Prime Minister, how could you forget so many civilian deaths?


On 4 June 2015, a Dutch bombardment in Hawija, Iraq caused a lot more damage than planned with civilian deaths as a serious consequence. Could it be that Bert Koenders and Mark Rutte don't remember such an announcement? According to Sophie van der Zee, assistant professor at Erasmus School of Economics, we can’t dismiss this matter as a lie on their part that easily.

Misinformation or a lie?

Van der Zee clarifies that being misinformed is not the same as telling a lie. Misinformation is spread accidentally and turns out to be factually inaccurate after it’s shared. A lie is knowingly sharing misinformation. What's difficult about this discussion is that it’s not as black and white as it seems. Knowing or not knowing something is quite complicated. As a member of parliament or as a minister, you get a lot of information. It can happen that the information was presented, but not well read or that it wasn’t clear how serious the given information was in that moment. These circumstances that may cause a less active memory, says van der Zee.

Suppose Mark Rutte was told that the bombardment was carried out according to plan. The target was eliminated, but there is still some uncertainty about possible civilian deaths. Then the messenger may have thought Mark Rutte would now know about the civilian deaths. On the other hand, he may feel like he has never been told that so many civilian deaths have occurred. In a way, they're both right.

Hindsight bias

If you have information and you don’t know the outcome yet, you will appreciate and value it differently. We blame the captain of the Titanic for going faster despite the icebergs. We do this because we know that the ship sank as a result. This phenomenon is called the hindsight bias: retrospective wisdom.

Due to Mark Rutte’s high workload, there isn’t enough time to give full attention to all subjects, which means that the information doesn’t land as well as it should. If he had known that the information was so important at the time, he would probably have allocated more time to it. Whether or not he is lying is therefore questionable, according to van der Zee.

Associate professor
Erasmus School of Economics
More information


Read the full article on 26 November 2019 (Premium article, in Dutch.)