The Power of Stories

Telling stories is the best way to teach, persuade, and even understand ourselves.

Atrocity and Epistemology: Cruel Claims in Troubled Times

How can we judge the validity of wartime atrocity stories?

Remember Iman al-Obeidi. March 26 was a routine day in the Libyan War. NATO was bombing Libyan military installations and, for its part, the Libyan military was attacking rebel fighters. Most of the world understood that Muammar Gaddafi was no democrat nor was he a threat to global peace. Once again, as in Iraq, the West was attacking a secular Arab dictator in the name of preventing the spread of world jihad. But by late March, the thrill was gone. The allied attacks had become, frankly, mundane. Another day, another ton of ordinance.

And then rushing in from the Arab streets, Iman al-Obeidi appeared. Al-Obeidi appeared at Tripoli's Rixos Hotel, a gathering place for foreign journalists, and began screaming that she had been raped and tortured by Libyan soldiers. She grabbed the attention of the world, and became something of a cover girl for CNN.

I emphasize that I lack independent knowledge of whether her story, horrific as it is, is true or false. If I were a real commentator - rather than one who plays one on the Internet - my lack of knowledge could be a hurdle. But, then, as I think of it, none of the foreign journalists, even those who sponsored her story, has much more knowledge than I. How would one know? The correspondents at the Rixos have the drama of her presence, but others are as blind as I am.

The history of war is a history both of atrocity and of atrocity stories. The latter, all too common, are used to gin up public support for battle, creating an intense and potent hatred for a demonic foe. They create an enemy so vile that the deaths of our own soldiers are justified. The separation of true and false proves difficult to ascertain, even when the atrocity stories falsely accuse actual bad guys. It wasn't so long ago - the first Gulf War actually - that Americans were told the grisly and chilling account of Saddam's troops unplugging the isolettes of premature babies in Kuwait City. We later learned that it never happened. The story was propaganda through and through, the heady work of masters of the tall tale. Even the Nazis were falsely accused by their enemies - no Jewish soap or lampshades - although there were enough actual dismal atrocities to make the rounds.

So when I watched Ms. Al-Obeidi rush into the journalist scrum, I felt the glorious frisson of doubt. A tingling of suspicion. I noticed that as she was screaming, she was seated. Typically those who are emotionally unconstrained - hysterical - will stand and shout, but not Ms. Al-Obeidi who was seated as if she had ordered a glass of mint tea. But perhaps skepticism has the best of me. I have been accused of an overabundance of incredulity. It comes with the territory for those who examine hearsay. Like so many dramatic rumors, as I describe in The Global Grapevine, the story seemed too good to be false. It was just the kind of story that deserves our doubt. As rumor scholars starting with Gordon Allport and Tamotsu Shibutani emphasize, rumors emerge from a nexus of importance, ambiguity, and the absence of critical ability. It appears that Ms. Al-Obeidi is a Libyan law school graduate, a sophisticated young woman, who alleged that she was attacked and serially raped by fifteen thuggish Libyan soldiers. Were this not sufficient to boil our blood, she claims that they also urinated and defecated on her, and she showed nasty bruises, scars, and scratches. The story if true suggests that these soldiers have much to answer for. Her account plays off the very real history of rape in times of war. But its piquant drama also allows one to wonder whether it was a performance designed to capture the world's attention.

     After her tale, she was hustled off by Libyan authorities, who claimed that she was mentally ill, a thief, or a prostitute. These security forces were surely the least effective advocates for their own virtue until Anthony Weiner tweeted himself to prominence. In time the Libyan government freed her, and she was interviewed by CNN, the Associated Press, and National Public Radio where she graphically described her torture. Eventually she landed in Tunisia, Qatar, back to rebel-controlled Libya, Romania, and finally on June 4th, Hillary Clinton granted her asylum in the United States, where she has remained quiet.

I stop short of proclaiming that some black-op intelligence service stands behind her. If I learned this tomorrow, I would not shocked, but today I have no evidence. What I do have evidence of is the fact that when nations go to war, they search for the worst crimes imaginable with which to demonize their enemies, a point that the great communications theorist Harold Lasswell emphasized. As Lasswell pointed out, "Not bombs nor bread, but words, pictures, songs, parades, and many similar devices are the typical means of making propaganda." It is all in the image. The history of military conflicts is replete with atrocity stories. Nations create a practical epistemology to permit them to do what they wish, bringing along their citizens. Defecating on a bright, young rape victim - the rare Arab professional woman - seems to be such a claim to heat the soul of revenge and to justify mounting attacks

It is said that if you give a boy a hammer everything becomes a nail. If you give a scholar of falsehoods an atrocity, it becomes a rumor. But in truth nails and rumors are real. And if you give generals authority to fight, they find wars that have no need to be fought.

Gary Alan Fine is a John Simon Guggenheim Fellow and the co-author of The Global Grapevine: Why Rumors of Terrorism, Immigration, and Trade Matter.

The Power of Stories