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Genealogy of a lie

If facts don't fit prejudice, Obama-haters get creative

Of all the outrageous libels that have circulated in the right-wing extremist blogosphere against President Obama, surely the most extravagant (so far) is the widely repeated claim that the Pentagon under Obama seized and burned the Bibles of American soldiers in Afghanistan.

‘Tain’t so.

Here is the factual chronology:

• In April and May of 2008, the US Army allowed documentary filmmaker Brian Hughes to embed with chaplains at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. The footage was shot for a project to be called “The Word and the Warrior,” which Hughes says he intended as a tribute to military chaplains and the role they play in helping young soldiers cope with the stresses of war.

• The cover article in the May 2009 issue of Harpers Magazine was “Jesus killed Mohammed: The crusade for a Christian military,” by Jeff Sharlet.  In the article, he chronicled the rising (and troubling) influence of Evangelical Christians in the US military’s officer corps. Several paragraphs of the story refer to some of Hughes’s raw footage, from Bagram, of a fiery sermon by Lt. Col. Gary Hensley, then the chief Army chaplain for Afghanistan.

• Alerted to Hughes’s project by the Harper’s article, Al Jazeera English asked Hughes to prepare a brief broadcast segment from his raw footage shot at Bagram. The 4 minute, 25 second segment, broadcast and posted on YouTube on May 3 (US Eastern time), began with a clip from a Bible-study class, led by Army chaplain Emmitt Furner, in which soldiers discussed what they should do with copies of the New Testament translated into the local Pashto and Dari languages. One of he soldiers had been sent the books by his Stateside church. The narrator clearly says of that footage, “These pictures were filmed about a year ago.”

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In unedited footage from the Bible study, posted by Hughes on his own web site but not included in the Al Jazeera segment, Furner repeatedly urges the other soldiers to heed the General Order No. 1 prohibition against proselytizing. He says, “Allow [Afghanis] to seek you out,” but says to avoid “actively seeking out somebody.” He reminds them that the support of the Afghan people was important to the American mission. “We want them on our side. We’re not going to have them on our side if they see us as Bible-thumping, finger-pointing, critical people.” He tells them, “This is not the sword you want to fall on, if you know what I’m saying. OK? People have done this before. They’ve went out in violation of [General Order No. 1].” Though he also repeatedly acknowledges their duty as Evangelical Christians to share their faith, he advises them that the best way to give witness of their faith is to be a “good man or a good woman.”

In my view, Furner acted properly and professionally in balancing the requirements of his faith and of the military mission. Also in my view, the narration of the Al Jazeera broadcast segment did not fairly portray the tenor of the meeting or of Furner’s role in it. (For the record, I am a thoroughgoing philosophical materialist and secularist, disinclined to encourage Evangelical Christians. But I am also committed to journalistic standards of accuracy and fairness.)

In my view, the Army also acted properly in confiscating the New Testament translations in order to avert any risk that some soldiers, intentionally or not, might not heed Furner’s cautions, or that even innocent distribution of the books to willing recipients might give the Taliban a propaganda weapon that could redound to the harm of American troops.

MG


• In a story dated May 5 (US Eastern time), the Reuters news service quoted Major Jennifer Willis, military spoksewoman at Bagram: “I can now confirm that the Bibles shown on Al Jazeera's clip were, in fact, collected by the chaplains and later destroyed. They were never distributed.”  Reuters noted, “U.S. Central Command's General Order Number 1 forbids troops on active duty -- including all those based in Iraq and Afghanistan -- from trying to convert people to another religion.”  It also noted, “Trying to convert Muslims to another faith is a crime in Afghanistan.”

• In mid-May former Navy chaplain Gordon James Klingenschmitt, who had been drummed out of the service for insubordination in 2006 and now runs an outfit called “The Pray in Jesus Name Project,” took out an advertisement in “Human Events,” a publication that bills itself as “Headquarters of the Conservative Underground.”  He also posted the ad text on his web site, prayinjesusname.org, in conjunction with a petition to Congress “to protect and support our military chaplains right to pray publicly according to their own faith and conscience.”

Klingenschmitt’s text, which cited both the Reuters report and the Al Jazeera broadcast as sources, began: “The Pentagon under the Obama Administration has just acknowledged seizing and burning the privately owned Bibles of American soldiers serving in Afghanistan.”  Farther down, referring to a comment by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen that the US military would never “push any specific kind of religion, period,” Klingenschmitt added: “He did not address the possibility that by seizing and burning privately owned Bibles, the Obama Administration is now enforcing state atheism upon our troops.”

Klingenschmitt’s descriptions of the Al Jazeera broadcast prove that he knew the film was shot “about a year ago,” in the spring of 2008, but he did not say that in his ad.

• Within a few days, numerous bloggers and posters on Internet forums repeated Klingenschmitt’s ad copy verbatim (here's one of many examples) or paraphrased it, often amplifying the anti-Obama tone.

Here’s one semi-literate example, from a forum hosted by a CBS affiliate in North Dakota: “Obamas administration just had Bibles (personal  property from Americans sent as gifts) burned, and destroyed in Afghanistan under the orders of  4-star general Mike Mullen. Seems Al Jezera got wind of it and had them destroyed.”
 
• Klingenschmitt's claim was debunked by the St. Petersburg Times’s politifact.com on May 17 and by factcheck.org on May 25. CNN reported the events accurately in a May 22 story that did not refer to Klingenschmitt's claims.

His deception laid bare, Klingenschmitt dug in his heels. He altered the text on his web site -- I’m reading from a version dated July 5, 2009 -- to acknowledge that the books had been delivered to American soldiers during the Bush administration, but he insisted that the military spokeswoman’s words “indicate the Bibles were destroyed this year, not last year, only after and because of the recently publicized video.”

That would be possible only if the soldiers at that 2008 Bible study, so eager to give copies of the New Testament to Afghan civilians, had kept the books for a full year without giving away a single one. Moreover, Klingenschmitt’s claim would require that all copies (save the one given to Hughes) could have been tracked down, confiscated and destroyed in the time between the Al Jazeera broadcast and the military briefing at Bagram -- less than 36 hours. The only reasonable conclusion is that the books were confiscated soon after the Bible study that Hughes filmed -- probably within a day or two.

Nonetheless, Klingenschmitt’s revised text ratcheted up the anti-Obama rhetoric. In the following sentence, for example, I have indicated additions to the original text in bold type: “Had the Bibles not been recently seized and destroyed (as verified and defended by the Obama Administration), they could have legally been given as gifts during off-duty time to Afghani citizens....”

Later, after his semantic gymnastics over the time frame, he adds: “And even if they had been destroyed last year, why is the Obama administration now defending burning Bibles?” In the revision, the plainly false sentence about “enforcing state atheism” remains intact, but, in a tiny concession to reality, the word “possibility” is put in italics.

Klingenschmitt clearly intended to mislead and to libel the current president. Some of his fellow travelers in the blogosphere and the fanatic fringe media clearly wished to be misled, and to mislead others in turn. They continued through July, at least, to spread the lie that the Obama administration had burned American soldiers’ Bibles.

One local example: On July 24, the integrity-challenged KSLR radio shock jock Adam McManus posted a summary of that day’s program. The headline: “Obama's Pentagon burns Bibles of U.S. soliders [sic].” Further down, linking to Klingenschmitt’s web site, McManus commands: “Sign this petition objecting to the Obama Administration's decision to burn the Bibles of the American soldiers in Afghanistan.”

It would have taken McManus no more than a few minutes on Google to learn the facts, but the facts would not have comported with his prejudices.

The spread of Klingenschmitt's concoction may not be very important in itself, but it is very important as part of a pattern, repeated in the outrageous, totally baseless fearmongering about "death panels" in the health-care reform bill, in equally absurd fantasies that the Army National Guard is recruiting guards for detention camps to confine Evangelical Christians, in frantic alarums that the economic stimulus package is just a subterfuge to install a Communist or Nazi or Islamic jihadist or Betelgeusian tyrrany over America. And of course, there's the nonsense about Obama's birth certificate. 

Some of the fearmongering can be attributed to old-fashioned ambition. It is not clear that Sarah Palin, one of the loudest voices decrying the mythical "death panels," cares about anything but her own glorious destiny. But there are people in this country, people who are exploited by cynical politicians such as Palin and Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, who are afflicted with blind hatred of Barack Obama -- not because he is  "black" or of "mixed race," though that may be a contributing factor, but because he is  a man of reason, the ultimate sin.

Reasonable people may disagree with him on policy, but that is not what these people are doing. Hatred of Obama comes first, and then they invent evil policies to falsely attribute to him to justify their hatred. When one lie runs its course, they have another one waiting in the wings. Surely it is only a matter of time before he is accused of killing Vince Foster, masterminding the Panic of 1893 and inventing the Macarena. They inject their venom, in a thousand tiny doses, into the Internet and the airwaves, and the poison spreads -- perhaps only to a small minority, but to a large enough minority to  have perverted the once-honorable Republican Party and wreaked havoc on important policy initiatives such as health-care reform.

It's a free country, and fools, no less than sages, have a right to speak their minds -- and their bigotries. At the moment, the fools are weighing too heavily in the political process. The sages need to seize the day.

Mike Greenberg