Palestinian boy has been martyred." Many of the major U.S. news organizations reported that the funeral was held on the evening of September 30, a few hours after the shooting. Oddly, on film the procession appears to take place in full sunlight, with shadows indicative of midday.

The Aftermath

Almost immediately news media around the world began reporting the tragedy. Print outlets were generally careful to say that Mohammed al-Dura was killed in "the crossfire" or "an exchange of fire" between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians. The New York Times, for instance, reported that he was "shot in the stomach as he crouched behind his father on the sidelines of an intensifying battle between Israeli and Palestinian security forces." But the same account included Jamal al-Dura's comment that the fatal volley had come from Israeli soldiers. Jacki Lyden said on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered that the boy had been "caught in crossfire." She then interviewed the France 2 cameraman, Talal Abu-Rahma, who said that he thought the Israelis had done the shooting.
ABU-RAHMA: I was very sad. I was crying. And I was remembering my children. I was afraid to lose my life. And I was sitting on my knees and hiding my head, carrying my camera, and I was afraid from the Israeli to see this camera, maybe they will think this is a weapon, you know, or I am trying to shoot on them. But I was in the most difficult situation in my life. A boy, I cannot save his life, and I want to protect myself.

LYDEN: Was there any attempt by the troops who were firing to cease fire to listen to what the father had to say? Could they even see what they were shooting at?

ABU-RAHMA: Okay. It's clear it was a father, it's clear it was a boy over there for ever who [presumably meaning "whoever"] was shooting on them from across the street, you know, in front of them. I'm sure from that area, I'm expert in that area, I've been in that area many times. I know every [unintelligible] in that area. Whoever was shooting, he got to see them, because that base is not far away from the boy and the father. It's about a hundred and fifty meters [about 500 feet].
On that night's broadcast of ABC World News Tonight, the correspondent Gillian Findlay said unambiguously that the boy had died "under Israeli fire." Although both NBC and CBS used the term "crossfire" in their reports, videos of Israeli troops firing and then the boy dying left little doubt about the causal relationship. Jamal al-Dura never wavered in his view that the Israelis had killed his son. "Are you sure they were Israeli bullets?" Diane Sawyer, of ABC News, asked him in an interview later that year. "I'm a hundred percent sure," he replied, through his translator. "They were Israelis." In another interview he told the Associated Press, "The bullets of the Zionists are the bullets that killed my son."

By Tuesday, October 3, all doubt seemed to have been removed. After a hurried internal investigation the IDF concluded that its troops were probably to blame. General Yom-Tov Samia, then the head of the IDF's Southern Command, which operated in Gaza, said, "It could very much be—this is an estimation—that a soldier in our position, who has a very narrow field of vision, saw somebody hiding behind a cement block in the direction from which he was being fired at, and he shot in that direction." General Giora Eiland, then the head of IDF operations, said on an Israeli radio broadcast that the boy was apparently killed by "Israeli army fire at the Palestinians who were attacking them violently with a great many petrol bombs, rocks, and very massive fire."

The further attempt to actually justify killing the boy was, in terms of public opinion, yet more damning for the IDF. Eiland said, "It is known that [Mohammed al-Dura] participated in stone throwing in the past." Samia asked what a twelve-year-old was doing in such a dangerous place to begin with. Ariel Sharon, who admitted that the footage of the shooting was "very hard to see," and that the death was "a real tragedy," also said, "The one that should be blamed is only the one ... that really instigated all those activities, and that is Yasir Arafat."

Palestinians, and the Arab-Islamic world in general, predictably did not agree. Sweatshirts, posters, and wall murals were created showing the face of Mohammed al-Dura just before he died. "His face, stenciled three feet high, is a common sight on the walls of Gaza," Matthew McAllester, of Newsday, wrote last year. "His name is known to every Arab, his death cited as the ultimate example of Israeli military brutality." In modern warfare, Bob Simon said on CBS's 60 Minutes, "one picture can be worth a thousand weapons," and the picture of the doomed boy amounted to "one of the most disastrous setbacks Israel has suffered in decades." Gabriel Weimann, of Haifa University, said that when he first heard of the case, "it made me sick to think this was done in my name." Amnon Lord, an Israeli columnist who has investigated the event, told me in an e-mail message that it was important "on the mythological level," because it was "a framework story, a paradigmatic event," illustrating Israeli brutality. Dan Schueftan, an Israeli strategist and military thinker, told me that the case was uniquely damaging. He said, "[It was] the ultimate symbol of what the Arabs want to think: the father is trying to protect his son, and the satanic Jews—there is no other word for it—are trying to kill him. These Jews are people who will come to kill our children, because they are not human."

Two years after Mohammed al-Dura's death his stepmother, Amal, became pregnant with another child, the family's eighth. The parents named him Mohammed. Amal was quoted late in her pregnancy as saying, "It will send a message to Israel: 'Yes, you've killed one, but God has compensated for him. You can't kill us all.'"

Second Thoughts

In the fall of last year Gabriel Weimann mentioned the Mohammed al-Dura case in a special course that he teaches at the Israeli Military Academy, National Security and Mass Media. Like most adults in Israel, Weimann, a tall, athletic-looking man in his early fifties, still performs up to thirty days of military-reserve duty a year. His reserve rank is sergeant, whereas the students in his class are lieutenant colonels and above.

To underscore the importance of the media in international politics, Weimann shows some of his students a montage of famous images from past wars: for World War II the flag raising at Iwo Jima; for Vietnam the South Vietnamese officer shooting a prisoner in the head and the little girl running naked down a path with napalm on her back. For the current intifada, Weimann told his students, the lasting iconic image would be the frightened face of Mohammed al-Dura.

One day last fall, after he discussed the images, a student spoke up. "I was there," he said. "We didn't do it."

"Prove it," Weimann said. He assigned part of the class, as its major research project, a reconsideration of the evidence in the case. A surprisingly large amount was available. The students began by revisiting an investigation undertaken by the Israeli military soon after the event.

Shortly after the shooting General Samia was contacted by Nahum Shahaf, a physicist and engineer who had worked closely with the IDF on the design of pilotless drone aircraft. While watching the original news broadcasts of the shooting Shahaf had been alarmed, like most viewers inside and outside Israel. But he had also noticed an apparent anomaly. The father seemed to be concerned mainly about a threat originating on the far side of the barrel behind which he had taken shelter. Yet when he and his son were shot, the barrel itself seemed to be intact. What, exactly, did this mean?

Samia commissioned Shahaf and an engineer, Yosef Duriel, to work on a second IDF investigation of the case. "The reason from my side is to check and clean up our values," Samia later told Bob Simon, of CBS. He said he wanted "to see that we are still acting as the IDF." Shahaf stressed to Samia that the IDF should do whatever it could to preserve all physical evidence. But because so much intifada activity continued in the Netzarim area, the IDF demolished the wall and all related structures. Shahaf took one trip to examine the crossroads, clad in body armor and escorted by Israeli soldiers. Then, at a location near Beersheba, Shahaf, Duriel, and others set up models of the barrel, the wall, and the IDF shooting position, in order to re-enact the crucial events.

Bullets had not been recovered from the boy's body at the hospital, and the family was hardly willing to agree to an exhumation to re-examine the wounds. Thus the most important piece of physical evidence was the concrete barrel. In the TV footage it clearly bears a mark from the Israeli Bureau of Standards, which enabled investigators to determine its exact dimensions and composition. When they placed the equivalent in front of a concrete wall and put mannequins representing father and son behind it, a conclusion emerged: soldiers in the Israeli outpost could not have fired the shots whose impact was shown on TV. The evidence was cumulative and reinforcing. It involved the angle, the barrel, the indentations, and the dust.

Mohammed al-Dura and his father looked as if they were sheltering themselves against fire from the IDF outpost. In this they were successful. The films show that the barrel was between them and the Israeli guns. The line of sight from the IDF position to the pair was blocked by concrete. Conceivably, some other Israeli soldier was present and fired from some other angle, although there is no evidence of this and no one has ever raised it as a possibility; and there were Palestinians in all the other places, who would presumably have noticed the presence of additional IDF troops. From the one location where Israeli soldiers are known to have been, the only way to hit the boy would have been to shoot through the concrete barrel.

This brings us to the nature of the barrel. Its walls were just under two inches thick. On the test range investigators fired M-16 bullets at a similar barrel. Each bullet made an indentation only two fifths to four fifths of an inch deep. Penetrating the barrel would have required multiple hits on both sides of the barrel's wall. The videos of the shooting show fewer than ten indentations on the side of the barrel facing the IDF, indicating that at some point in the day's exchanges of fire the Israelis did shoot at the barrel. But photographs taken after the shooting show no damage of any kind on the side of the barrel facing the al-Duras—that is, no bullets went through.

Further evidence involves the indentations in the concrete wall. The bullet marks that appear so ominously in the wall seconds before the fatal volley are round. Their shape is significant because of what it indicates about the angle of the gunfire. The investigators fired volleys into a concrete wall from a variety of angles. They found that in order to produce a round puncture mark, they had to fire more or less straight on. The more oblique the angle, the more elongated and skidlike the hole became.

The dust resulting from a bullet's impact followed similar rules. A head-on shot produced the smallest, roundest cloud of dust. The more oblique the angle, the larger and longer the cloud of dust. In the video of the shooting the clouds of dust near the al-Duras' heads are small and round. Shots from the IDF outpost would necessarily have been oblique.

In short, the physical evidence of the shooting was in all ways inconsistent with shots coming from the IDF outpost—and in all ways consistent with shots coming from someplace behind the France 2 cameraman, roughly in the location of the Pita. Making a positive case for who might have shot the boy was not the business of the investigators hired by the IDF. They simply wanted to determine whether the soldiers in the outpost were responsible. Because the investigation was overseen by the IDF and run wholly by Israelis, it stood no chance of being taken seriously in the Arab world. But its fundamental point—that the concrete barrel lay between the outpost and the boy, and no bullets had gone through the barrel—could be confirmed independently from news footage.

It was at this point that the speculation about Mohammed al-Dura's death left the realm of geometry and ballistics and entered the world of politics, paranoia, fantasy, and hatred. Almost as soon as the second IDF investigation was under way, Israeli commentators started questioning its legitimacy and Israeli government officials distanced themselves from its findings. "It is hard to describe in mild terms the stupidity of this bizarre investigation," the liberal newspaper Ha'aretz said in an editorial six weeks after the shooting. The newspaper claimed that Shahaf and Duriel were motivated not by a need for dispassionate inquiry but by the belief that Palestinians had staged the whole shooting. (Shahaf told me that he began his investigation out of curiosity but during the course of it became convinced that the multiple anomalies indicated a staged event.) "The fact that an organized body like the IDF, with its vast resources, undertook such an amateurish investigation—almost a pirate endeavor—on such a sensitive issue, is shocking and worrying," Ha'aretz said.

As the controversy grew, Samia abbreviated the investigation and subsequently avoided discussing the case. Most government officials, I was told by many sources, regard drawing any further attention to Mohammed al-Dura as self-defeating. No new "proof" would erase images of the boy's death, and resurrecting the discussion would only ensure that the horrible footage was aired yet again. IDF press officials did not return any of my calls, including those requesting to interview soldiers who were at the outpost.

So by the time Gabriel Weimann's students at the Israeli Military Academy, including the one who had been on the scene, began looking into the evidence last fall, most Israelis had tried to put the case behind them. Those against the Likud policy of encouraging settlements in occupied territory think of the shooting as one more illustration of the policy's cost. Those who support the policy view Mohammed al-Dura's death as an unfortunate instance of "collateral damage," to be weighed against damage done to Israelis by Palestinian terrorists. Active interest in the case was confined mainly to a number of Israelis and European Jews who believe the event was manipulated to blacken Israel's image. Nahum Shahaf has become the leading figure in this group.

Shahaf is a type familiar to reporters: the person who has given himself entirely to a cause or a mystery and can talk about its ramifications as long as anyone will listen. He is a strongly built man of medium height, with graying hair combed back from his forehead. In photos he always appears stern, almost glowering, whereas in the time I spent with him he seemed to be constantly smiling, joking, having fun. Shahaf is in his middle fifties, but like many other scientists and engineers, he has the quality of seeming not quite grown up. He used to live in California, where, among other pursuits, he worked as a hang-gliding instructor. He moves and gesticulates with a teenager's lack of self-consciousness about his bearing. I liked him.

Before getting involved in the al-Dura case, Shahaf was known mainly as an inventor. He was only the tenth person to receive a medal from the Israeli Ministry of Science, for his work on computerized means of compressing digital video transmission. "But for two and a half years I am spending time only on the al-Dura case," he told me. "I left everything for it, because I believe that this is most important." When I arrived at his apartment, outside Tel Aviv, to meet him one morning, I heard a repeated sound from one room that I assumed was from a teenager's playing a violent video game. An hour later, when we walked into that room—which has been converted into a video-research laboratory, with multiple monitors, replay devices, and computers—I saw that it was one mob scene from September 30, being played on a continuous loop.

Shahaf's investigation for the IDF showed that the Israeli soldiers at the outpost did not shoot the boy. But he now believes that everything that happened at Netzarim on September 30 was a ruse. The boy on the film may or may not have been the son of the man who held him. The boy and the man may or may not actually have been shot. If shot, the boy may or may not actually have died. If he died, his killer may or may not have been a member of the Palestinian force, shooting at him directly. The entire goal of the exercise, Shahaf says, was to manufacture a child martyr, in correct anticipation of the damage this would do to Israel in the eyes of the world—especially the Islamic world. "I believe that one day there will be good things in common between us and the Palestinians," he told me. "But the case of Mohammed al-Dura brings the big flames between Israel and the Palestinians and Arabs. It brings a big wall of hate. They can say this is the proof, the ultimate proof, that Israeli soldiers are boy-murderers. And that hatred breaks any chance of having something good in the future."

The reasons to doubt that the al-Duras, the cameramen, and hundreds of onlookers were part of a coordinated fraud are obvious. Shahaf's evidence for this conclusion, based on his videos, is essentially an accumulation of oddities and unanswered questions about the chaotic events of the day. Why is there no footage of the boy after he was shot? Why does he appear to move in his father's lap, and to clasp a hand over his eyes after he is supposedly dead? Why is one Palestinian policeman wearing a Secret Service-style earpiece in one ear? Why is another Palestinian man shown waving his arms and yelling at others, as if "directing" a dramatic scene? Why does the funeral appear—based on the length of shadows—to have occurred before the apparent time of the shooting? Why is there no blood on the father's shirt just after they are shot? Why did a voice that seems to be that of the France 2 cameraman yell, in Arabic, "The boy is dead" before he had been hit? Why do ambulances appear instantly for seemingly everyone else and not for al-Dura?

A handful of Israeli and foreign commentators have taken up Shahaf's cause. A Web site called masada2000.org says of the IDF's initial apology, "They acknowledged guilt, for never in their collective minds would any one of them have imagined a scenario whereby Mohammed al-Dura might have been murdered by his own people ... a cruel plot staged and executed by Palestinian sharp-shooters and a television cameraman!" Amnon Lord, writing for the magazine Makor Rishon, referred to a German documentary directed by Esther Schapira that was "based on Shahaf's own decisive conclusion" and that determined "that Muhammad Al-Dura was not killed by IDF gunfire at Netzarim junction." "Rather," Lord continued, "the Palestinians, in cooperation with foreign journalists and the UN, arranged a well-staged production of his death." In March of this year a French writer, Gérard Huber, published a book called Contre expertise d'une mise en scène (roughly, Re-evaluation of a Re-enactment). It, too, argues that the entire event was staged. In an e-mail message to me Huber said that before knowing of Shahaf's studies he had been aware that "the images of little Mohammed were part of the large war of images between Palestinians and Israelis." But until meeting Shahaf, he said, "I had not imagined that it involved a fiction"—a view he now shares. "The question of 'Who killed little Mohammed?'" he said, "has become a screen to disguise the real question, which is: 'Was little Mohammed actually killed?'"

The truth about this case will probably never be determined. Or, to put it more precisely, no version of truth that is considered believable by all sides will ever emerge. For most of the Arab world, the rights and wrongs of the case are beyond dispute: an innocent boy was murdered, and his blood is on Israel's hands. Mention of contrary evidence or hypotheses only confirms the bottomless dishonesty of the guilty parties—much as Holocaust-denial theories do in the Western world. For the handful of people collecting evidence of a staged event, the truth is also clear, even if the proof is not in hand. I saw Nahum Shahaf lose his good humor only when I asked him what he thought explained the odd timing of the boy's funeral, or the contradictions in eyewitness reports, or the other loose ends in the case. "I don't 'think,' I know!" he said several times. "I am a physicist. I work from the evidence." Schapira had collaborated with him for the German documentary and then produced a film advancing the "minimum" version of his case, showing that the shots did not, could not have, come from the IDF outpost. She disappointed him by not embracing the maximum version—the all-encompassing hoax—and counseled him not to talk about a staged event unless he could produce a living boy or a cooperative eyewitness. Shahaf said that he still thought well of her, and that he was not discouraged. "I am only two and a half years into this work," he told me. "It took twelve years for the truth of the Dreyfus case to come out."

For anyone else who knows about Mohammed al-Dura but is not in either of the decided camps—the Arabs who are sure they know what happened, the revisionists who are equally sure—the case will remain in the uncomfortable realm of events that cannot be fully explained or understood. "Maybe it was an accidental shooting," Gabriel Weimann told me, after reading his students' report, which, like the German documentary, supported the "minimum" conclusion—the Israeli soldiers at the outpost could not have killed the boy. (He could not show the report to me, he said, on grounds of academic confidentiality.) "Maybe even it was staged—although I don't think my worst enemy is so inhuman as to shoot a boy for the sake of publicity. Beyond that, I do not know." Weimann's recent work involves the way that television distorts reality in attempting to reconstruct it, by putting together loosely related or even random events in what the viewer imagines is a coherent narrative flow. The contrast between the confusing, contradictory hours of raw footage from the Netzarim crossroads and the clear, gripping narrative of the evening news reports assembled from that footage is a perfect example, he says.

The significance of this case from the American perspective involves the increasingly chaotic ecology of truth around the world. In Arab and Islamic societies the widespread belief that Israeli soldiers shot this boy has political consequences. So does the belief among some Israelis and Zionists in Israel and abroad that Palestinians will go to any lengths to smear them. Obviously, these beliefs do not create the basic tensions in the Middle East. The Israeli policy of promoting settlements in occupied territory, and the Palestinian policy of terror, are deeper obstacles. There would never have been a showdown at the Netzarim crossroads, or any images of Mohammed al-Dura's shooting to be parsed in different ways, if there were no settlement nearby for IDF soldiers to protect. Gabriel Weimann is to the left of Dan Schueftan on Israel's political spectrum, but both believe that Israel should end its occupation. I would guess that Nahum Shahaf thinks the same thing, even though he told me that to preserve his "independence" as a researcher, he wanted to "isolate myself from any kind of political question."

The images intensify the self-righteous determination of each side. If anything, modern technology has aggravated the problem of mutually exclusive realities. With the Internet and TV, each culture now has a more elaborate apparatus for "proving," dramatizing, and disseminating its particular truth.

In its engagement with the Arab world the United States has assumed that what it believes are noble motives will be perceived as such around the world. We mean the best for the people under our control; stability, democracy, prosperity, are our goals; why else would we have risked so much to help an oppressed people achieve them? The case of Mohammed al-Dura suggests the need for much more modest assumptions about the way other cultures—in particular today's embattled Islam—will perceive our truths.

[JW: For a follow-up, see "The Truth of Mohammed al-Dura" – If iconic imagery makes for powerful propaganda, should we treat questions of historical truth or falsehood as irrelevant?]