Tuesday 16 January 2018

Darragh McDowell: Truth is first casualty of rush to judgement

Reaction to the bombs in Russia show pundits have not learned the lesson of Utoya, writes Daragh McDowell

TOLL: The funeral of a victim of the Volgograd blast. Photo: Reuters.
TOLL: The funeral of a victim of the Volgograd blast. Photo: Reuters.
TOLL: President Putin with one of the injured

Darragh McDowell

ON JULY 22, 2011 a car bomb went off in the government quarter of the Norwegian capital Oslo. Shortly afterwards, the first reports of the unfolding carnage on the island of Utoya began to appear.

Analysts, opinion-givers and assorted other experts online and on the 24-hour news channels were almost unanimous in their assessments -- the attacks bore all the hallmarks of Islamist extremists, and Al-Qaeda and its affiliates were now clearly resurgent in Europe. At 6.35pm that day, Anders Behring Breivik surrendered to the police having ended his grisly rampage.

Unfortunately this lesson in the perils of instant reaction, and the presentation of supposition and hypothesis as fact has not been absorbed by the pundit class. When a suicide bomber attacked the Russian city of Volgograd on December 29, the western media presented a completed narrative even before the second explosion the next day. The culprit, Chechen warlord, Dokka Umarov. His aim was to disrupt, or at least undermine, the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. That he succeeded was a sign that Putin's government was increasingly incapable of ensuring the security of its citizens.

Very few pundits thought it relevant to mention that January 1 is the most important holiday in the Russian calendar. Noviy God (New Year's) is effectively the equivalent of the western secular Christmas, complete with decorated fir trees, gift giving and a jolly fat man called Grandpa Frost who doles out presents to children. It stems from the Bolshevik suppression of Christianity, and as in the west, is when Russian families typically travel great distances to enjoy (or endure) one another's company. Volgograd is one of Russia's most important transport hubs -- which is why the Nazis broke the back of their war machine trying to capture it when it was named Stalingrad.

So from a Russian perspective, the Volgograd bombings were roughly equivalent to an attack on Chicago O'Hare, or Heathrow airport on December 23. That the western media's collective assumption was to focus on the event that was important to us -- Sochi -- rather than them -- New Year's -- is indicative of a certain shallowness and solipsism characteristic of its coverage of Russia. In effect, our media assumed that the terrorists' intended 'audience' were Europeans and Americans, and not the people they set out to kill and maim. To call this self-absorbed would be an understatement.

The instant identification of Umarov as the mastermind of the plot, and its success as a sign of his growing strength, does not stand up to close scrutiny either. Umarov may very well have ordered or inspired these attacks -- or he may be an opportunist and propagandist with little control over Russian Islamist terror cells. There is too little solid intelligence about the remnants of the Chechen insurgency to say for certain either way, yet a single YouTube video in which he called on Islamist militants to disrupt Sochi was presented as if it were a smoking gun. The bombers were also initially assumed to be female shahidki, or 'black widows,' something of an Umarov trademark. Genetic testing has now shown at least one of the bombers was male. Too many conclusions were drawn based on shaky, or no, evidence.

This is not to say the conventional wisdom is wrong, either in part or whole. Perhaps the bombers were guided by Umarov, and driven by a desire to undermine the Sochi games when they blew themselves to smithereens. But they are the only ones who could have told us for certain. Analysts have a responsibility to help interpret a complicated and frightening world for the population at large, to provide meaning in the midst of chaos. But too often the pressures of an accelerated news cycle lead to hypotheses and guesswork being presented as truth. In reality, there is not yet enough evidence to say why this latest atrocity took place, and there may never be. We need the intellectual courage to say 'I don't know' when it is the only honest answer. As any journalist will tell you, very few people read the corrections, and once a narrative is formed, it is difficult to dislodge.

Less forgivably, some pundits have been clearly driven by a political agenda that is opposed to Putin and the Sochi games. This is a valid viewpoint, but the tone of many commentators has been one of barely concealed glee at seeing Putin's Russia rocked by bombs, or getting the opportunity to say 'I told you so' over Sochi. This is crass in the extreme, and an insult to the 34 Russians who died last week (at time of writing, others remain in hospital). Putin's western opponents should have the good taste and common decency to let their families grieve, and to remember that this is a tragedy for them, not an opportunity for us.

Irish Independent

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