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May 5, 2011

Women and war zones: Lessons from the rape of Lara Logan

http://www.jewishjournal.com/blog/item/women_and_war_zones_lessons_from_the_rape_of_lara_logan_20110505/

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Many have wondered why a beautiful, blonde journalist with two young children would walk into a foreign mob in the middle of a revolution. 

For journalism? For democracy? For the unadulterated rush?

Lara Logan, CBS News’ Chief Foreign Correspondent, would probably say she was just doing her job. Like many women, she doesn’t want to be told that she can’t or shouldn’t do something she wants to do, even if it’s dangerous, even if the consequence is a violent sexual assault.

Logan has a reputation for being drawn to danger. Like a moth to a flame, she seems most comfortable – and most commanding on camera – reporting from treacherous war zones. In a 2005 New York Times profile of her, Jacques Steinberg wrote, “If there is an aspect of Ms. Logan’s work that has long given her bosses pause, it is that she occasionally appears fearless to the point of recklessness.” That observation came just after comparisons to Dan Rather and Mike Wallace, who were not generally thought of as “reckless”, but rather, praised for their savvy and resourcefulness in conflict situations. Because she is a woman, Logan’s derring-do is deemed impetuous, maybe a little madcap.

While Logan’s dedication to her craft is admirable, and her talent indisputable, it was (and is) seen as incomparably risky for an objectively attractive Western woman to trot into a Middle Eastern war zone without Brangelina-style security (Logan had one security detail and her crew). Anyone with a sense of history knows that when societies collapse and power structures are overthrown, violence and chaos ensue. It was certainly plausible, if not exceedingly likely, that something bad could happen.

Since females are generally more prone to becoming victims of sexual violence, the Lara Logan sexual assault (the term itself even sounds deceptively benign) raises a radically discomfiting question: Is it “responsible” for women to choose to report in war zones?

Because, according to Logan’s 60 Minutes interview with Scott Pelley, this is what it can look like: “It looks like a party,” Logan recounted in a segment that aired last Sunday night. “Everybody’s very physical, so you’re being jostled and pushed, and it’s impossible not to get caught up in the moment—which was a real moment of celebration.”

Until it wasn’t.

Moments later, a mob of Egyptian men started grabbing Logan’s breasts, crotch and behind. Shouts of “She’s a Jew! She’s an Israeli!” (even though she is not) incited murderous rage, and soon the mob was ripping her shirt, shredding her pants and tearing her bra and underwear from her body.

“I didn’t even know that they were beating me with flagpoles and sticks because I couldn’t even feel that,” Logan told Pelley. “Because I think of the sexual assault; all I could feel was their hands raping me over and over and over again, from the front, from the back…they were tearing my body in every direction…tearing my muscles, tearing off chunks of my scalp…literally trying to tear my scalp off my skull.”

Listening to Logan’s wrenching account of the horrors inflicted upon her during the 25-minute abduction in Tahrir Square, and it becomes clear that this crime was not really about sex but about destruction. It was a savage assault on icons of power: femaleness, Westernness, Jewishness. 

Almost immediately after news of the assault broke, much was made of Logan’s looks. As if somehow being beautiful – which she is – didn’t so much justify but explained why this would have happened to her. It may be that because Logan possesses a universal beauty, that classic Greek ideal—golden, radiant and innocent-looking, she is perceived as some kind of female icon. A crime against her is a crime against all women, a crime against the very idea of a woman.

It is well known that in traditional societies, especially religious ones, women are put away, or hidden. They are given strict dress codes that involve excessive if not complete covering. They are separated from men in places of worship. They do not have equal access to social and economic opportunities. Logan represents the antithesis of all that; she is blond, exposed, mixing in the crowd with the world as her stage. She is supposed to be less than the men who brutalized her, when really, she is more.

The same can be said of Jews and Westerners, other icons of power that stoke acute hatred among their enemies: Jews are simultaneously thought of as vermin and rulers of the world; Westerners (Americans in particular) are devoid of values and treat women like sex objects, yet, they command the most powerful countries and militaries in the world. Hate has an odd way of both inflating and diminishing its victims. 

And when regimes are being toppled, or natural disasters occur, those caught in the fray often resort to their basest instincts. Absent authority or restraint, men loosed on the streets – even, ironically, to celebrate their victory over tyranny, their reclamation of societal power – will turn violent. Logan said she thought her screams would stop the mob from attacking her, but instead, “The more I screamed, it turned them into a frenzy,” she told Pelley. The Arab Spring becomes the Arab Scream.

In the book, “Half the Sky” Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn write that the paramount moral challenge of the 21st century “is the brutality inflicted on so many women and girls around the globe: sex trafficking, acid attacks, bride burnings and mass rape.” Widespread violence against women is a fact of modern life. And Logan’s tragedy proves it doesn’t only happen to poor, uneducated women in the developing world, but that it can happen to an internationally renowned journalist – on assignment! With protection!

So should Lara Logan have had the option to go to Egypt—even with the implicit dangers? Absolutely. But another tragic lesson to come out of this is that there’s a difference between what’s right and what’s wise. If she hadn’t gone, she’d have compromised her career. But if she had died over there, would getting the story have been worth compromising her family?

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