Friday, January 03, 2014

Respect for Journalists and Historians: Knowing What Happened is Hard

So I kind of want to post this on my science site because this is really about evidence again and "how do we know."  On the other hand, in this case it's about Benghazi, and if I write about it at all, it's probably a good idea to keep it separate from my views on science and society, even if some of the philosophical elements are the same...

Yes, Benghazi.  I have already spent an hour on this article from the Sunday Times called A Deadly Mix in Benghazi by David Kirkpatrick.  It's hard.  I'm still reading it.  I recommend it, though.  

I decided to read it because right off the bat it's focused on what actually happened rather than the spin in Washington.
Months of investigation by The New York Times, centered on extensive interviews with Libyans in Benghazi who had direct knowledge of the attack there and its context, turned up no evidence that Al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault. The attack was led, instead, by fighters who had benefited directly from NATO’s extensive air power and logistics support during the uprising against Colonel Qaddafi. And contrary to claims by some members of Congress, it was fueled in large part by anger at an American-made video denigrating Islam.

But as soon as I waded into the unfamiliar waters, I started to object.  That's weird.  They spent months talking to people who were actually there, people who were actually involved, and they concluded that:
  1. The attackers were not Al Qaeda or international terrorists but they did attack and kill our ambassador.
  2. We actually supported them in and then they benefited from the ouster of Qaddafi.
  3. It was, in fact, fueled by the video "denigrating Islam."
"This is hard," I thought to myself.  "What does that even mean?" I asked.  "Was it planned or not?  Are they with us or against us?"

It just made my head hurt and I tried to read another, easier article instead.  But an hour later I was back.  Then again another day later I returned to reread it once again.  I'm still trying.  What do you do when evidence simply can't be processed according to familiar frames?
One [frame] has it that the video, which was posted on YouTube, inspired spontaneous street protests that got out of hand. This version, based on early intelligence reports, was initially offered publicly by Susan E. Rice, who is now Mr. Obama’s national security adviser.
Oh, there it is.  I recognize that narrative...
The other [frame], favored by Republicans, holds that Mr. Stevens died in a carefully planned assault by Al Qaeda to mark the anniversary of its strike on the United States 11 years before. Republicans have accused the Obama administration of covering up evidence of Al Qaeda’s role to avoid undermining the president’s claim that the group has been decimated, in part because of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
And there we go:  the other one!   So who is right?  But not so fast...
The investigation by The Times shows that the reality in Benghazi was different, and murkier, than either of those story lines suggests. Benghazi was not infiltrated by Al Qaeda, but nonetheless contained grave local threats to American interests. The attack does not appear to have been meticulously planned, but neither was it spontaneous or without warning signs.
Huh?  It was NEITHER planned NOR spontaneous?  I hate when reality requires more nuance, time and effort to understand.  Why can't our friends and enemies keep it simple?
A fuller accounting of the attacks suggests lessons for the United States that go well beyond Libya. It shows the risks of expecting American aid in a time of desperation to buy durable loyalty, and the difficulty of discerning friends from allies of convenience in a culture shaped by decades of anti-Western sentiment. Both are challenges now hanging over the American involvement in Syria’s civil conflict.
See what I mean?  What is a global super power to do?  Dang it anyway:  it's complicated.  Sigh...  But the one thing we should NOT do is let a simple story get out ahead of the more nuanced facts.
The attack also suggests that, as the threats from local militants around the region have multiplied, an intensive focus on combating Al Qaeda may distract from safeguarding American interests. 
[...]  The fixation on Al Qaeda might have distracted experts from more imminent threats. Those now look like intelligence failures. 
More broadly, Mr. Stevens, like his bosses in Washington, believed that the United States could turn a critical mass of the fighters it helped oust Colonel Qaddafi into reliable friends. He died trying.
Read it again:  our never-ending "war on terror" is shaping the way we perceive the world and makes it harder to even think about the world.  And so do our internal ideological battles between liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats.  In fact, understanding the ACTUAL situation before you is harder if you begin with an ideology based on war OR peace....

The problem I am still having reading this article is the same problems our leaders and journalists struggle with:  confirmation bias.  In fact, it's sooooo much easier to read stories and gather facts that reinforce what we already believe.  And looking at evidence with fresh eyes that challenge our beliefs is hard.

OK, I'm exaggerating.  Simply reading the article is not as hard as researching and writing the article in the first place.  With of 1,000's of words occupying more than a full page in the Times, THAT is a commitment.  But furthermore, actually MAKING the decisions that our leaders made is even harder than researching and writing about them.  Thinking about this challenge in Libya and extrapolating to embassies all over the world is a sobering thought:  who ARE these individuals we ask to set and implement our foreign policy?  And who ARE the elected officials we send to Washington to oversee them?  And to what extent do they actually believe the simple stories they use to get elected?  Are they as concerned with confirmation bias as I am?

These are my questions.  I'm reading the rest of the article now to find out the answers.

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