A teachable moment: “provoked by rebels”

Apr 20, 2011

In my seminar at Amherst College today, my students discussed the status of their final research papers, their research designs, and the use of sources. One student asked what were the rules for using quotes or pulling block text from other sources.

Since so many folks seem to be reading Alan Kuperman’s stuff these days, I showed my students the Kuperman article that Patrick linked yesterday in which Kuperman argues the case of moral hazard in Libya. I asked them to pay close attention to the use of the quote from the New York Times:

By helping rebels, we thus increase the risk of retaliatory massacres or even genocide. Indeed, The New York Times reported that violence threatening Libya’s civilians was “provoked by rebels.” Aiding the Libyan rebels also encourages copycat uprisings in other countries, proliferating the risk of atrocities.

The piece later adds:

Indeed, Libya’s rebels started the war knowing that they could not win on their own, and that their attacks would provoke harm against civilians, aiming to draw in outside support — and it worked….

I then asked my students to discuss how they interpreted the article and what they saw as the purpose of the NYTimes quote to the overall point. They concluded that since rebel provocation was so important to the argument, its inclusion added significant credibility and strength to Kuperman’s thesis.

Note to readers before proceeding below — spoiler alert….

After the discussion I had the students read the original New York Times article and spot the quote and the meaning of it in the story:

About 30 miles outside the capital, the elite Khamis Brigade, a militia named for the Qaddafi son who commands it, surrounded the rebel-controlled town of Zawiyah and opened fire with mortars, machine guns and other heavy weapons, witnesses said, in two separate skirmishes.

The first was arguably provoked by rebels who tried to attack the better-equipped militia because it was blocking rebel supporters from entering the town, the witnesses said. But the second, described as a “massacre” by rebel witnesses, took aim at a group of unarmed protesters who attempted to march through the militia lines toward the capital.

My students read this and jaws dropped. They noted that the quote in the original article speaks to a specific skirmish, not general violence throughout Libya as implied in Kuperman’s piece, and the idea that the broader violence was provoked by rebels is directly contradicted both by the title of the NYTimes piece (Qaddafi Brutalized Foes, Armed or Defenseless) and by the very next sentence following the quote. They also pointed out that the quote itself was immediately preceded by “arguably” and was referenced to unnamed “witnesses said.” Their conclusion was that the piece was dishonest, unethical, and deceitful, among others.

I’ll let you all judge the integrity issues here. I’ll just note that my students now have a better understanding of what is appropriate and what is not appropriate when looking for evidence to support their arguments in their final research papers. They also agreed that it is important to retain a critical eye when reading news and commentary — not everything is as it appears.

FYI, Kellie Strom has a further dissection of Kuperman’s USA Today Article and his more recent Boston Globe op-ed and this isn’t the only problem he finds.


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Jon Western has spent the last fifteen years teaching IR in liberal arts colleges at Mount Holyoke College and the Five Colleges in western Massachusetts. He has an eclectic range of intellectual interests but often writes on international security, U.S. foreign policy, military intervention, and human rights. He occasionally shares his thoughts about professional life in liberal arts colleges. In his spare time he coaches middle school soccer, mentors the local high school robotics team, skis, and sails.