On a Gaza beach: what hath conspiracy theories wrought?
Conspiracy theories are widespread and exceedingly popular. They appeal to the all-too-human need to make order out of chaos, and to assign blame to a convenient and/or strategic scapegoat. They arise spontaneously, or they can be manipulated for political and propaganda reasons.
I've noted that, in my lifetime, the beginning of the extreme popularity of conspiracy theories seems to have been the JFK assassination, in which a charismatic and powerful President was blown away before our very eyes by what appeared to have been a protagonist too lowly and insignificant to have been worthy of the deed (I've written at greater length on this topic here).
But conspiracy theories have a long and illustrious history. One only has to look at the antiquity of anti-Semitism, just to give one example, to understand that. The blood libel, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion--there's no dearth of illustrations on that score. And, to be equal-opportunity about it, conspiracy theories exist on both sides. I was appalled, for example, by the "Clinton killed Vince Foster" garbage from segments of the right not so very long ago.
No, unfortunately, conspiracy theories are not the sole province of one side or another; they appeal to something deep within human nature. However, that fact shouldn't keep us from attempting, as best we can, to evaluate the truth or falsehood of conspiracy claims--because, just as not all conspiracy claims are automatically true, not all claims are automatically false, either. The situation resembles the old saying, "just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you."
How does this all relate to the deaths on the Gaza beach, and the way they are being reported?
In evaluating such incidents, sorting out fact from fiction, and then coming to conclusions, we must rely on Arab reports vs. Israeli reports. In the present case, initial claims from the Arab side are that the deaths were a result of Israeli shells. However, the evidence from an IDF report analyzing, among other things, the content of the scrapnel, indicates non-Israeli origins for the blast.
If the IDF reports are true, this will never convince the unconvinced. Because the power of propaganda is almost immeasurably large, and (in the words of Churchill) a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to put its pants on.
In this case--as in all cases of investigations--one has to believe in the veracity of those issuing the report to be convinced of anything by it. If a person believes that Israel is a Nazilike state bent on the conspiratorial, racist, and evil destruction of the Palestinians, then how could an IDF report convince that person otherwise? Not possible. Even though the initial reports blaming Israel were pretty much nothing more than rumors, and the IDF report used forensics and science--which should ordinarily trump rumors--accepting the report still depends on believing that the IDF and Israel itself are not engaged in bending the truth for their own purposes.
So there's an intrinsic problem in a report from any investigation (whether it be the Warren Commission, the OJ Simpson police, or anyone else) if it comes up with a finding that goes against the conspiracy grain in which so many believe. And that fact is relied on by anyone who wishes to spread a rumor for strategic reasons.
So, is Hamas trying to exploit some tragic deaths that may indeed have been caused by Palestinian mines, in order to stir up more anti-Israel feeling, both internally and around the world? To believe this would, of course, be to believe in still another conspiracy--this one on the part of the Palestinians (or, to be more exact, on the part of some Palestinians). But the evidence that has emerged so far from the competing Arab and Israeli "narratives"--as opposed to the rumors--points in that direction. And in evaluating that evidence one must take into account previous false propaganda campaigns on the part of the Palestinians that have been effectively proven as such: the initial inflated reports on Jenin, and Mohammad al-Durah's staged footage (for an in-depth discussion of the latter, please take some time to peruse the detailed information at Second Draft).
For many years now, it's been clear that the Palestinian authorities and press are among the world's best purveyors of propaganda, and that we--and the Israelis--are quite poor at responding to it (I am not using the word "propaganda" in a solely pejorative sense here, by the way; I'm using it as I've defined it in a previous post: "information spread to influence a populace towards a certain opinion").
I'm going to quote the post of mine further on the topic of propaganda:
Propaganda, by its very nature, is of course not a reasoned and leisurely debate in which both sides are given equal time and equal measure. Neither is it an academic exercise in politically correct fairness, nor a well-intentioned effort in being kind to the other side. It is most-decidedly one-sided. But the best propaganda is truthful, especially in this day of internet fact-checking. The best propaganda understands the arguments of the other side and counters them effectively. But all propaganda does have one thing in common: a conviction that it is acceptable to use it.
By definition, an IDF report about scrapnel and shells cannot possibly have the propaganda power of photos and video of grieving children and bodies on a beach. That is a simple fact, one the Palestinians have learned to exploit, most especially with al Durah. In that affair, Israel initially claimed possible responsibility, before a number of reports (including those from German and even French media) exonerated them and indicated that the al Durah footage was suspect--and that the most likely possibility was, if the boy was killed at all, that it was at the hands of Palestinians.
That in and of itself, however, smacks of a conspiracy theory, and an especially horrific one at that. Such a chain of events seems so much more far-fetched than the idea that Israel might have killed the boy, either purposely or accidentally (and yes, there's no doubt that Israel sometimes does cause the death of innocent children as collateral damage--which is quite different from purposely targeting them).
And yet it is my contention that any fair-minded person who takes a good look at the evidence can only conclude that this far-fetched chain of events--false claims in the Durah case, and even the possibility of deliberate staging--is true. And that means that the fair-minded person comes to the conclusion that the al Durah incident did represent a conspiracy of sorts. Does that mean that the Gaza incident is the same? Not at all. But it means that, until further notice, it must be taken with a grain of salt and an open mind.
The al Durah affair, which was especially influential in Europe, could not have been effective as propaganda without the cooperation of some in the French press, in particular reporter Charles Enderlin, who was not present at the shooting but who edited the footage shot by a Palestinian stringer and who did the voiceover blaming the Israelis. This is what Enderlin had to say in his own defense about his rush to judgment, after so much criticism was mounted against him:
He insisted that he stated that the bullets were fired by the Israelis for a number of reasons: First, that he trusted the cameraman (Abu Rhama) who, he said, had made the initial claim during the broadcast, and had worked for France 2 for 17 years, and later had it confirmed by other journalists and sources, and the initial Israeli statements. He also stated that the IDF never asked his team to collaborate on an inquiry, even though they had written to the IDF spokesman proposing they do so. Second, that the idea of the IDF shooting al-Durrah corresponded with what Enderlin saw as "the reality of the situation not only in Gaza, but also in the West Bank"...
Another French journalist, La Conte, responded as follows: "I find this, from a journalistic point of view, worrying." It smacks, among other things, of the somewhat Ratherian claim that the truth or falsehood of certain facts is not as important as the point of view they express. That this is not what journalism is about ought to go without saying. But perhaps it needs saying, once again.
The IDF appears to have learned from the al Durah incident. This time they've been much quicker to launch an investigation, rather than to assume that initial reports from the scene were correct and to shoulder the blame. Time and the preponderance of evidence will reveal the truth or the falsehood of the Israeli vs. the Palestinian claims on the matter.
And what has the press learned? That remains to be seen.