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Falling for the Oldest Trick in the Book—Again

Rod Croskery is a retired English teacher from Northern Ontario who writes the Walnut Diary blog on Wordpress. He’s got a way with words so I hope he'll forgive me for quoting the opening of my own blog directly from one he penned a few years back:

In 1990 a fifteen-year-old girl known only as Nayirah gave a four-minute interview which was widely quoted in the U.S. Senate and mesmerized American T.V. audiences:

“I volunteered at the al-Addan hospital with twelve other women who wanted to help as well. I was the youngest volunteer. The other women were from twenty to thirty years old. While I was there I saw the Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital with guns. They took the babies out of the incubators, took the incubators, and left the children to die on the cold floor. [crying] It was horrifying.”

George Bush quoted Nayirah’s interview ten times in the week which followed.

Nayirah al-Sabah turned out not to have been in Kuwait at all at the time of the Iraqi invasion. In fact, she was living with her family in the Kuwaiti Embassy in Washington D.C. Nayirah’s father was the ambassador.

Nayirah’s interview before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus turned out to be a $12 million fraud funded by the Kuwaiti government and organized by Hill and Knowlton, a U.S. public relations firm. CIA personnel coached Nayirah for her performance.

The thing is, we’ve kind of forgotten about this incident. Duped into invading a country and liberating it because of the lies of a fifteen-year-old girl about premature babies being killed? Really?

Really. It’s human nature to want to believe horrifying stories about the enemy. That’s how we make them more clearly our enemy. That’s how we goad ourselves into fighting and killing them.

In novels and films, the bad guys are generally bad right from the start. They neatly personify evil and we feel great when the hero finally beats the shit out of them. But in real life, people are more complex and not so cardboard-cut out. Of course, if you’re Kuwaiti and Iraqi soldiers are invading your city, you are quite clear on the idea that you’d like them beaten back. But how do you convince millions of people who live on the other side of the world to support your cause? Portraying the invaders as unimaginably evil often works.

Okay, back up. Sometimes we really do fight terrible evils. What the Nazis did is not fiction, it’s a terrible truth. But did any Iraqi soldiers actually kill babies? I don’t think verifiable evidence of that ever came to light. Nor did any solid evidence of biological weapons stockpiles, the motive for the second US invasion of Iraq. Sometimes stories simply serve to portray our enemy as not following basic rules of humanity, to excuse us from treating them as human. We feel justified by their alleged behavior to do terrible things, and killing, even in the context of the Geneva Convention’s rules about warfare, is still a terrible thing.

When we convince ourselves our enemies are pure evil, then each of their deaths makes the world a little less evil, and collateral damage, while too bad, is also justified by our great and good cause.

In The Man-Eating Myth, William Arens of Stony Brook University (New York) reviews a vast anthropological literature for real proof, anywhere, of the practice of cannibalism. What he finds instead is that people have been telling dehumanizing stories about other groups for a long, long time. But not eating them.

The tribe across the river eats babies. They are our enemies. They are horrible. But interview people from that tribe across the river and they’ll tell you the other tribe kidnaps children and roasts them for dinner. They are the horrible ones, not us.

What’s so fascinating to me about Arens’ work is this: I’ve taught his book many times, and I find that students do not want to believe it. Many prefer to hold onto the perception of a world in which ‘primitive tribes’ somewhere deep in Africa really did practice cultural cannibalism, and ate numerous European explorers. This archetype is deep-rooted as moral justification for enslaving “savages”. If the colonized and enslaved are so subhuman as to eat other humans, they surely don’t deserve the same human rights we enjoy.

Stories of soldiers killing babies, stories of African tribes eating people, and more recent stories about pedophile rings operating beneath pizza shops are expressions of the same dangerous archetype. There is a contemporary resurgence of primitive stories that dehumanize one’s enemies. There were many such stories told during the Trump presidency, and they continue today.

We often lump Tales of the Evil Other into the broad category of conspiracy theories, but they are something different and far more dangerous.

Any rumor or purported fact that dehumanizes people by falsely portraying them as abusing children is dangerous because those who believe the stories are now hardwired to do things like, oh, run protesters over with a car, or, say, storm the capital and try to hang the Vice President. I think the idea of democrats and foreign powers colluding to rig a national presidential election falls into this category too because it is unthinkable and so contrary to our basic values that it dehumanizes those who are thought to have done it.

Such stories of the evil other serve the purpose of exciting people to do bad things they normally would consider to be very, very wrong. But if you’re fighting pure evil, then you can justify a lot of evil of your own.

One way to make such stories powerful is to make the victims seem powerless. Helpless babies thrown out of incubators. An innocent young volunteer forced to witness this atrocity in the hospital and breaking down in (false but well-acted) tears while recalling the trauma. Children are often woven into such stories, whether contemporary (pedophile rings run by Democrats) or traditional (neighboring tribes kidnapping and dining on children).

Whenever we hear these themes emerge in a story about evil, we need to turn our sh*t-detectors up to their highest setting. Someone is probably gaslighting and manipulating us in the most elemental and dangerous of ways—which means they have a hidden agenda that requires riling us ordinary folk up to murderous anger once again.

Alex Hiam is the author of Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key and Silent Lee and the Oxford Adventure now available at Amazon.

A Credible Witness or a Carefully Executed Hoax?

Nayirah al-Sabah describing the killing of helpless babies.

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