On July 5, when British Home Secretary Sajid Javid asked Russia for an explanation of an incident in Amesbury, England in which two people were poisoned by an apparent Russian nerve agent, the problem wasn’t that there were too few explanations from the Russian side – in part, there were too many.
Novichok, the poison the victims encountered, was developed by the Soviets in a sophisticated workaround of the Chemical Weapons Treaty, and may be both undetectable and able to defeat standard protective equipment. It was used in an attack on ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in nearby Salisbury in March.
Still, many questions remain, mainly how people living ordinary lives could have been poisoned by an exotic Russian nerve weapon. (One victim, Dawn Sturgess, later died.)
The most likely explanation seems to be that Sturgess and Charlie Rowley, who survived, found a bottle left behind by whoever attacked Skripal, and took it home not knowing what it was.
WATCH: British man poisoned by Novichok nerve agent released from hospital
- An attempt by an unspecified ‘someone’ to distract from the Trump-Putin summit
- A British attempt to ‘ruin everything’ for Russia at the World Cup
- Terrorist groups were testing a new weapon
- The British chemical weapons lab at Porton Down was testing nerve weapons on people
- “A provocation arranged by the enemies of Russia” by unspecified foreign spies
- It’s part of an “international hate campaign” against Russia
- Lots of countries had access to Novichok, and it could have been any of them (a former Russian chemical weapons scientist says this is unlikely)
For its part, the Russian embassy in London blamed the different explanations on the British not giving them information.
“It is not surprising that Russian media and experts, struggling to understand what happened, are operating various versions, the embassy wrote in a statement. “The best way to put an end to those speculations is to lift the secrecy of the investigation and to respond to the Russian proposal to work together to discover the truth.”
The narrative, or narratives, were very similar to those Russian sources offered to explain the Skripal attacks in March, except that in that case they also blamed Bill Browder, Hillary Clinton, and a British desire to “distract from Brexit.”
(The British Foreign Office says it identified 21 separate conspiracy theories about the Skripal attack.)
What’s the point?
The attack on the Skripals seemed, in a way, showoffy, and it seems likely, given a lack of evidence to the contrary, that the Amesbury incident was an accident in its aftermath. Why not just own it?
One way for a powerful state to degrade truth is simply to tell a lie that is intended to be believed.
Another is to degrade the concept of truth itself, simply by creating so many half-plausible alternatives that the citizen gives up on trying to tell them apart.
“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists,” wrote Hannah Arendt.
Truth – perhaps someone’s best attempt at finding facts, partial and slow to emerge – gets drowned out in the babble.
Will return next week.