The lede in the New York Times piece was striking in its certainty:
A crisis over a mysterious ailment sickening American diplomats and their families — which began in Cuba and recently appeared in China — has widened as the State Department evacuated at least two more Americans from China on Wednesday.
Assuming is one thing, but to actually report that the Cuba and China embassy episodes are linked is a major leap. The Times story got weirder from there, but one thing’s for sure: If the cases are linked, we almost surely owe Cuba a massive apology.
Last summer, a bizarre story began trickling out of Havana. The Times first tackled it on August 11th, 2017, in “‘Health Attacks’ on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba Baffle Both Countries.”
The story reported “American diplomats in Havana were getting sick with headaches, dizziness and hearing loss.” A “person who was briefed on the situation” told the Times that “the illnesses appeared to be caused by some kind of sonic wave machine.”
Then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson described the illnesses as intentional “health attacks,” adding with characteristic paranoia, “We’ve not been able to determine who’s to blame.”
From there, the Times – usually skeptical of statements made by Trump administration officials – kicked this ball of lame assumptions further up the field.
“The episode was the latest in a series of disputes between the nations,” the paper pronounced.
The Times then went into great detail about a long history of alleged dirty tricks played by Cubans against Americans. It quoted author Peter Kornbluh, who described the illnesses as perhaps “another installment in the long saga of spy-vs-spy in U.S.-Cuba relations”:
The Cuban government has long harassed American government employees in Havana. Stories of feces left in diplomats’ residences became part of Cold War lore. The power would go out, and agents would tailgate diplomats’ vehicles and make it impossible to change lanes. But the recent sicknesses were worse than the standard harassment, even in the worst times, officials said.
The Times did note that the above-described incidents were “Cold War lore,” but they left out the fact that the Soviet empire collapsed almost 30 years ago. How long ago was the last act of Cuban “standard harassment?”
Furthermore, and this is neither here nor there, but the Times somehow managed to lay out this list of alleged Cuban iniquities without mentioning that, over the past several decades the United States a) tried to invade the country and b) was itself regularly cooking up lunatic plots to destabilize the Cuban government.
As revealed by the Church Committee hearings in 1975, and by the declassification of a 1967 “Report on Plots to Assassinate Fidel Castro” ordered by Lyndon Johnson, the list of planned/failed capers include some of the zaniest and wickedest schemes in the annals of the CIA, like plans to:
■ Contaminate the air around a radio station that broadcast Castro’s speeches with a “chemical that produces reactions similar to those of lysergic acid (LSD)”
■ Poison Castro’s cigars
■ Launch a so-called “depilatory” scheme to make Castro’s beard fall off. The scheme, LBJ’s report declared, “progressed as far as procuring the chemical and testing it on animals” (Which animal did they use to test their beard-destroying powers?)
■ Put a skin-infecting fungus inside Castro’s skin-diving suit
■ Kill Castro with a booby-trapped seashell
Leaving this out wasn’t an error, but it was important context to the embassy illness story. Are we jumping to conclusions about nefarious plots involving exotic, sci-fi weaponry because that’s the best explanation, or because that’s our own history?
In any case, the Times waited until the last two lines of that story to remind readers that relations between America and Cuba had been improving, not worsening.
They quoted an Obama-administration official as saying it was (in the Times’ words) “inconceivable that Cuba would intentionally physically harm American diplomats.”
Further evidence that the vicious-Cuban-plot theory was at best lacking a bit came when Canadian diplomats – along with spouses and children – reported illnesses. Canada, unlike the U.S., has good relations with Cuba. What would Cuba have against Canadian children? It made no sense.
Nonetheless, both our government (which expelled 15 Cuban diplomats from Washington for Cuba’s failure “to keep American diplomats safe”) and our media quickly convicted Cuba of some kind of crime, even if just as an accessory.
The chief of mission at the United States Interests Section in Havana from 2011 to 2014, John Caulfield, said that if some other country was doing it, Cuba had to be in on it. The Cubans, he told the Times, keep “such close tabs on us they would’ve immediately detected someone else.”
All of this conspiratorial theorizing looks very bad now, in light of what has happened in China. The new story involves a group of diplomats from a consulate in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou who have complained of cognitive, auditory and neurological problems. Reports say the symptoms are similar, but who knows?
The truth is we know nothing about what is causing these events. The only thing researchers have been able to determine is that those afflicted seem to have damage that resembles concussive brain injury.
That is terrifying and bizarre. Some previously unknown environmental condition, terrorists or space aliens, for that matter, seem as likely an explanation as an international conspiracy.
Not according to the Times. Noting that the Havana episode “roiled” relations with Cuba last year, the paper wrote:
But with Americans now exhibiting similar symptoms in Guangzhou, American officials have raised suspicions about whether other countries, perhaps China or Russia, might be to blame.
Remember, this is the same newspaper that last year was telling us that if these illnesses were caused by a foreign actor, such attacks couldn’t have been pulled off without the host country being involved.
So what are we talking about now? A Chinese-Russian conspiracy? Or a Cuban-Chinese conspiracy? The two nationalities have previously conspired to create excellent restaurants in New York, after all. Or is it a trifecta, a Cuban-Chinese-Russian conspiracy?
What exactly would be the benefit to any of these countries – but particularly Cuba, a small, economically struggling island nation desperate to restore normal trade relations with America – in doing this?
What would any of them gain in using a space age, undetectable weapon to cause perplexing brain injuries specifically to American and Canadian diplomats?
The Times has a theory. It interviewed a “security engineering” officer from the Guangzhou embassy who is one of the afflicted.
This official told the Times that he previously worked for the International Republican Institute, as the paper puts it: “promoting Democratic reforms in Ukraine and Georgia – two countries where Russia has denounced American involvement.” This work, the official told the Times, may have “made him a target.”
With apologies to this official, the Times was crazy to print this.
Think about what we’re now implying. Not only were the original Cuba illnesses “attacks,” and caused by a specific country (first Cuba, now China or Russia), but now, according to the person quoted, the afflicted are apparently not just random victims, but targeted individuals? How can we say any of this without even knowing what happened?
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania who examined the Cuban victims have seemingly ruled out a case of collective obsessive behavior (previously known as mass hysteria), a possibility that the Washington Post at least bothered to consider. But collective obsession happens with newsreaders, too.
This embassy-illness story is unlike any other in a lot of ways – the scary-weird factor is off the charts – but the reporting of it is an all too commonplace example of the power of the printed word, when it comes to demonizing foreigners. Journalists know it, but the public mostly doesn’t grasp how easy it is to make audiences believe that other people (particularly ethnic people) want to commit pointless, evil acts of violence against us.
Our history shows that once we start pointing fingers at a foreign country or nationality, people start seeing those enemies hiding under every rock, with knives in their teeth. The more alien the culture, the quicker we are to believe the enemy wants to hurt us for no reason.
Even if you leave aside the current bogeyman, Russia – where there is already a long list of false alarms and crazy accusations – this is a pattern that extends far back in our past.
At the height of the run-up to the Iraq war, Americans actually believed Iraqis might send drones full of poison flying over American cities. After the Oklahoma City bombing, when virtually the entire press instantly pointed the finger at Middle East belligerents, we had columnists like Mike Loyko saying we should just pick any country and start bombing it – “If it happens to be the wrong country, well, too bad, but it’s likely it did something to deserve it anyway,” is how he put it.
The Cuba blunder was probably borne of archaic fears about the Soviets, another enemy often portrayed as emotionless killing machines. From the yellow peril to “They hate us for our freedom,” we’re really bad when it comes to this stuff. How many times do we have to be wrong before we learn from one of these episodes?