I’ve long suspected that governments cling to conspiracy theories like some children cultivate imaginary friends. It’s a way of coping with events outside their control. If only reality were as dramatic or as clear-cut or even as fun as the fantasy.
And yet — to quote Henry Kissinger quoting Golda Meir — even paranoids have enemies. Strange things do happen, and some mysteries are hard to resolve.
Turkey’s unexplained whodunit concerns President Turgut Ozal, who died in 1993, ostensibly of a massive heart attack. No autopsy was conducted at the time, but then one hardly seemed necessary. The president was overweight. He had undergone a triple by-pass at Houston Methodist Hospital. And the year before, he’d been operated on for prostate cancer.
Yet his wife, Semra — a cigar-smoking platinum blonde with a penchant for jewel-encrusted revolvers — thought otherwise. She said her husband had been served tainted lemonade at a reception at the Bulgarian Embassy the night before his death.
At the time, her suspicions seemed like an Oliver Stone take on J.F.K.’s assassination, but they took root over the years, as Turkey began to peer into the activities of the deep state, which had become a law unto itself.
Today, the country is in full conspiratorial mode. The courts are creaking their way toward a verdict in the Ergenekon trial, in which senior army officers and a slew of alleged civilian collaborators (including journalists) stand charged with forming a secret organization to take over the Turkish state. The defense argues that the trial itself is a conspiracy — a witch hunt by the government against its detractors.
In such a climate it seemed inevitable that doubts over the death of Ozal would come back onto the political agenda. The president is seen as the spiritual father of the current pro-free-market government, a man who challenged the military-backed old guard in the name of cultural conservatism and hit bump after bump on the road to social and economic reform.
When Turks speak of the “Ozal Years” they are referring to a stagnant, inward-looking country opening up to the globe. Ozal gave close support to the United States during the First Gulf War, and he understood that Turkey’s ability to reshape the Middle East depended on its proving that it could make reforms at home.
Was Ozal an early victim of an ultra-nationalist conspiracy that wanted to keep the Kurdish issue bottled up and Turkey’s shutters to the outside world wedged tight?
Turkey’s State Supervisory Board, acting under orders of the current president, recently decided to find out. In early October Ozal’s body was exhumed from a mausoleum in Istanbul.
According to the latest forensic report, Ozal, who was operated on by the famous heart surgeon Michael Debakey in 1987, may have subsequently fallen into the hands of some latter day Dr. Crippen, the infamous poisoner. Ozal’s body contained a rich cocktail of noxious substances, including dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, more commonly known as DDT, and a DDT by-product called DDE, which damages the liver, as well as cadmium and the radioactive elements americium and polonium.
Then Zaman, a newspaper that campaigns for the prosecution of the Ergenekon suspects, leaked the president’s final medical report from Houston, which said his ticker was working just fine.
Yet the final report is inconclusive. The presence of toxins in the president’s body does not in itself prove that he had been poisoned. Ozal’s final resting place is a mausoleum beside a busy Istanbul highway, and after 19 years there the body might have become contaminated.
And so Turgut Ozal’s ultimate contribution may be to teach Turkey that coming to terms with the past means accepting a lack of certainty.
*Andrew Finkel has been a foreign correspondent in Istanbul for over 20 years, as well as a columnist for Turkish-language newspapers. He is the author of the book “Turkey: What Everyone Needs to Know.”
(The New York Times)