(Artvoice, January 7, 1999)
Bruce Jackson
The Necessary Demon
My friend Alessandro in Rome sent an email: "If he lies about his sex life how come everyone is so damn sure he's telling the truth about Iraq?"
I wrote back: "Who, exactly, do you think is damn sure he's telling the truth about Iraq?"
Sandro responded. "We didn't get much news of criticism and mobilization, possibly it was passed over by the media--aside from the Republicans, who were doing it for their own reasons. What has shocked most people here is that the United Nations weren't even informed!"
He's right: there was very little criticism and virtually no mobilization on either side. Trent Lott and a few other Republicans in Congress were unfashionably unpatriotic for the first day or so; people across the political spectrum made Wag-the-Dog jokes; but on the whole, reaction to the bomb and missile attacks on Baghdad were almost narcoleptic.
Nor has there been notable American official or public response to Iraqi claims of civilian casualties in the December military action (Clinton named it "Desert Fox," which caused some embarrassment when his staff later learned that was the nickname of the famed World War II Nazi field marshall Erwin Rommell). American military officials have a technical term for innocent civilians who are blown up or mutilated: "collateral damage." Government spokesmen say things like, "We have nothing against the people of Iraq, it's just their evil leader and his weapons of mass destruction we're after. Our attacks were a great success. There was some unavoidable collateral damage." Saddam is so evil we can't be blamed for collateral damage. It's HIS fault, you see.
At one level, this is about our pride in our splendid technology. Technology is who we are; technology is why we're the richest and most powerful nation on earth. God gave us fields of waving grain and technology and anybody who watches Sunday morning tv knows that. Saddam Hussein's soldiers fire a missile at our planes and our planes evade the missile and immediately "splash" the missile sites. "Splash" is the term U.S. military pilots now use when they engage in obliterating a target. Iraq may have history older than writing (it was the home of Gilgamesh and Biblical Abraham), but by golly we're the folks with the carrier-based F-14s and the latest laser-guided rockets.
I believe Bill Clinton when he says that Saddam Hussein is an unstable person who has and controls weapons of mass destruction. I also believe that Saddam Hussein is not the only unstable person who has and controls weapons of mass destruction, and that choices are made about which ones we seek to splash and when we set about doing it. Good reasons are never in short supply. Ronald Reagan offered several reasons when he invaded the Caribbean island of Grenada on October 25, 1983 (he said nothing about diverting our attention from the terrorist bombing three days earlier of the US Marine barracks in Beirut that left 241 Americans dead). George Bush offered several good reasons why we had to invade Panama in 1989 (not one of which had to do with his wimpy image and his desire to continue as president).
All those presidents may very well have been telling us the truth. Their senior generals and admirals always said in post-combat interviews that the military actions took place in the right place at the optimum time. Maybe the worst part of all the nastiness that's happened in the White House and Congress in the last several decades (LBJ lying to get the Gulf of Tonkin resolution through Congress and Reagan lying repeatedly about Iran-Contra are the two I think about most, though House Republicans would prefer we focus on Bill Clinton's desire to avoid fessing up on national television about a sexual indiscretion in the sacred space of the White House) is that we can never again relax and just assume we're hearing the truth from our political leaders and senior military staff.
Arabs are currently America's primo bad guys: they've replaced jackbooted fascists, evil-eyed Asians, and satanic communists. If you did a word-association test with a passing stranger, what responses do you think you'd get to the phrase "They blow up buildings and airplanes full of innocent civilians"?
A decade ago there were Federal death penalties only for treason (which, except for the Rosenbergs, has been interpreted as possible only in times of war) and a few kinds of murder on federal property and reservations. Almost immediately after the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Congress authorized the death penalty for dozens of new offenses. The armature of that orgy of legislation was the initial assumption that Arabs were behind the bombing. I know people who were not just surprised but sorely disappointed when the bomber turned out to be an otherwise clean-cut white kid from upper New York State.
It's important to have a demon and Saddam Hussein makes for a very good demon. Demons provide legitimization for violence. The Inquisition and the Salem witch trials were grounded in that notion. A huge amount of damage was done and many civilians were killed and mutilated when the US invaded Panama in what President George Bush called "Operation Just Cause" in December 1989. The main purpose of that invasion, Bush said, was to capture Panama's president Manuel Noriega and bring him to the US to stand trial for narcotics trafficking. The many close-up pictures of Noriega on television demonstrated just how evil a person he was: on television, people with such a scary face and lousy complexion are always evil. I wonder if Noriega would have been such an easy demon if he'd looked like Tom Hanks.
Saddam Hussein isn't that ugly, but he's got the name problem. George Bush was responsible for that too. Ever since Bush pronounced "Saddam" as if it were spelled like the town that got splashed in Genesis, it's been difficult to hear the name of the chief executive of Iraq and think merely of an evil political leader. What if Saddam Hussein changed his name to Harold W. Porridge and instead of those military vests and big pistols he started wearing Brooks Brothers suits and Hermès ties? Would any U.S. president apply the machinery of war to wipe off the face of the earth a man named Harold W. Porridge who wore Brooks Brothers suits and Hermès ties?
Another important reason why there's little outrage or interrogation of the recent American and British attacks on Iraq is that the January 1991 war George Bush called "Desert Storm" stopped but it never really ended. Saddam invaded Kuwait and tried to take over its oil fields, and we seemed to have whipped him good. We made those Kuwaiti oil fields safe and accessible and we even provided the technology to extinguish the oil field fires Saddam's troops maliciously ignited on their way home. (While it was going on, Cokie Roberts said on the ABC-TV Sunday morning news show that George Bush had done all this to preserve democracy in Kuwait. Her colleague Sam Donaldson said something like, "Cokie, you can't be serious. We went in there to protect our oil interests." She argued, he shook his head; she argued more, he rolled his eyes and changed the subject.)
But we didn't manage to kill Saddam Hussein and afterwards he never would say he was evil or that he'd been whipped. Worse: not only has he refused to admit he was a demon, he's insisted that we're the demons, that we're the bad guys.
I wonder what goes through his mind when he watches Bill Clinton's tribulations on CNN. Twice Bill Clinton has gone on international television to say he'd behaved abominably and was sorry for it. Each time the Republicans let him know that sorry wasn't enough, that what he had to do now was admit he'd committed a felony, admit he'd lied under oath. Each time he responded that as far as he was concerned he hadn't committed perjury; he'd cop to immoral and unseemly and deceptive behavior and would stop there. Clinton knows perfectly well, as do we all, that if he ever said on national television that he'd committed a felony they'd have his head in moments. There's no way the Republicans would let him go: he's their favorite demon and good demons are very hard to find.
Saddam hasn't bothered trying. He knows he's never going to be anything for the US government but a demon. He's said the hell with you all, I'm going to be what I am and I dare you to do something about it. I bet there have been long nights when President Bill Clinton has looked upon the Iraqi demon Saddam Hussein with unmediated envy.
©Bruce Jackson 1999

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