A national state of confusion

The Bush propaganda machine has convinced Americans that Saddam and the no-longer-mentioned Osama are the same person -- and the polls prove it.

Published February 6, 2003 10:45PM (EST)

In mid-January, an underreported political opinion poll provided a troubling account of the effectiveness of the Bush war machine's propaganda arm. It was an Orwellian moment, the sort of thing that should make Noam Chomsky want to sit down and rewrite the epilogue for the next printing of "Manufacturing Consent." However, as predicted by Chomsky's media propaganda model, the poll was destined to never really penetrate the national consciousness. It makes Secretary of State Colin Powell's Wednesday address to the U.N. Security Council seem like little more than a theatrical subplot. And it shows clearly what may be the price of ignorance when the subject is war.

At the end of the first week of January, the Princeton Survey Research Associates polled more than 1,200 Americans on behalf of the Knight Ridder newspaper chain. They asked a very simple question: "To the best of your knowledge, how many of the September 11 hijackers were Iraqi citizens?"

It should be impossible for a person who has lived through the last 16 months not to know the name and face of Mohamed Atta, believed to be the lead hijacker, and to have at least some nebulous sense of the identity of the hijackers. For much of this time, the nation in toto was umbilically joined to the media's saturation coverage, with hourly "terror alerts," scrolling "terror" news tickers, and panoplies of talking heads sprouting a confetti of 10-second sound bites. Surely some information must have been imparted.

The Knight Ridder survey appears to reveal a quite different reality. Of those surveyed, only 17 percent knew the correct answer: that none of the hijackers were Iraqi. Forty-four percent of Americans believe that most or some of the hijackers were Iraqi; another 6 percent believe that one of the hijackers was a citizen of that most notorious node in the axis of evil. That leaves 33 percent who did not know enough to offer an answer.

One would have thought that the answer to this question had long ago made its way through our societal omni-consciousness, that it would now be firmly embedded in the hippocampal memory of nearly every American -- even in the memories of the socio-politically uninterested, who tend to fare better when questioned on the identities of the contestants on "Joe Millionaire," "The Bachelorette" or the latest incarnation of "Survivor."

Sound bites notwithstanding, Americans undoubtedly shared a commonality of experience. It is not at all unreasonable to conclude that the suspected national identities of the hijackers -- 15 Saudis, one Egyptian, one Lebanese, and two from the United Arab Emirates -- must have been heard or read by everybody on at least several occasions. From there the raw information must have made its way to innumerable lunch rooms, bars and family dinner tables across the country, where it was debated and discussed. Though it was somewhat subversive and unpatriotic to ask why, there was an insatiable national hunger to know who. Even the realpolitik diplomatic strategy of the Bush administration -- to play down the frequency of dots leading to Saudi Arabia -- should not have penetrated sufficiently to impede free access to information that was clearly in the public domain.

In another question contained within the same poll, asking whether there was a relationship between al-Qaida and Iraq, 65 percent of the Americans surveyed believe that the two are closely collaborating allies. In fact, there is scant evidence to suggest a linkage in any form, despite unrelenting efforts by the Bush administration to demonstrate otherwise. Indeed, those with a scholarly knowledge of al-Qaida have consistently spoken of al-Qaida's enmity for the secular rule of Saddam Hussein. In propaganda, however, accusation confers nine-tenths of guilt.

Today we apparently hurtle toward a predestined American invasion of Iraq. At best, the administration hawks have only lukewarm support among the American public, with various polls suggesting that less than one-third of Americans would support military action outside the aegis of the United Nations Security Council. Though we regularly hear talk of drawing together U.S. allies if the U.N. does not sanction war, the only materially committed members of that allegiance appear to be the British and the Australians. Similar recent polls in those nations reveal support of 13 percent and 6 percent, respectively -- thrusting leaders like Tony Blair and John Howard into politically hostile territory with their own citizenry should they choose to follow George W. Bush into non-U.N. battle.

The Knight Ridder poll raises the specter of an unsettling truth. It suggests that whatever support there is for a war against Iraq, it owes much to the erroneous belief of at least half of the American people that it was Saddam Hussein's operatives who flew the planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

If it is disturbing to conclude that many Americans may be supporting a war on the basis of a falsehood, it is potentially even more disturbing to consider how this falsehood came to be. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, have received more news coverage than any other single event in history. How could it possibly be that in less than 18 months this event has become a victim of gross historical revisionism?

It was Marx who described religion as the opiate of the people. Twentieth-first century Americans have television as a general anesthetic. Our collective attention deficit disorder -- a disease of morbid intellectual laziness -- has permitted the careful packaging of pseudo-information by Madison Avenue to assume an illusion of reality.

To the behavioral psychologist, the truth about the hijacker's nationalities might seem a victim of a chronic state of inattention. Conditioning has rendered Americans hyper-responsive to emotional and sensory dynamics triggered by the news media, and relatively uninterested in intellectual content. Nobody understands this better than Rupert Murdoch, who has created an empire out of punchy anti-intellectualism. And few understand better how to use it to their advantage than the Bush White House. George W. Bush is, after all, the anti-intellectual's president.

The prescient moment came last winter, when leaked reports began to emerge about the Pentagon's plan to formally establish an Office of Strategic Influence -- euphemistic for a Department of Propaganda. Most disturbing was that the explicitly stated function of the office to disseminate disinformation to American allies. The idea was received poorly in Europe and elsewhere, and before the reaction got out of hand, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld publicly announced that the plan would be abandoned -- but not before we had had a glimpse of the modus operandi of the Bush Pentagon.

For the better part of a year, the administration made persistent, forceful efforts to dictate the tone of news content, undermining opposing views with references to patriotism, national security or subversion of the commander in chief. It was aided by unconditional editorial support from traditional right-wing organs such as Fox and the Wall Street Journal. With the invocation of 9/11 and terrorism as the universal legitimizer, the raison d'être for plans close to the administration's heart were skillfully rephrased. For example, controversial initiatives such as a national missile defense system and oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge found themselves reinvented and reissued in the language of terrorism.

More penetrating, though, was the use of that language to sanctify a colossal reactionary surge in ultra-conservative ideology. Hypnotized by evocations of fear, Americans have consented to a Strangelovian military doctrine, one that makes the quantum shift from a defensive military position to one of preemptive aggression. Similarly, by appealing to the smoldering sense of national paranoia, the Justice Department has been permitted to revive the principles of McCarthyism, long regarded as a shameful episode of xenophobic fervor.

Chillingly coupled with a presidential power to arbitrarily detain without recourse to any form of international or American law, the Orwellian techniques of the Justice Department have brought scathing criticism from Amnesty International and other rights groups across the globe. And an unknown number of people, without charge, are either detained or on a suspected terrorist list.

The demonization of Iraq with a post-9/11 vocabulary began in earnest during the anthrax attacks of October 2001. Even after the FBI, CIA and the Department of Health and Human Services declared that the anthrax mailings were far more likely to be the work of a domestic terrorist, closer to the Unabomber than to al-Qaida, suggestion of possible Iraqi responsibility continued to be packaged into sound bites by prominent members of the Bush administration and distributed by the media without counterargument. As recently as Sept. 8, three days prior to the somber 9/11 anniversary, Vice President Dick Cheney conspicuously dangled the possibility of Saddam's involvement during an interview with Tim Russert on "Meet the Press."

However, if there was a formal declaration that Iraq was to be fused into the traumatized idiom of 9/11, it came a year ago during George W. Bush's 2002 State of the Union address, with the notorious "axis of evil" reference. "Evil" had been clearly inducted into the understanding of the terrorist attacks, and the description of Iraq in those terms immediately annexed it to 9/11.

With relentless consistency, we then witnessed the morphing of al-Qaida into Iraq, and of Osama bin Laden into Saddam Hussein. It was a case of psychological transference on a national scale. The transformation came not by cognitive argument, but by emotional association -- Iraq was described persistently in the emotionally charged post-9/11 vocabulary and context, most often by an association with fear, anxiety and alarm.

In contrast, distracting truths such as the extent of Saudi fingerprints were generally talked down. The revisionism reached its most ambitious, and farcical, when Frank J. Gaffney Jr., Reagan's former assistant secretary of defense, used Fox News and his Washington Times column in an attempt to implicate Saddam Hussein in the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Gaffney has also speculated on Iraqi involvement in the 1993 World Trade Center Bombing and the 9/11 attacks.

Mainstream America slowly began to emerge from its hypnosis only after retired Gen. Brent Scowcroft, a close Bush family ally, published a cautionary Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal, and brought legitimacy to open discussion of the merits of war. It rapidly fell back into a hypnotic state for much of the fall by the anniversary of 9/11 and by Bush's U.N. address. The revival of national consciousness and of discussion only truly accelerated with the onset of winter, by which time the Pentagon had already moved its discussion on to the troop deployment phase.

We have probably slept too long. Congress has waived its right to wage war. The doctrine of preemption has been elucidated, even if only for this purpose. The mass military mobilization is in place. The support is not strong, but a sufficient bloc of Americans have now integrated Iraq into their understanding of 9/11 to provide Bush with a critical mass of core support, independent of any logical rationale for invasion and occupation.

That the administration and the military of a nation -- even a great democratic nation -- should attempt to use disinformation to manufacture consent for an agenda should come as no surprise, even if it does disappoint and anger. That such an indubitable historical revisionism of 9/11 could occur can be seen as nothing less than a complete and profound failure of the media to protect the American people from virulent propaganda.

But true as it is that the science of mass media long ago discovered that what sells and what informs are very often polarized, the American public has not yet been deprived of the free will to seek out truth and knowledge. The public is equally responsible for its ignorance. The division between the true world and the media-driven perceived world has widened to such an extent that we were unable even to understand the questions demanded by 9/11; a mass cognitive dissonance was averted when "evil" was tacitly determined to be the official explanation for the terrorist attacks. As long as the popular understanding of "reality" continues to be a group of yesterday's celebrities on a stylized mobile set in outback Australia, Americans have little hope of understanding the world, much less their role within it.

When the theme is war, the principal ethical directive of the media must be to effect a complete, transparent and balanced disclosure of truth, with a clear separation of media and state. It is a directive that does not in any way preclude editorial support of government opinion, but it must protect the right to the free public expression of dissent without persecution. And when the theme is war, citizens of a democracy have a responsibility to cherish that right and to use it vigorously.

In this case, that was probably destined never to happen.

By Kane Pryor

Kane Pryor is a writer and anesthesiologist who has studied the role of emotional intensity on the accuracy of memory. He lives in New York.

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