May 6, 2003

by Joe Sobran

     Lately I've been watching some old Alfred Hitchcock 
movies for the umpteenth time, particularly VERTIGO and 
NORTH BY NORTHWEST. And what splendid films they are, 
combining suspense, romance, and polish.

     One obvious objection to them is that their plots 
are so full of improbabilities. The more you watch them, 
the more you notice this. They weren't meant for repeated 
viewing on home video by a cranky old pedant. They were 
meant for the big screen in a crowded theater, where the 
audience came to share thrills, not to take notes.

     Hitchcock had a gift for sweeping the audience along 
with absorbing action. I suspect that the improbabilities 
were conscious. The old man had a mischievous humor, and 
he liked to see how much he could get away with. It was a 
test of his virtuousity. Like a magician, he kept the 
audience so preoccupied with the illusion that they 
forgot all about logic. His tricks pass unobserved until 
you go looking for them.

     In a similar way, though less adroitly, the Bush 
administration has tricked us into war with successive 
distractions. Renewed war on Iraq was plotted long ago. 
The audience -- the American people -- had no inkling of 
this. They were caught up in the plot twists. The 9/11 
terrorist attacks made them receptive to any retaliation. 
They applauded the initial strikes on Afghanistan, which 
were plausibly related to a "war on terrorism."

     With this emotional momentum, the administration 
charged that Iraq had "weapons of mass destruction," 
which might be given to terrorists. The suspense built. 
The dramatic climax beckoned. Antiwar protests, like 
critics' cavils, only seemed to get in the way of the 
plot. On with the show!

     For months the critics demanded proof -- of the 
WMDs, of links with terrorist groups. The administration 
insisted that both were real, but offered only 
repetitious allegations and dubious evidence. When Iraq 
failed to produce and surrender the WMDs, the 
administration accused it of defying the United Nations, 
even when it seemed to be cooperating with UN inspectors.

     Still, the administration set a deadline for war, 
and the public expected more action. Now the announced 
purpose of the war was to "liberate" Iraq as a step 
toward bringing "democracy" to the entire Middle East; 
the WMDs seemed to fade in importance. Added to the mix 
were stories about Saddam Hussein's atrocities against 
his own subjects. These had nothing to do with the 
defense of the United States, but as Hitchcock knew, a 
story is only as good as its villain. Make the audience 
hate him, and they'll believe anything.

     A military attack would dissipate the sense of 
confusion by distracting attention from the flaws in the 
logic. The public had forgotten all about al-Qaeda and 
terrorism. Saddam Hussein had long since replaced Osama 
bin Laden as the villain on the front pages of newspapers 
and the covers of newsmagazines.

     It was effective drama. All that mattered now was an 
epic military victory, and it came quickly. Victory was a 
sufficient climax, made all the sweeter by crowds of 
Iraqis cheering the American troops. Never mind the 
original purpose of crushing terrorism. Destroying the 
Iraqi army and toppling the new, substitute villain was 
enough for the distracted audience.

     And those WMDs? They were never found. They didn't 
even appear when Saddam Hussein's regime and his very 
life were at stake. In order to tie up this very loose 
end in the plot, the administration maintains that they 
are still there, somewhere. Apparently Hussein had hidden 
them so well that even he couldn't find them in time to 
save his own skin!

     In the media age, even more than ever, government is 
a form of mass entertainment. The trick is to control the 
audience's mood and attention, to distract their minds 
from inconsistencies and improbabilities -- and even from 
yesterday's official line. Polls, images, ratings, focus 
groups, and ultimately election results -- these are the 
things that count, not principles and constitutions.

     Yet behind all the short-term, short-sighted 
purposes and slogans, a larger historical pattern is 
visible, of which the administration, captivated by its 
own dramaturgy, is barely aware. The great wars of 1914 
to 1989 can be seen as a single gigantic struggle for 
global supremacy, ending in an American victory. Now we 
are in a period of smaller wars of consolidation of the 
American Empire. That, not terrorism or democracy, is 
what the Iraq war was really about.


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