The Taliban's Christian victims

American Dr. Thomas Grams, 51, is seen treating a small child in Kathmandu, Nepal in an undated photo released by Global Dental Relief. Grams and five other Americans, two Afghans, one German and a Brit were killed in Afghanistan on August 5, 2010 by the Taliban. Grams was part of a medical team on a two- week mission in Nuristan province to provide supplies and treatment to residents in the rural area.  UPI/Global Dental Relief Photo via Newscom

The Taliban this weekend provided a tragic reminder of why short-term mission trips don't pick Afghanistan as a destination. Ten murdered. But why?

The answer depends on which story you read -- or at least how far into each story you read.

See, the Associated Press, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post each tell readers within the first five paragraphs that Taliban gunned down 10 members of a foreign aid team because they claimed they believed they were foreign spies there to preach Christianity.

The WaPo, for example, gives details early about the International Assistance Mission, via it's executive director Dirk Frans:

The group is registered as a Christian nonprofit organization. Although its members do not shy away from this affiliation in this conservative Muslim country, Frans and others said they do not proselytize. In their work since 1966 on health and economic development projects, under King Zahir Shah, the Russians, the mujaheddin government and the Taliban, Frans said, "all along we've been known as a Christian organization. That has been a nonissue."

"This is truly a bedrock institution in Afghanistan," said Andy M.A. Campbell, the Afghanistan country director for the National Democratic Institute. "They have been around for decades."

Others who have worked with the group described it as culturally sensitive to the Muslim values of Afghanistan and staffed by foreigners committed to long-term development work in the country. "This is not a Mickey Mouse organization," said a person who has worked for and evaluated the organization's projects in the past.

Obviously WaPo reporter Joshua Partlow saw religion as absolutely central to this story, even though at the time police had not ruled robbery out as a motive. (They have now.) And religion, or at least perceptions of religious motivations, were integral. From the looks of it, this was a unholy war between the Taliban and 10 foreigners who had uprooted their lives to help those in this unbelievably poor war-torn country.

Now let's compare that to how the Los Angeles Times approached this story. (Am I the only who gets a lump in his throat when he sees "Los Angeles Times" mentioned here?) Welcome to Burying the Lede 101.

After five paragraphs, making this tragedy sound like just another war story, eporters Laura King and My-Thuan Tran wrote:

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the aid workers' deaths, saying those killed were spies and preachers of Christianity. The details provided in statements by spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid suggested that the killers were insurgents and not bandits, who also roam freely in the area.

OK, so it took an extra paragraph -- significant because the top five paragraphs of a daily news article are supposed to provide a snapshot of the important themes that will be developed with the remaining column inches -- but we got there. Except this is really all we get, other than this paragraph buried toward to bottom of the story:

The International Assistance Mission, which has been working in Afghanistan since 1966, describes itself as a charitable nonprofit Christian organization. One of its major projects is a chain of eye hospitals and clinics. The group's website says its expatriate workers are volunteers.

Instead of digging into the religious implications and motivations behind both this attack and this International Assistance Mission's being in Afghanistan, readers are given a few dispatches from the departed. Karen Woo, known as Explorer Kitten, shared this experience:

"Ridiculous I know but several tense minutes were spent thinking through the consequences of bonding with the women of the village ... only to find that nail polish is considered to be the devil's sporn or at the very least the mark of a [harlot] and that my actions are punishable by death," she wrote. "I contemplate not wearing any myself but decide that toes a la nude is a mistake and that I should just risk it with a neutral shade."

That's interesting, a compelling detail even. But it's not central to this story. It's milk, not meat. The LAT needed to offer both.

PHOTO: Dr. Thomas Grams, treating an Afghan child days before the doctor was murdered

Please respect our Commenting Policy