Sunday, October 28, 2018
Truth Decay I: The Murder of Jamal Khashoggi
The topic, or question, driving this post is immense and crucially important:
How to deal with the erosion of truth, with truth-decay?
Several answers will appear in upcoming posts.
Meanwhile, the number of recent, painful examples of governments misdirecting their citizens about the truth exceeds belief.
Where to start exploring this?
I obsessed on where to begin for weeks. Then, almost exactly three weeks ago, the Saudi government—a long term ally of the US and an alleged model of the reform of the Arab world—provided one of the most disturbing examples of distorting truth, lying, and propaganda in recent memory.
And that’s saying A LOT.
Here’s a quick overview:
Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi-born journalist who legally resided in Virginia, walked into the Saudi embassy in Istanbul on Tuesday, October 2, 2018. Because his journalistic investigations, and opinion articles, criticized the monarchy in Saudi Arabia, his life had been threatened. It was clearly unsafe for him to remain in Saudi Arabia, and he therefore established legal residency in the US. While here, he wrote opinion pieces for the Washington Post.
Khashoggi needed a form documenting his divorce, allowing him to marry his fiance, so he traveled to the Saudi embassy in Istanbul, Turkey to obtain the necessary documentation.
Khashoggi assumed he’d be safe there. Turkey is an even closer ally to the US. Istanbul is a modern, cosmopolitan city sitting on a river separating Europe from Asia. He walked into the embassy, confident and unafraid, that fateful Tuesday afternoon. His fiance waited patiently outside, expecting him to re-emerge in less than an hour.
He never did.
Within literally minutes of his being brutally murdered inside the embassy (including torture, amputation of fingers, and other atrocities), the lies began.
When Khashoggi’s fiance and others reported him missing, the Saudi monarchy reported, a few hours after the incident, that Khashoggi left the embassy unharmed.
(Subsequent, reliable reports indicate Saudi government agents, carefully planning for the pre-meditated murder, had arranged for a body double to leave the embassy, dressed in Khashoggi’s clothing. The double wore the wrong shoes—a truly tragicomic event).
A few days later, Saudi government representatives reported Mr. Khoshoggi had died in a fistfight at the consulate.
Then, a few more days later, they said a rogue group of Saudi government officials murdered poor love-struck Jamal Khashoggi in an interview-gone-bad.
What a world class example of the evils of messaging.
Truth is often difficult to find, but consider what’s obvious so far.
A man goes missing, a team of Saudi agents (including a pathologist with a bone saw) had previously been dispatched to—surprise—meet with Khasoggi when he went to the embassy, and then they returned to Saudi Arabia by private jet a few hours later.
Consider just a few of the questions immediately raised by the initial narratives.
If Khashoggi left shortly after he arrived, then why has he never been found?
If he died in a fistfight, then why send a team of Saudi guards to the scene?
If you later proclaim it was a rogue operation gone bad, then where is Khashoggi’s body?
Why not just proclaim, minutes after it happened, that, OMG, a terrible altercation occurred in the embassy, involving a dissident and critic of the Saudi regime, and here’s his body lying there on the floor?
These and other questions linger, despite still-unfolding narratives. Trump, scrambling to provide his own narrative to protect an arms sale and the status of a fellow authoritarian, keeps changing the story as well. But, naturally, he’s oafish:
“Something bad happened, something really really bad,” Trump remarked. His narrative, as usual, lacks detail, strength, or integrity. It offers a new understanding of the phrase, “vague and ambiguous.”
Most recently, the leader of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salmon (MBS), reported he had arrested his rogue agents and was personally investigating the murder.
That’s like having OJ investigate the murder of Nicole and Ron.
That’s like asking Bernard Madoff to investigate his own Ponzi scheme.
Truth may be relative, but some truths are more accurate than others.
Khasoggi’s body has yet to be found, and having the primary suspect oversee the investigation of a now-admitted murder is patently absurd.
This one personal tragedy represents a terrifying trend in international governing (as well as corporate governing):
Tell the best lie you can, hope other news supplants it, and continue oppressing dissidents and critics with impunity.
And remember, in this particular case, the man killed was, ready yourself for the irony, for his commitment to spread truth through the profession of journalism.
The still-emerging, disturbing ironies are endless:
Turkey’s leader, Recep Erdogan, an authoritarian leader with few evil peers, insists on justice (because the murder happened on Turkey’s soil). It just so happens that Erdogan has incarcerated or killed more journalists and dissidents than any other contemporary national leader—more than even Putin.
MBS invited Khassoggi’s son to a photo-op in Saudi Arabia, where he was shown receiving his condolences. Look at the picture if you can. The son looks terrifically uncomfortable, like a Jew asked to appear for a photograph with Hitler.
This one event raises innumerable red flags about truth.
Our own president calls journalists “the enemy of the people,” a phrase literally used by Hitler himself.
Finding good, old fashioned objective journalism is getting nearly impossible.
I encourage this experiment:
Watch a few minutes of MSNBC, CNN, or Fox News, and then switch over to BBC or the PBS news hour.
You’ll be amazed at the difference.
Those left or right leaning media outlets no longer report the news. Instead, they display an obvious bias. They seek to entertain, to sell the products or services appearing in their commercials.
BBC, PBS or NPR tell detailed stories, including what’s happening in Yemen, the recent Mexican hurricane, the status of Puerto Rico. If you’ve spent a lot of time watching the biased news channels (like me), you’ll be surprised that so many significant events unfold throughout the world—other than Trump’s idiocy.
We should all be concerned, even fearful, of the year 2018 looking suspiciously like the year 1938.
Lies have become the new truths.
Around the globe, even in our allegedly free country feeling proud of its first amendment rights, journalists and other truth-tellers come under attack from our own president.
I dedicate this post to the obviously-imperfect truth teller, Jamal Khashoggi, murdered journalist and critic of the Saudi regime. Again, he legally resided in the US, and a foreign government deliberately and intentionally killed him.
May his memory fortify, rather than render fearful, the resolve of those critical of their governments or, even more worrisome, of those generally seeking truth.
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Alan Karbelnig, PhD, ABPP