Commissions and conspiracies

by Muhammad Ismail Khan

Normally, with the findings of a fact-finding commission being made public, it is intended that there will be less air for ambiguity and, instead, a junction will be reached before further inquiry and action is taken. Something similar might have been felt by the ruling party when the report on the assassination of Benazir Bhutto was about to be released by the UN Commission that was tasked to look into the tragic event. Now comes the report, and the opponents have not only questioned the report but also the commission.

Critics of the commission lie in the extreme, ranging from those who are not buying the report to those who believe that the commission has nothing new in it. Though technically opposite to each other in terms of content-buying, the two stances are united in the belief that the commission wasted time and money, begging a question if the appointment of a probing commission was even justified in the first hand.

The answer is: yes, it was. The justification for its appointment comes from the presence of such positions with regard to the commission and its report. Even though there are fewer people in the public who completely rejected the report, the commission was necessary to satisfy the answers of the first group. Without the commission, this group would not only have remained eternally convinced with their details of the event but also have tried to convince others. At least people can now double-check what is being said.

Understandably, it is the second group that is giving a tough time to the government lately. Instead of rejecting the report completely, they are questioning the appointment of the commission, which, they believe, published what was already known. These journalists, as they tell us, already knew most of the events and the UN did nothing but collated all those news reports and interviews already circulating in the air.

While the point is well taken, not all the journalists knew about all the sets of events. In many cases, their conclusions were based on deductions from specific interviews. The difference between them and the commission is that its report should serve as a single, reliable pool of information.

In the absence of such a report, the end result is often a distortion of the story, which is a classic reminder of how partial wisdom can corrupt the soul. Such a distortion, after all, builds on the incorporation of a perspective of specific observers while discarding many others — commonly found in conspiracy theories. Such commissions, therefore, are the best way of addressing the distortions floating in the media.

As a reminder of how commissions serve in setting the record straight, one would like to refer to two of the notable commissions set up in the US: the Warren Commission that looked into the assassination of John F Kennedy in 1963; and the 9/11 Commission which looked into the events related to the September 11, 2001 attack.

In the case of the 9/11 Commission, among the 160 witnesses being asked to publicly testify, a few said that they felt as if there were bombs blowing up the building. The same thing was observed in Kennedy’s assassination where there were multiple theories about the assassination, and the involvement of multiple persons. Contrary to conspiracies, the commission had to gauge the facts against what was being said. The point is that even if a witness said so, there are concrete reasons to ignore an individual’s ‘feelings’ or ‘thinking’.

The same needs to be understood in Pakistan: just because some witnesses happen to disagree with a specific politician, this does not mean that his words are full of wisdom. Yet, what one sees is that, instead of offering the complete picture, a deliberate selection of events is projected which is then endorsed by the selective guest list in talk shows. On the other hand, the commission cannot merely rely on two or three persons; instead, it conducted 250 interviews. After all, for the commission, the person being given attention and the one being ignored share equal importance. Even journalistic ethics would have demanded listening to the person accused, instead of sticking to a single plot only.

This is not to exculpate anyone. Instead, if anyone is indicted for avoidable negligence, there is no reason why he should not be punished. But reaching a conclusion by indirectly referring to a person is senseless. Perhaps, for this very reason, the role of commission becomes important, as it has to rely on concrete evidence instead of ambiguous thoughts about how one individual appears to specific individuals. That, by itself, hits against those who are now questioning the appointment of the commission.

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