Principled Dupedom: On the Moral Imperative to be Stupid

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I place this post in the Al Durah Journalist category because although it belongs also in Evidence, it’s most important contribution is an analysis of what’s going on with the lethal journalists who got caught up in the hysterical credulity among journalists in the wake of Al Durah.

Principled Dupedom: On the Moral Imperative to be Stupid, Augean Stables, April 18, 2013

One of the major weaknesses of Westerners in the current cognitive war with Islamic imperialism is a seemingly boundless commitment to being fooled. It’s almost as if, on principle, we need to accept lies from the other side as true, lest we be accused of being racist. There are two aspects to this, one, an honor-shame reflex that worries primarily about what others think of us (i.e., we’re not racist, but we’re worried others will think us so), and another, that spending our time suspecting others of deception strikes many of us (justifiably) as a huge waste of time. First let me go over some key examples here, and then come back to these two points.

Exhibit A: Andrea Koppel and the “Jenin Massacre.” During the period that the Israeli army conducted Operation Defensive Shield, reports came from Palestinian sources, especially from Saeb Erakat, accusing Israel of massacring over 500 innocent civilians in “execution-style” murders and burying them in mass graves. It turns out that, not only were they exaggerated, they were invented out of whole cloth. In fact, Israel sacrificed 21 soldiers in an operation that went from door to door in order to avoid civilian casualties and, in the end, of the 56 Palestinian casualties, the great majority were combatants. In other words, the situation was precisely the opposite of what the Palestinians claimed and the press reported an inversion of reality. In the middle of these events and reports, David Bloomberg reported witnessing the following exchange in Tel Aviv between Andrea Koppel, daughter of Ted, and reporter for CNN, and Adam Ruskin, an American-born Israeli:

While we [Bloomberg and Koppel] were chatting, an American-born Israeli joined us to tell Andrea about his perception of media distortion in that the press that stresses moral equivalence between Israeli civilian deaths caused by Palestinian terror and Palestinian civilian deaths caused by Israeli military actions. He argued that Israel has tried to engage in a peace process since Camp David and has been double-crossed over and over by the Palestinian Authority. Further, he argued the civilian deaths caused by Palestinians are intentional, whereas the deaths caused by Israel are mostly the tragic, unintentional results caused by Israel trying to defend itself.

Andrea replied, “So when Israeli soldiers slaughter civilians in Jenin, that is not equivalent?”

Israeli: “What are your sources? Were you in Jenin? How exactly do you know there was a slaughter?”

Andrea: “I just spoke with my colleagues who were there, and they told me of the slaughter.”

Israeli: “Did they actually see the shooting, the bodies?”

Andrea: “Palestinians told us about the slaughter.”

Israeli: “And you believe them without evidence. Could they possibly be lying and distorting facts.”

Andrea: “Oh, so now they are all just lying??” [sic]

The Israeli became emotional in describing that his children are afraid, his friends have been murdered, and if this goes on, “We could lose our lives or we could lose our country.”

Andrea, “Yes, you will lose your country.”

At this point, I interrupted the two of them and asked Andrea Koppel, “Did I just hear you correctly– that you believe the current crisis will lead to the destruction of the State of Israel?”

Andrea: “Yes, I believe we are now seeing the beginning of the end of Israel.”

Koppel later denied this report, which led to reponses by both Bloomberg and Ruskin. I think the latter two are telling the accurate story for a number of reasons, including the nature of their recollections. I think, however, that it illustrates the huge gap between the kind of Al Durah Journalism that was already dominant among the media stationed in Israel, and the residual ethical commitments of the mainstream news media to proper journalistic procedure.

In an unguarded moment, Koppel spoke like so many of her colleagues on the scene, not merely adopting Palestinian lethal narratives uncritically, but adopting the Palestinian “moral” narrative aimed at the destruction of the state of Israel. Once reported to her superiors in the USA, not yet overcome by the disorientation of the journalists on the scene, she quickly backtracked, trying to deny what she had said, forcing Bloomberg to reveal the name of his other protagonist for corroboration.

What interests me most in this exchange is the remark with which Koppel replied to the possibility Ruskin raised about whether her Palestinian sources might be lying: “Oh, so now they are all just lying??” This reply exemplifies the politically-correct attitude that rejects accusations that Palestinians lie, with the implied (“they… all”) that somehow it’s prejudiced, even racist to accuse Palestinians of lying.

This is pure liberal cognitive egocentrism, in which we are not allowed to pay attention to cultural differences. There are cultures in which lying (especially to outsiders) is openly embraced as a virtue. Motivations range from the purely self-interested (giving directions when you don’t know just to save face and not admit ignorance), to malice (deliberately misleading an outsider because you don’t like outsiders) to waging war.

Taqiyya goes well beyond Shias protecting themselves from Sunni oppressors, and involves extensive disinformation to infidels, especially in cases of covert Jihad. Those among the shabab who play Pallywood would laugh at some Westerner’s rebuke that it’s “not right” to do such things.

So why do we, as a matter of principle, refuse to consider the possibility (high likelihood) that we’re being lied to by our “Palestinian sources”? Because it makes us feel like good, decent, honorable human beings who believe that everyone is like us? Or, more darkly, because it gives us narratives that make us feel emotions we welcome, moral superiority to and even revulsion at Israeli behavior? After all, the same journalists who are principled dupes to Palestinian lies have no problem accusing the Israelis are lying and propaganda.

Exhibit B: Muhammad al Durah One of the more fascinating aspects of the al Durah Affair concerns the attitude towards Talal’s testimony. It lies at the heart of the matter, since he’s the one to claim a) that the Israelis fired continuously for over 40 minutes, targeting the boy, and b) that the boy died before his camera.

Enderlin based his report on this testimony, and all subsequent accounts follow his narrative, if not in its extreme form – cold blooded murder – at the very minimum, in his claim that the boy died on camera. Indeed, the power of this footage, its riveting quality, and the inability of people to view it as anything but the scene of a boy dying under a hail of bullets, all traces back to Talal’s first claim.

The widespread reluctance of people who have seen the full evidence to go any farther than stating that the Israelis most likely did not kill him, stems from a double resistance to a) seeing Talal (and the Palestinian street) as deliberate liars, and b) seeing Charles Enderlin (and the journalist’s street) as dupes to so obvious a fake. I personally think the “conspiracy theory” is actually (in a addition to being Charles Enderlin’s only effective defense), an unconscious admission on the part of those who accept Enderlin’s version that only some massive conspiracy involving the staffs of both Shifa Hospital in Gaza City and the King Hussein Hospital in Jordan as well as even the king himself (who allegedly – in these matters one never knows – gave blood to Jamal), and all the journalists who stepped in line… ridiculous. Therefore it couldn’t be a fake. QED.

The alternative is to imagine the possibility that a) cooperation with the fake was widely received, even by people who hadn’t been brought in to start (e.g., the Jordanians), and b) the number of willing dupes was numberless, including so many of the journalists who didn’t bother to ask any hard questions.

Exhibit A: Susan Goldenberg, writing for the Guardian, comes to the site, observes a dozen bullet holes behind the barrel, some so close to the barrel they could not have come from the Israeli position, all with direct entry trajectories rather than the 30 degree angle they would have had coming from the Israelis, and not nearly enough to corroborate Talal’s claim that the Israelis were firing “bullets like rain” for over 40 minutes, and concludes:

[T]he 12-year-old boy and his father were deliberately targeted by Israeli soldiers.

Exhibit B: Robert Fisk, who didn’t even need to show up to conclude:

When I read the word “crossfire”, I reach for my pen. In the Middle East, it almost always means that the Israelis have killed an innocent person.

While I don’t think that the entire field of Middle-East journalism was committed to the kind of lethal journalism here illustrated, I think that after the al Durah story broke, the rest of the field either got in line, or, perhaps more depressingly, did not dare to say a word.

Rumors have it that Talal sent his footage to Mike Hannah at CNN (not sure of the timing here, since he was allegedly – I trust Enderlin on nothing in this story – on the phone to Enderlin during the day), and Hannah told him he wouldn’t run it. This story makes a great deal of sense: Hannah wouldn’t turn down a story as explosive as this unless he had strong suspicions it was faked (as was most footage of clashes between Israelis and Palestinians at that time: it’s one thing to run fake footage of minor injuries, another to run the on-camera death of a child). He, like I think anyone not under the spell of the desire to see a dead child would, looked at the footage and thought: “There’s no way I can run this footage. Way too many holes in this story, critics will tear it to pieces.”

Enderlin’s “genius” was to realize that if he packaged this right, gave everyone in the JCS building a copy of the footage, and warned everyone they were about to see something terrible, he could create a stampede in which, eventually, even CNN would run the story. And he was right. Shades of Charlie Sheen creating a run on Wall Street.

Maybe I’m missing something here, but I think the widespread belief that Muhammad al Durah died on camera is obviously false, and the fact that the Enderlin cut it from his news report, is virtually an open and shut case against the “boy died on camera” claim.

“Take 6” in which the boy, rather than clutch his stomach wound, holds his hand over his eye, slowly lifts up his elbow, looks out and slowly lowers his elbow, lifting up his feet in counter-weight. Enderlin explained that he cut the footage because, as the boy’s death throes, it was too painful for the audience to see. The “audience” can judge whether this looks like the spasmodic death throes of a child, or deliberate and controlled actions.

When asked by Esther Schapira why he called the boy dead while showing earlier footage when he’s clearly not dead, Enderlin responded:

“I’m very sorry but the fact is the boy died. Maybe not at the precise moment I showed. But this is how I do a story. ‘The boy is dead’ is a statement. What’s your problem with that?”

And the fact that every news station that got the footage from Endlerlin did not find this final scene suspicious and use it to question Enderlin’s account, means that, far from a serious independent work, the Middle Eastern desks lined up behind their colleague, even though the damage caused by this footage was immediately evident. As Pierre Taguieff noted about the kind of anti-Zionism that emerged in the wake of al Durah and the Intifada he inspired: “When all the fishes swim in the same direction, it’s because they’re dead.”

All of this brings us back to the discussion of the process of auto-stupefaction I’ve referred to as rekaB Street. Rather than note the clues and the anomalies and pursue them fearlessly, most prefer not even to view the evidence, to dismiss it as a conspiracy theory, or, in some cases, to take a couple of fearless steps and then demur from reaching any further conclusions. Heaven forbid we call Talal a liar and Enderlin a(n apparently willing) dupe! Better we remain stupid.

On the contrary, I think that anyone who approaches the evidence not from the point of view in which “‘the boy is dead,’ and only 110% proof to the contrary will get me to change my mind,” but rather, “what’s going on in this tape? what are the odds it’s about a boy being killed by fire coming from the Israeli position, and what are the odds that it’s been staged?” will find the odds overwhelmingly favor staged (conservative estimate: 95-5?). If we thought about crimes the way most now think about this footage, we could close down our detective agencies and police departments.

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