Friday, January 21, 2005

Lying for a reason?

I found this Esquire story, "The American Dream," this morning while reading Bookslut. It's about an Iraqi woman who had been imprisoned and tortured by Saddam Hussein's government who helped the Americans and the coalition government by naming names and leading them to sites of torture and mass graves. Only her stories started to fall apart when the writer of the Esquire piece checked them out in preparation for writing a book. Not only did the stories of torture and rape not hold up to scrutiny, not only did military investigators who'd been assigned to follow up her claims quietly close the investigations once the sites of mass graves turned up nothing but cow bones, but she'd even been lying about more mundane things like where she'd gone to school. And it all blows up in a terribly melodramatic way when the writer decides to ask the mother about it:
Now Hanna walked in the door. She looked at her mother and, sensing the mood in the room, asked what was wrong. Jeanne d'Arc said something, and Hanna shrieked, "I did go to Oxford! I did! I did go to Oxford!" Her pupils shot straight up into her head. "I will write to them," she announced, and sat down at the computer. She tried typing a few words, but her agitation was too great. Enraged, she gave the computer mouse a few good thwacks against the table, then flung it at the ceiling.

"I will call!" she cried, running into the kitchen. The recorded message informing her that she had misdialed played—one, two, three times—until, in frustration, she threw the phone hard against the kitchen wall.

"You ruined my life!" she screamed at her mother, who sat shaking in her favorite chair. "I will never forgive you. You betrayed me once, and now this is the second time!"

Jeanne d'Arc's face had turned blue. "No, no," she protested. "I didn't say you never went to Oxford. All I said was that I forgot where you went exactly."

But Hanna had already begun throwing things: a crystal ashtray, a brass candleholder, a greeting card welcoming her to America, several framed photographs, an almost full cup of coffee. She made a clean sweep of everything on the coffee table, hurling the objects straight at her mother.

The book was finished, she said. She wanted nothing more to do with me.

Apparently the Washington Post has retracted their original story.

But I couldn't help it -- it made me think of this:
In fact, the most emotionally moving testimony on October 10 came from a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl, known only by her first name of Nayirah. According to the Caucus, Nayirah's full name was being kept confidential to prevent Iraqi reprisals against her family in occupied Kuwait. Sobbing, she described what she had seen with her own eyes in a hospital in Kuwait City. Her written testimony was passed out in a media kit prepared by Citizens for a Free Kuwait. "I volunteered at the al-Addan hospital," Nayirah said. "While I was there, I saw the Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital with guns, and go into the room where . . . babies were in incubators. They took the babies out of the incubators, took the incubators, and left the babies on the cold floor to die."

Three months passed between Nayirah's testimony and the start of the war. During those months, the story of babies torn from their incubators was repeated over and over again. President Bush told the story. It was recited as fact in Congressional testimony, on TV and radio talk shows, and at the UN Security Council. "Of all the accusations made against the dictator," MacArthur observed, "none had more impact on American public opinion than the one about Iraqi soldiers removing 312 babies from their incubators and leaving them to die on the cold hospital floors of Kuwait City."

At the Human Rights Caucus, however, Hill & Knowlton and Congressman Lantos had failed to reveal that Nayirah was a member of the Kuwaiti Royal Family. Her father, in fact, was Saud Nasir al-Sabah, Kuwait's Ambassador to the US, who sat listening in the hearing room during her testimony. The Caucus also failed to reveal that H&K vice-president Lauri Fitz-Pegado had coached Nayirah in what even the Kuwaitis' own investigators later confirmed was false testimony.

If Nayirah's outrageous lie had been exposed at the time it was told, it might have at least caused some in Congress and the news media to soberly reevaluate the extent to which they were being skillfully manipulated to support military action. Public opinion was deeply divided on Bush's Gulf policy. As late as December 1990, a New York Times/CBS News poll indicated that 48 percent of the American people wanted Bush to wait before taking any action if Iraq failed to withdraw from Kuwait by Bush's January 15 deadline. On January 12, the US Senate voted by a narrow, five-vote margin to support the Bush administration in a declaration of war. Given the narrowness of the vote, the babies-thrown-from-incubators story may have turned the tide in Bush's favor.

Following the war, human rights investigators attempted to confirm Nayirah's story and could find no witnesses or other evidence to support it. Amnesty International, which had fallen for the story, was forced to issue an embarrassing retraction. Nayirah herself was unavailable for comment. "This is the first allegation I've had that she was the ambassador's daughter," said Human Rights Caucus co-chair John Porter. "Yes, I think people . . . were entitled to know the source of her testimony." When journalists for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation asked Nasir al-Sabah for permission to question Nayirah about her story, the ambassador angrily refused.

No, it's not the exact same thing. Jumanna Hanna's stories didn't start until after the war had already begun, at least not as far as the Americans were concerned. But there is something Ahmad Chalabi-ish about it. She knew that people wanted evidence to prove the conclusions that they'd already drawn and she provided it.

What is it? What do people like this think that they're doing? Do they think that by lying they're serving some larger truth? Or is it really just a manifestation of their own narcissism?

(Edited on 1/22/2005 for grammar, punctuation, and the sake of general clarity.)

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