Defending the Indefensible: The Talking Points of State Terrorism

This is a continuation from the poem/not poem by anthropologist Ghassan Hage, with a fascination for the perversion of language and meaning in the service of state terrorism, to cover up, deny, and to generally defend the indefensible. At some point, spokespersons for oppressive regimes, whether Israeli or American, made this serious miscalculation: that having a seemingly good narrative could somehow make up for atrocious actions. The first list of “talking points” below comes from Stephen M. Walt writing in Foreign Policy on 02 June 2010, “How to Defend the Indefensible (and get away with it)” a how-to guide produced in the wake of Israeli commandos hijacking the Gaza Freedom Flotilla in international waters and killing nine civilian peace activists. The fallout from the event is widely acknowledged, including at the highest levels in Israel, as a massive blow to that country’s preferred image, seen as an egregious act of gratuitous violence in defense of Israel’s illegal blockade of Gaza (denied by Israel to be an occupation, even while it takes hold of Gaza’s waters, routinely bombs, and blocks entry in or out of that open air prison camp).

While written as biting humour, one thing that gives this piece its strength is the obvious dishonesty and feigned innocence of state spokespersons as they continually adjust their narrative as more and more details of what actually happened escape into broad daylight. We see plenty–far too much–of this state speech in Western so-called democracies. What gives this even greater strength is its close resemblance to actual press briefings, speeches, and everyday hasbara.

Here is Stephen Walt:

Powerful states often do bad things. When they do, government officials and sympathizers inevitably try to defend their conduct, even when those actions are clearly wrong or obviously counterproductive. This is called being an “apologist,” although people who do this rarely apologize for much of anything.

Some readers out there may aspire to careers in foreign policy, and you may be called upon to perform these duties as part of your professional obligations. Moreover, all of us need to be able to spot the rhetorical ploys that governments use to justify their own misconduct. To help students prepare for future acts of diplomatic casuistry, and to raise public consciousness about these tactics, I offer as a public service this handy 21-step guide: “How to Defend the Indefensible and Get Away With It.” The connection to recent events is obvious, but such practices are commonplace in many countries and widely practiced by non-state actors as well.

Here are my 21 handy talking-points when you need to apply the white-wash:

1. We didn’t do it! (Denials usually don’t work, but it’s worth a try).

2. We know you think we did it but we aren’t admitting anything.

3. Actually, maybe we did do something but not what we are accused of doing.

4. Ok, we did it but it wasn’t that bad (“waterboarding isn’t really torture, you know”).

5. Well, maybe it was pretty bad but it was justified or necessary. (We only torture terrorists, or suspected terrorists, or people who might know a terrorist…”)

6. What we did was really quite restrained, when you consider how powerful we really are. I mean, we could have done something even worse.

7. Besides, what we did was technically legal under some interpretations of international law (or at least as our lawyers interpret the law as it applies to us.)

8. Don’t forget: the other side is much worse. In fact, they’re evil. Really.

9. Plus, they started it.

10. And remember: We are the good guys. We are not morally equivalent to the bad guys no matter what we did. Only morally obtuse, misguided critics could fail to see this fundamental distinction between Them and Us.

11. The results may have been imperfect, but our intentions were noble. (Invading Iraq may have resulted in tens of thousands of dead and wounded and millions of refugees, but we meant well.)

12. We have to do things like this to maintain our credibility. You don’t want to encourage those bad guys, do you?

13. Especially because the only language the other side understands is force.

14. In fact, it was imperative to teach them a lesson. For the Nth time.

15. If we hadn’t done this to them they would undoubtedly have done something even worse to us. Well, maybe not. But who could take that chance?

16. In fact, no responsible government could have acted otherwise in the face of such provocation.

17. Plus, we had no choice. What we did may have been awful, but all other policy options had failed and/or nothing else would have worked.

18. It’s a tough world out there and Serious People understand that sometimes you have to do these things. Only ignorant idealists, terrorist sympathizers, craven appeasers and/or treasonous liberals would question our actions.

19. In fact, whatever we did will be worth it eventually, and someday the rest of the world will thank us.

20. We are the victims of a double-standard. Other states do the same things (or worse) and nobody complains about them. What we did was therefore permissible.

21. And if you keep criticizing us, we’ll get really upset and then we might do something really crazy. You don’t want that, do you?

Repeat as necessary.

As mentioned before on this blog, we have also seen a set pattern followed by NATO-ISAF and U.S. spokespersons in Afghanistan, whenever an air strike, or a night raid, has killed more than just two or three civilians, but several, dozens, or more than a hundred in one go. We have seen this when it came to the U.S. claim to be “protecting civilians,” even while bombing them–I distilled the following common NATO  and U.S. talking points to cover up for state terrorism.

First, a news report will surface, some embedded journalist confined to a major base repeats an ISAF press release (the numbers can be any you wish): “50 insurgents killed in combat in X province”. That is if ISAF/U.S. spokespersons get the first shot at presenting the “information.” If instead we hear first from villagers, via local government spokespersons, “villagers say 50 unarmed civilians killed in U.S. [air raid] [night raid]” then the immediate U.S. or NATO response is either:

(1) We have no knowledge of any combat or any air strike in that area.

(2) Even if there was combat in that area, we only target insurgents and civilian casualties would be unlikely. Certainly very few. Unlike the other side, which only targets civilians.

(3) OK, there apparently was some engagement with enemy forces, but we can only confirm that a large number of insurgents were killed in combat.

Then the shit hits the fan…someone with a camera gets there before NATO/U.S. forces can be on the scene to stage manage the representation of local events (i.e. by planting weapons on dead bodies, or digging out their bullets from the dead). We see dead, bloodied, or charred corpses, or we are shown rows of graves recently dug in the dirt. A local official, a policeman, a governor, backs up what the villagers says. NATO/U.S. are left running for cover. Hamid Karzai issues another condemnation of excessive and careless violence by his NATO overlords. Here are the foreign occupiers’ next talking points:

(4) An air strike (or night raid by Special Forces/CIA) did occur, but only after it was determined that there were only armed insurgents in the area.

(5) Any claim that a large number of civilians were killed is part of enemy propaganda. The Taliban exaggerate and fabricate numbers. Some of the local villagers pretending to grieve the loss of innocent loved ones, may be Taliban associates themselves. Trust us, we are the only credible party here.

(6) We can confirm that some civilians were harmed (killed? wounded?), but not intentionally, and not that many anyway.

Karzai sends a panel of delegates to the area, to do their own investigation. The delegates report publicly that no insurgents were killed (or barely a handful) and that villagers were saying the truth all along.

(7) What we need to have is a joint Afghan-NATO investigation.

As the investigation releases its results:

(8) Yes, more noncombatants died than insurgents, but that’s because the enemy uses human shields.

(9) It seems that there were no insurgents in the area, according to the joint investigation. Mistakes were made, we regret the loss of innocent life.

(10) Actually, we need to have a separate investigation from the joint investigation, which was really an Afghan investigation.

(11) Our own investigation does not confirm the details of the joint…I mean, Afghan…investigation. Ours finds no fault with our forces. No we did not interview eye witnesses.

We hear nothing more ever again. No one is charged. No one is convicted. The slaughter marches on. These 11 talking points are not a how-to guide, and not meant to be humorous. They are a how-to not try to fool your intended audiences, based on patterns and statements derived from now numerous NATO-ISAF and Pentagon press releases.

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