I am currently being accused of serving as an apologist for Bashar al-Assad, one of the most gruesome tyrants in the world. I am also being attacked on social media as a “war crimes denier” and a tool of the Russian Kremlin.
This is because I have done my job as a reporter. I have obtained documents and spoken to confidential sources, who have told me that the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), a major U.N. arms control verification body, suppressed evidence so as to excuse an act of war by the USA, Britain, and France. In April 2018, unconfirmed reports and videos appeared to indicate that Syria had used poison gas in the town of Douma. The three western countries assumed the claims of gas use were true, and showered missiles on Syria without waiting for the evidence. According to my sources, an OPCW inspectors’ report failed to back up claims that Syria had used poison gas in Douma in April. But the OPCW severely redacted this report before publication in July 2018, to give a wholly different impression.
This is bad news for the USA, Britain, and France, who will now face accusations of illegal war-making. Alas, it is good news for Syria, a nasty torture state with few redeeming features, which I have avoided for decades because I have written so many rude things about it. That was not hard. Syria has given direct support to terrorists. It has harbored a fugitive Nazi war criminal. Its habit of torturing and massacring the regime’s opponents is beyond doubt.
It is also, unavoidably, good news for Syria’s despot, Bashar al-Assad, who sits at the head of this unpleasant country. Should I therefore have suppressed my knowledge and not written my story for the London Mail on Sunday?
Of course not. Part of me finds all this rage against me quite funny. I know all about the era when many Western journalists and academics actually were defenders of the old Soviet Union, its fake trials, mass murders, and concentration camps. In our own time I have observed similar people making apologies for Fidel Castro’s Cuban prison state or for Mao Zedong’s failed paradise. Annoyingly, these actions seemed to do them no harm.
Indeed, they flourished—and in some cases they flourish to this day. I am not like them. I have no illusions about Syria, and can show this in published work. I just have this belief that telling the truth is a virtue in itself, and that journalists must do so when they find it. There are, of course, limitations on this. In the midst of a global, death-grapple conflict such as World War II, a journalist who found out information helpful to the enemy, either for propaganda or for military purposes, would have a higher duty to keep quiet about it. But do these limitations apply here? And in any case are they universal? Would it have been wrong for a U.S. journalist to write critically of FDR’s cruel and unfair roundup of Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor; or for a British journalist to attack Winston Churchill’s 1940 internment of Germans in Britain, many of them veteran enemies of Hitler?
That is why these slurs are not wholly funny. I am used to being attacked. Anyone who enters controversy can and ought to expect it. I have been insulted by experts and have learned not to care.
But there is something rather sinister about the treatment I am now getting. Much of it is anonymous, delivered on Twitter by untraceable loudmouths. I suspect organization, as it tends to come in waves and to be remarkably uniform. And it is plainly meant to intimidate me and to persuade people to think my motives are malign, disloyal, and possibly venal.
In the days of the Cold War, Western societies—supposedly under a threat to their very existence—were paradoxically more plural and free than they are now. The presence of an aggressive despotism covering a sixth of the world’s land surface, with huge armed forces and nuclear bombs, embarrassed the Western countries into defending their own liberty. After all, it was the one thing they could clearly claim to stand for.
But since the Cold War ended, and since the Manhattan massacre of September 11, 2001 licensed invasions of privacy and a new repressive conformism, liberty of thought and speech has been less defended. It is also observably true in Britain and the USA that the arrival in power of the left-wing Baby Boomer generation has greatly weakened pluralism and the adversarial system. These people all think they are so good that they regard dissent and criticism as morally wrong. The liberal left press, once an important critical voice, now tends to accept reasons of state as a justification for silence or servility far more readily than it did in the 1960s. And, in an inversion so astonishing it is hard to cope with, the left’s taste for ideological wars abroad has made them even keener conformist warmongers than the old right-wing used to be in the age of LBJ and Nixon.
If the equivalent of the Pentagon Papers were leaked now, when there is no Cold War, would the newspapers publish it? Would the big TV networks follow? Would the courts defend their freedom to do so? Would the public support the leak? While my small disclosure does not begin to match the scale of Daniel Ellsberg’s revelations about the futility of the Vietnam War in 1971, I suspect that the answers to all these questions are “maybe” at best and in some cases a clear “no.”
I’d add this. What I have found out about events inside the OPCW has a wider importance. It is not I, by my reporting, who has helped Syria’s President Assad. He has been handed a propaganda gift by those who have tried to censor the work of the OPCW’s impartial scientists. More profoundly, the willingness of the world to rely on the judgments of such supposedly impartial bodies has been gravely weakened. In both cases, I have helped those who stand on the side of honesty.
If nobody had censored the facts in the first place, I would not have had a story to write. And a large part of me would be glad of that. There is something rather frightening about receiving such information. But there is something even more frightening about the feeling I now have: that my disclosures will be buried in abuse, and that the truth, in this case, will not prevail.
Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the London Mail on Sunday.
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