Derailing public inquiry and leading the electorate astray is simple. The masters of the con game of (vice)presidential debate know that we are all in the same boat when it comes to attention, and that they can easily manipulate our focus. Like the infamous drunk who has lost his key in a dark alley, we search for our key by abandoning that dark spot and walking up to where the streetlight illuminates an arbitrary patch of ground. The brighter the light, the louder the noise, the greater the attention we pay. That is why the pickpockets use spectacles and commotions to distract their victim as they rob him and make their getaway. The real action is not where the noise is, not where the show is, but in the fold that the thief is picking.
Consider how the politicians completely transform the pivotal question of whether states have a right to preemptively attack other states, by the simple trick of focusing the discussion on successively more irrelevant concepts. Here is how the sleight of hand works. First, substitute that fundamental question with whether Saddam possesses weapons of mass destruction. Now the public loses sight of the moral and pragmatic viability of the right of preemptive strike. Instead of considering the consequences of living in a world where might is right—where any country powerful enough to rain bombs on another can feed its paranoia and annihilate it, based on the solipsistic reason that it fears that country—we debate simply the extent of the might we shall use. The moral argument, which is the duty of each citizen to ponder, changes to a technical debate among nuclear energy experts, biological weapons scientists and the politicians who would select the evidence that suits them. And the public assumes the role of the audience in a tennis match, watching the ball volleyed back and forth and cheering the latest propaganda lobbed by their favorite player. We abdicate our moral responsibility by claiming to be mere spectators.
Next, when the weight of evidence forces the public not to be swayed by the charge of possession of weapons of mass destruction, replace the claim with intent, since no one can prove the absence of intent. So, now, even the sham argument of possession is, imperceptibly, switched. This time the replacement is the claim that Saddam had dreams of possessing weapons of mass destruction. In Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi writes about a terrified young Iranian boy who wakes up his parents, telling them he has been having an illegal dream, because in it men and women were kissing each other—the public display of which is outlawed in Iran. Who is to say that Saddam didn’t have illegal dreams? This is how, finally, even the experts (that is, the scientists, the inspectors, etc.) are taken out and the debate ceases to exist.
The neoconservatives argue for the right of preemptive attack. Robert Kagan, for instance, one of the main neocon voices, tells us that a bear in the forest is tolerable only to a man merely armed with a knife, not to one armed with a rifle. Had we stayed with the original debate and asked whether might is right, we may well have questioned this neoconservative assertion. We would have understood what massacre the poor creatures of the forest would suffer in the hands of these enlightened, gun-toting adventurers. We would have recognized, in other words, the meaning of the right of preemptive strike.
The debating monarchs befuddle the central issues of the war in Iraq—the fact that we are fighting it, the absence of legally justifiable reason for it, the immorality of “preemptive” attacks—by turning our attention elsewhere: how many troops are needed, how to best build coalitions, how much time should be spent occupying another nation’s land, before it is a total wasteland devoid of further incentives for us to remain there. Bush-and-Kerry-and-Cheney-and-Edwards make us believe that the debate should be about the mechanics of carrying out wars, not between war and peace. They box the citizens in the confines of their limited, outdated colonialist vision to force us to choose how to best execute the same flawed foreign policy of aggression, domination, and injustice, rather than international cooperation and peace.
The U.S. foreign policy of Bush-and-Kerry-and-Cheney-and-Edwards, and their clones, is not just misdirected, or badly timed. It is totally incompatible with the values that are claimed to constitute the core ideas of this nation. This is not a policy that, as the debaters pretend, can be fixed with shortening or lengthening the occupation, with increasing or decreasing the numbers of troops, and with changing the size of the coalition. It is a dogma that is based on reprehensible moral principles of might and infallibility, on a lopsided valuation of life and liberty that acknowledges only American lives and discounts others, and on convenient definitions of sovereignty that extend the prerogative of aggression to some, while disallowing the right of self-defense by others.
The debaters muddy the waters. They give us a shell game. Is it in the right hand or the other right hand? And the hand we pick always comes up empty. The reality is that those are not our choices. They are not choices at all. Before falling for the trick of chose-the-criminal-or-the-con, we must say what the choices are. Is it between war and peace, or between massacre and genocide; between supporting terror and taking a stance against indiscriminate annihilation of devastated Palestinian refugees, or between sending Apache helicopters to gun down Palestinian children and providing tanks to demolish their homes? We have to make our moral decisions and announce our platform. Until then we do not have public servants, but tyrant masters; not choices, but disguises.
Kamyar Arasteh is a writer and psychologist. He is the author of The American Reichstag: A Psychopolitical Analysis of 9/11 and Its Aftermaths.
Other Articles by Kamyar Arasteh