Ever since the September 11 commission stated authoritatively what everyone knew already, namely that there is no evidence that Al Qaeda was in business with Saddam Hussein, a debate of a most peculiar character has unfolded.
Almost no facts -- and none of importance -- are under dispute. No one now claims that
The language of the report, as everyone knows, was that Al Qaeda and the Iraqi government had no "collaborative relationship." Nor was there "any credible evidence" that the two organizations had "cooperated on any attacks against the
The New York Times, perhaps smarting from its recently confessed misreporting regarding
The Lexicographer in Chief and his Vice Lexicographer saw their opening and pounced. Bush stated that while the administration had never "said that the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated" with Iraqi help, "we did say there were numerous contacts between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda." So, "the reason I keep insisting that there was a relationship between
The co-chairmen of the commission, former Governor Tom Kean and former Representative Lee Hamilton, seemed to try to smooth over the controversy by pointing out that they had not denied the existence of "ties," only of collaboration.
What was now missing, however, from the administration's new self-defense were all the factual particulars that had given supposed substance to the charge of a relationship in the first place. No longer did the President claim, as he once had, that Saddam was "dealing" with Al Qaeda, or that
Perhaps the most strained attempt to rescue some shred of justification for the administration's position was William Safire's claim in a recent Times column that the authors of the commission report had conflated a true denial that
By surrendering the factual ground while hanging tough philologically, the White House and its defenders tacitly bowed to the substance of its critics' case. If the war in
Does the debate, then, at least bear on the important domestic question of the President's credibility? It surely does, but in this matter there was not much news, for the administration's response to the collapse of its case repeated the well-worn pattern of its response to the downfall of its claim before the war that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction: monotonous repetition of the falsehood in the face of manifest evidence to the contrary and then a redefinition of words (in that case, confounding actual weapons of mass destruction with mere "programs" for building them), and throughout a tireless insistence that they were right, detached alike from information and the meaning of words. They seem to believe that truth consists not of correspondence of word with fact but of an implacable consistency armored with impervious self-righteousness.
There is no evidence of cooperation between
The spotlight now shifts from the liars to the lied-to. How do we -- in the news media, in the country at large -- like it? Are we asleep or awake? Can we remember what was said to us a few months or even a few weeks ago? Do we care? Can we recall the proper meanings of words? Do we notice that thousands of people have been sent to their deaths on false premises? Do we have the mental or moral energy to do anything about it? These are the real questions put before us by the reports of the September 11 commission.
Jonathan Schell is the Harold Willens Peace Fellow at the Nation Institute. He is the author, most recently, of A Hole in the World, a compilation of his "Letter From Ground Zero" columns, just published by Nation Books.
This article will appear in the
Copyright C2004 Jonathan Schell
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]