Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Hassoun, Berg, and hoaxes

I actually started to write it. A note of apology.

I may still publish it. After all, I've long castigated the rightists for their psychological inability to apologize for anything; if they step on your foot, they blame you for putting your foot there. That's why no right-wingers ever admitted that they were wrong about Whitewater or the Clinton hit squad or the Vince Foster "murder" or any of the other wacky conspiracy stories they peddled.

Then came the l'affaire Berg, a wacky conspiracy story that, rightly or wrongly, captured the attention of yours truly. I never wedded myself to the popular "fake beheading" thesis. But who can deny the Fleming-esque fascination of this outlandish idea?

More intriguing still, to me at least, are the manifold oddities -- and even (dare I say it?) hints of espionage -- in the career of Nick Berg.

Alas, the "spooky" aspect of the case did not interest others quite so much as it did me. Those who fixated on the Berg mystery were primarily drawn to the possibility of video fakery. And there is some evidence to support their view -- for example, this analysis of the voice of "Zarqawi," as heard on the Berg tape, notes some very unexpected details.

Like many others, I was stunned to see Berg wearing an Abu Ghraib-style orange jump suit. For many, that was the detail that permeated this business with an unmistakable odor of fish.

And then...and then...

Others were kidnapped: Paul Johnson. Kim Sun-il. Marine Cpl. Wassif Hassoun. All three men were displayed wearing American-style orange prison jumpsuits, as though Middle Eastern terrorists had found a discount store that carried such uniforms in bulk.

This turn of events placed the Berg "buffs" in an uncomfortable position. Even the hard-core conspiracy theorists tend to admit that the Johnson murder was precisely what it seemed to be. If a "real" beheading offers details similar to those found in the Berg video, then we can fairly presume that the Berg atrocity was genuine as well.

And then...and then...

Corporal Hassoun turned up alive.

The news reports are sketchy and contradictory to the point of infuriation. At one point, we were told that Hassoun went AWOL to be with a girlfriend in Lebanon. No, other reports countered: The girlfriend was Iraqi. Friends in Iraq, according to some news accounts, conspired to shuttle Hassoun off to his native land of Lebanon. No, said other news accounts: Those "friends" were actually terrorists who kidnapped him for real. Now that he has spent some days in American hands, Hassoun's de-briefers aren't telling the press much. Initial accounts indicate that they take his kidnapping at face value. Yet the majority of news articles continue to treat the whole affair as a hoax.

I've just begun to list the oddities surrounding this episode. The ultimate oddity is this: There was a videotape of Hassoun in captivity -- wearing the now-ubiquitous orange jumpsuit.

Don't underestimate the ramifications. If this kidnapping was indeed a hoax, then it was a very elaborate prank involving a number of perpetrators. They were able to replicate the essentials of the Berg video, and they were able to send the video to the internet without being traced.

Which means, at the very least, that we may well possess at least one verifiable instance of a staged video documenting a terrorist "kidnapping." And the existence of one staged video means we cannot discount the possibility of others.

More than that: If the Hassoun kidnapping was a fake designed to help the Marine shuffle off to Lebanon, then we must presume that Hassoun had no serious objection to the idea of his family being informed of his murder. The man cared so much about beating the AWOL rap that he let his mother, rather and siblings believe that decapitation had occurred. Or so some news stories would have us think.

More than that. Various news accounts imply that Hassoun intended to start a new life, probably under a new identity. Would he really take such a drastic step just to impress a girl?

The "fake kidnapping" reports place us -- egads! -- directly in the middle of conspiracy-land. The only question concerns the conspiracy's size. We are permitted to consider the notion that Hassoun and his buddies worked up an elaborate scheme of this sort on their own, ad hoc. But if we don't want reasonable, sober-minded folk to snarl or guffaw at us, we must never, ever, ponder the possibility that the American military or espionage apparat might have engineered such a deception. To allow such a notion to percolate in our noggins would constitute Thoughtcrime Most Foul.

Far be it from me to wallow in Thoughtcriminality. But...well, you remember that apology I was going to offer for my interest in the Berg controversy? I may yet offer my mea culpas.

But not today.

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