A Different Story

Thursday, January 11th, 2007

Back to Saddam one last time, and his trial and death, and the strong possibility — indeed, the common-sense conclusion — that part of the point of the charade was to silence him.

Why else try him only for his earliest crimes when the later ones racked up the big numbers (and, incidentally, served so nicely as a moral cover for our own activities in Iraq)?

Our alliance with Saddam in his “foment war with Iran” phase is so well documented — who hasn’t seen the photo of him shaking hands with Donald Rumsfeld, President Reagan’s special envoy, in 1983, for instance? — that there’s almost certain to be something hideously compromising in the secret record, which an ex-dictator at large would surely have talked about and a real trial would have unearthed.

My unwillingness to let go of this matter, even though the news cycle has moved on, is not to stoke my own or anyone else’s outrage into a pointless frenzy. It’s simply to ask a couple questions: If the truth about war is fated always to be tangled in secrecy, how can we ever become less stupid in our assessment of the new one on the horizon? And even more significantly, perhaps, what conditions — what belief system — would permit raw, unspun truth, no matter how unsettling, to have a place at the center of our national thought and dialogue? What’s it going to take, in short, for us to grow up?

Bill Moyers, speaking recently in New York, noted that, in the wake of the Democrats’ recapture of Congress, job one is a bit deeper than merely choosing from among several dozen long-neglected agenda items — increasing the minimum wage, reducing the interest rate on college loans, funding public transportation, and so on — to push piecemeal into law.

“America needs something more right now than a ‘must-do’ list from liberals and progressives,” Moyers said. “America needs a different story.” The country needs, he said, to retell itself the story that embraces the best of our dreams and history and promise — the story of inclusiveness and human rights, the story of public education, Social Security, the Marshall Plan, the civil rights revolution — and shout down the din of the free-market ideologues and latter-day robber barons.

While I heartily agree, I would add: America needs not only a new but a different kind of story — one that sees beyond itself, you might say, isn’t fear-based and, embracing its own flaws, has the capacity to change as new data warrants, self-correct and evolve. We need a story that doesn’t require its adherents to deny reality.

This, I think, is what Albert Einstein had in mind at the dawn of the atomic age, when he said: “Our world faces a crisis as yet unperceived by those possessing the power to make great decisions for good and evil. The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”

We’ve been lucky so far. We’ve dodged the nuclear bullet despite a progression of leaders wedded to old, reckless modes of thinking and displaying, it seems, an increasingly cavalier attitude about the great physicist’s vision of “unparalleled catastrophe.”

And while George Bush is perhaps not the most cavalier of these, he’s certainly the one in possession of the most power to do good or evil with his decisions. “We must make sure that our military has the capability to stay in the fight for a long period of time,” he said in December, announcing to the world his intention to stick to his guns in Iraq despite the Iraq Study Group report calling in no uncertain terms for withdrawal.

Apparently nothing is capable of amending the story by which Bush governs, least of all the consequences he has already churned up. “The enemy is merciless and violent,” he said, flailing away at the corpse of his “mission” to liberate the Iraqis, or whatever. “They can’t run us out of the Middle East . . . they can’t intimidate America.”

When the “enemy” says the same thing, what the world gets is force bashing itself against force, both sides convinced they’re right and blind to their own excesses, which are, in any case, visited on a subhuman other. Thus we hear of plans (both U.S. and Israeli) to use nuclear bunker busters — “mini-nukes” — on a defiant Iran, which would surely create a tidal wave of retaliatory consequences that circle the globe and burrow into the future.

What the Middle East needs instead is something like South Africa’s Truth Commission, which investigated not merely the crimes of the agents of apartheid but the brutalities of the African National Congress as well, with an eye far less to punish than to understand.

We need a story that begins: We’re all human, we’re all complicit, and we all want to survive.