George Bush was talking a lot this past week, and skeptics listened hard for that moment of clarity – the revealing phrase, the Freudian slip, when we could see through all the muck about freedom and democracy to whatever is really at the bottom of this war. The president gave us two opportunities: first in an address to the nation on Sunday, Sept. 7, and then again when he spoke to the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., three days later. For those convinced that something is awry, we listened to Bush with equal parts suspicion and hope, as if we suffered from a political form of battered wife syndrome: We wanted to hear the words of a monster, so we might reject him once and for all, but lacking that, it would be easy to give in to his sweet words of freedom and tolerance.
It is an absurd way to live, but that’s our lot in 2003, and if we want to change anything we have to look even harder -maybe between the lines, maybe outside the speeches themselves – for that clue to what’s really going on. And sometimes, we fool ourselves into thinking we’ve found it.
Was it when Bush said to the FBI, “We are working on Congress,” and then corrected himself, “with Congress,” letting us all know what is in the front of his mind? Perhaps we saw in that slip the true nature of his methods, a hard uncompromising stance that views Congress as a punching bag for the administration, giving our fairly elected legislators only as much information as they see fit, even when members of select committees have the highest level security clearances. It was reminiscent of the administration’s attitude toward the United Nations – unilateral intent under the guise of collaboration. It was only a stutter, though, and we can’t read too much into it.
But what was all this civilization talk about? Do we all believe in “the will of the civilized world?” Do we have faith that this man in charge has a profound and nuanced sensitivity to the human condition? I remember when people used to think the “Clash of Civilizations” doctrine was controversial, but now we’re faced with something even more blatant: There is only one civilization and we’re it. Holy shit! Civilization may be the antidote to terrorism, but we were steamrolled into invading Iraq and other places simply because the war train was already chugging.
I’m not sure anymore if presidents are allowed to lie. I think the rule is if enough people believe it, it’s not really a lie. Bush wants to make us think Iraq had something to do with Sept. 11, so last week he claimed success at “removing the tyrants who support terror” and lumped al-Qaida and Iraq together in the statement “we have captured or killed hundreds of Saddam loyalists and terrorists.” We know he is full of it, that Saddam and bin Laden never liked each other, but 70 percent of Americans now believe that the former Iraqi dictator was involved in that day’s attacks.
But knowing this brings us no closer to the kind of truth we are looking for – a question about why we persist in all this, giving our money and peace of mind to an administration big in action but opposed on principle to explaining itself.
I wonder, though, if the whole search for answers might be flawed. Maybe explanations and ultimate motivations are superfluous as long as we make progress. If the man of the house can make our world a safer place, even if it means slapping us around a bit on the domestic front, maybe we shouldn’t ask too many questions.
But I couldn’t help finding one more thing to remark on, and it wasn’t even something the president said. It was in the text crawl at the bottom of the screen that read “US threat level: Elevated” as he talked. Bush did not speak to how safe we are today except to say that we can no longer enjoy “false comfort in a dangerous world.” About the same time, the Oxford Research Group issued a dire report – “The War on Terror: Winning or Losing?” – that showed al-Qaida’s capabilities and range of activities to exceed those prior to the Sept. 11 attacks, meaning more explosions, if not more deaths. So if we give ourselves a little credit for once, we’ll understand we’ve been duped, and maybe we’ll see George for what he is: a lying, cheating, wife-beater. Not literally – it’s a metaphor, remember?
But most of us will still not be satisfied. We haven’t found that word of truth we are looking for, and we feel a bit like the princess and the pea. We know it is somewhere under all that padded language; we can feel it as we squirm and moan. But we are stuck here, some 20 mattresses up, and we can’t get to the bottom of it. As long as it’s bugging me, though, I can’t get any sleep.
Cotner can be reached at email@example.com.