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March 15, 2005

The Eyewitnesses Must Be Crazy


Discrediting Sgrena and other witnesses to unfortunate incidents

by Dr. Teresa Whitehurst

"After the shooting, the U.S. military said that the vehicle carrying the Italians was speeding and refused to stop, and that a U.S. patrol tried to warn the driver with hand and arm signals, by flashing white lights and firing shots in front of the car and into the car's engine block. … Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said the car was traveling slowly at night and stopped immediately when a light was flashed at a checkpoint, before U.S. troops fired on the car. Sgrena has said that no light was flashed at the vehicle and that no warning shots were fired."

- "U.S. Kept in the Dark about Italian Rescue Plan," March 13, 2005

No speeding? No flashing light? No warning shots? What Ms. Sgrena and Mr. Berlusconi don't seem to realize is this: You'd have to be crazy to disagree with the U.S. military.

Readers have correctly noted the omission of an additional step within Stage 2 of the Unfortunate Incident Protocol (UIP): silencing eyewitnesses to unfortunate incidents in the War of Terror. This silencing can be accomplished in five ways:

  1. Have a respected military or political official (playing on public trust in and fear of authority) publicly accuse the witness of lying or exaggerating, while vociferously denying everything he or she says and offering an official-sounding version of the events in question;

  2. Threaten and/or apply pressure through subtle and not-so-subtle means until the witness feels overwhelmed with fear and stress to such a degree that he or she disappears from the public scene and/or recants or clarifies previous statements;

  3. Make sure mainstream TV news programs show no visual evidence of foul play as recalled by the witness. (Internet and newspaper reports pose far fewer problems than do stories on television; TV rules when half of all Americans read at or below 5th- to 7th-grade levels);

  4. Discredit critical eyewitness reports by highlighting the "foreignness" (which today is assumed to represent nothing but anti-American bias) of the witness and his or her associates/organizations; and

  5. Suggest that his or her account is the result of mental imbalance, i.e., insanity.

As the title of this piece suggests, #5 alone may do the trick, as will be explained presently. As for #2, readers need only use their imaginations regarding the frequency with which this silencing method is used by "anonymous" parties. If direct threats are used to silence eyewitnesses to torture or murder, however, this can readily backfire, as when a particularly gutsy whistleblower goes public with those threats.

In most cases, only steps 1, 3, and 4 are necessary, particularly if the public is primed to disbelieve anything negative about "our troops." Brian Cloughley notes how this worked regarding the CBS tape of a U.S. soldier killing an unarmed, wounded Iraqi prisoner:

"The clips of the murder were played worldwide on television – except for the actual killing, because that was thought too vile….

"Think about another 'incident,' when a squad of U.S. soldiers opened fire on a car traveling along the Baghdad-Airport road on March 4, killing an Italian official. The lies began at once, and there is no point in describing what happened because the truth as told by eyewitnesses has already been denied by the military, and the official version will be accepted by much of the U.S. media. …

"It is not surprising that the media will toe the official line, as most of their readers and viewers automatically doubt what they are told by foreign or independent U.S. sources (not that there are many of the latter, these days), and are uncomfortable with anything that smacks of criticism of U.S. soldiers. This is because such criticism is considered unpatriotic and unforgivable, even if it is justified by firsthand evidence of brutality or murder." (emphasis added)

I. Discrediting "Crazy" Eyewitnesses: Government/Military Strategies

Step #5 is not to be lightly taken, because forced psychiatric evaluations and 'treatment" conjure up images of Soviet and Chinese silencing methods. But when all else fails, the insanity offensive can work wonders by planting that seed of doubt into the public mind, just enough to persuade them to believe – and identify with – "sane" officials rather than an "insane" eyewitness. The vicarious stigma of mental illness ("if you believe a crazy person, you must be crazy too") easily frightens would-be believers into compliant skepticism. Here's an example of a rather blunt use of this strategy:

"Sgt. Greg Ford of the 223rd Military Intelligence Battalion has said he was stripped of his duties and ordered to see combat-stress counselors after reporting that three fellow soldiers … brazenly abused Iraqi detainees during interrogations in Samarra last year. He said the soldiers choked detainees, threatened them with guns and stuck lit cigarettes in their ears. …

"[Sgt. 1st Class Michael Marciello] said he was ordered to watch Ford's behavior at all times.

"He said unit commanders believed something must have been wrong with Ford for making such 'wild' claims against his fellow soldiers.

"Marciello said that after a mental health evaluation came back saying Ford was OK, he witnessed a company commander in the 223rd, Capt. Vic Artiga, ask a counselor to change her evaluation.

"'The company commander requested that this woman reconsider the end result of her analysis,' Marciello said. …

"[Artiga] defended his soldiers against Ford's abuse accusations.

"'I know they conducted all their obligations legally, morally and ethically,' he said." (Emphasis added)

Here's how it's being done in the latest checkpoint shooting incident:

"[A]nother official urged Sgrena to show more caution in her remarks.

"'Those who have been under stress in the past few weeks should pull themselves together and avoid saying nonsense,' the Italian news agency ANSA quoted Communications Minister Maurizio Gasparri as saying."

Notice the orchestrated theme, whereby all official mouths speak the same message, increasingly portraying the ex-hostage's eyewitness accounts as the result of having "been under stress," and of Ms. Sgrena herself as "careless," speaking "nonsense" or even "a load of nonsense," and as needing to "pull herself together":

"Italy's Justice Minister [Roberto Castelli] has urged former hostage Giuliana Sgrena to stop making 'careless' accusations after being shot by U.S. forces in Baghdad, saying she had already caused enough grief. 'She has created enormous problems for the government and also caused grief that perhaps was better avoided. … Sgrena … has said a load of nonsense, speaks somewhat carelessly, and makes careless comments,' Mr. Castelli said."

Yes, Ms. Sgrena has created enormous problems for the government, and that is why she must be silenced. Violence is out – were she to disappear physically or show up with bruises on her face, the public would rebel. Threats against the loved ones of those who speak out against the Bush administration or its satellite states (Britain, Italy, Israel, etc.) are rare, for this is the dirtiest silencing method… though we do see it in action from time to time. Fortunately for Mr. Castelli, who's certainly not one to cause enormous problems for the government, there are safer ways of disappearing disagreeable eyewitnesses.

II. Discrediting "Crazy" Eyewitnesses: Media Strategies

Order uniform mainstream media descriptors of the eyewitness that denote unreliability/bias and connote mental unbalance: The idea here is to portray the eyewitness as so politically "extreme" that he or she seems not merely biased but unbalanced as well. TV news/commentary programs and large newspapers can get the ball rolling by using simple descriptors that raise red flags for most people who, rightly or wrongly, consider themselves "middle-of-the-road" individuals. In today's right-wing authoritarian culture, the best term for this purpose is "left-wing."

Interestingly, reports on the Italian tragedy didn't use the term "left-wing" when referring to Ms. Sgrena until she disagreed with official U.S. military explanations, at which point mainstream TV, print, and Internet news outlets all over the country jumped on the bandwagon. For instance:

"Left-wing journalist Giuliana Sgrena claimed American soldiers gave no warning before they opened fire and said Sunday she could not rule out that U.S. forces intentionally shot at the car…."

Since her disagreement with U.S. military accounts, it's nearly impossible to find stories that don't portray Ms. Sgrena as a wild-eyed "left-wing" journalist. As one writer notes,

"I just read this account of the death of Nicola Calipari at the hands of American troops, after having negotiated the release of Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena. The first three words of the article, 'Left-wing journalist,' and the opening of the second paragraph, 'Without backing up the assertion' [that she was a targeted journalist] are clear attempts to diminish her credibility."

Start a blog campaign portraying the eyewitness as insane. If done correctly, this assumption of insanity will spread rapidly. The advantage of blogs for smear campaigns is their ability to deceive readers with a news-like presence. Google "News" searches on "Sgrena," for instance, will yield a wild assortment of non-news rants, including blogs (right-wing blogs especially?) that receive equal or higher billing (thus credibility) than reputable news outlets (e.g., BBC, Reuters). Insinuations or claims that eyewitnesses or whistleblowers are evil and/or insane are assumed by many viewers to be real news, but because they're made on blogs, they need not be fact-checked or otherwise verified:

"When the word of a propagandist is pitted against the word of a U.S. soldier, I am inclined to believe that of the soldier…"

"Sgrena is a modern Goebbels … Ms. Sgrena, you are the enemy." JAWA Report

From various other blogs:

"She seems like a delusional paranoid...."

"Typical paranoid commie."

"Giuliana Sgrena is only a poor ungrateful ideologically disturbed woman, like only an Italian communist may be … she sounds like a psychopath...."

Americans used to insist on seeing, hearing, and thinking for ourselves. Remember, for example, old-fashioned Missouri pride in being "the show-me state"? But things are changing. We're learning to stay with the herd, believing only those sources and statements approved by the reigning party. If we listen to crazy eyewitnesses, others might think we're crazy, too… a condition for which Mr. Bush is proposing the ultimate psychiatric solution. Increasingly, seeing isn't believing – it's the other way around:

"O'Brien held up his left hand, its back toward Winston, with the thumb hidden and the four fingers extended.

"'How many fingers am I holding up, Winston?'

"'Four.'

"'And if the Party says that it is not four but five – then how many?'

"'Four.'

"The word ended in a gasp of pain."

- 1984 by George Orwell


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Dr. Teresa Whitehurst is a clinical psychologist, author of Jesus on Parenting(2004) and coauthor of The Nonviolent Christian Parent (2004). She offers parenting workshops, holds discussion groups on Nonviolent Christianity, and writes the column, "Democracy, Faith and Values: Because You Shouldn’t Have to Choose Just One." Visit her website.

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