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My Turn: On being an informed citizen in a democracy

Posted: Sunday, March 30, 2003

Now that the attack on Iraq is underway, all the preceding debate leading up to it is revealed as the sham that it was. The outcome was certain all along: An invasion of Iraq, no matter how many are opposed to it.

What the American people think was merely an exercise in a kind of delusional self-importance: We are entitled to think whatever we want, but ultimately it had no influence over policy. Since most Americans will back the president no matter what direction he takes, their opinion is irrelevant. There is no independent will of the people. But the crucial thing is that if this were a justifiable war, there would have been no need for U.N. Security Council approval, or worries about the objections of France. If the cause were truly just, there would have been no debate, and no hesitation. The United States would simply have gone to war.

Now that the "debate" is done with, futile conversing has been eclipsed by a show of force that has temporarily displaced reality TV. There are certainly benefits to no longer having to listen to powerful American officials whining about the shocking disloyalty of a pompous nation in the old Europe, but the cumulative effect of such carping combined with accusations of unpatriotic behavior by fellow Americans still leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

I realize that America, despite the success of its national myth of beneficent bestowal of freedom, peace and all good things, is a country that has fought more wars in the last hundred years than any other, just or not, yet even so I wonder what has become of the understanding expressed in Thomas Paine's memorable statement "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." Love of country as an absolute virtue has caused untold carnage. I understand that a war cannot be judged until after it is over. The impact will not be all one way, good or bad. It is also true that regardless of the intentions for action, which are usually mixed anyway, the perception of those actions drive reactions to them. In the perceptions of a majority of the world's Islamic populace, that this war is regarded as transgression does not bode well for the future safety and security of Americans

One week into the "prosecution" of war on Iraq, the American "Psy-Ops" (propaganda) effort is in full swing. Directed either at the Iraqis, such as "we are here to liberate your country," or at Americans: "we are there to liberate their country," the purpose of propaganda is to manage perceptions and generate results desired by the officials in power. Propaganda can be expressed through what is said, unsaid, and said only partially or incorrectly. There are many ways, in other words, to disseminate propaganda. One way currently is to use an ambiguous slogan, the meaning of which becomes increasingly obscure as it is brandished in an ever more sacrosanct manner. That slogan is "Support the troops." But supporting the troops does not mean don't question the wisdom of this war, or that troops must stay ensconced in a foreign theater of battle regardless of the cost. It also better not mean to give up the right to free speech, dissent, and peaceful assembly, privileges of liberal democracies.

Ours is an age when it is known that what happens is less important than how you spin it. But no one seems to be changing their minds about what is happening, perhaps because "if you believe, no proof is necessary, and if you don't, no proof is possible." But the power of the Bush administration is beyond dispute, and its arrogance, in willing to go it (virtually) alone, among other examples, is notorious. Given the axiom about power corrupting, it is only right that there be a passionate resistance, if only as an agent of conscience, to actions taken that are so incredibly destructive as the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. The Bush administration professes to be sure that this is the right thing to do. Being an informed citizen of a democracy means not simply accepting that, and not prioritizing loyalty and obedience over making up your own mind, because while "it is admirable to seek after truth, be wary of those who claim to have found it." Especially when the stakes are as high as they are now.

Paul McCarthy worked in the field of domestic violence intervention for 12 years and spent the first half of his life around American military personnel overseas.



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