Safety and Politics

It’s tax time in America. The time when we fork over our dough to the elite ruling class, so that they may distribute it among themselves – the corporate welfare, the pork projects, the subsidies and the arms deals that make this country great. Never mind that the bridges and schools are falling apart, or that the parks and libraries are closing due to lack of funds. Those limos don’t pay for themselves!

But that’s all the ranting I’ll do about it. In principle, I don’t mind paying taxes at all. But when we have to pay more and more for less and less visible results, it gets frustrating.

What’s really on my mind is a kind of “Eureka” moment I had the other day. My wife asked, rhetorically, why it is that we can’t even determine whether — forget about “why” or “how”  — anyone in the government screwed up in failing to protect the country from the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Although I had been following the 9/11 hearings, I hadn’t been dwelling on that angle. But she was right. No matter what happens, you can be sure that no one of any consequence will be “blamed” or held accountable for what did or didn’t happen in the weeks and months prior to the event. And because no one will be blamed, no “fault” will exist.

Instead, the blame will go to “policies” and “structures” that did not allow the otherwise competent folks in the government to get the job done. They would have, the story will go, but their hands were tied by the restrictive operational rules of their respective agencies. The solution? My guess will be a long-term, costly “revamping” of this or that agency, with no accountability down the line to see if it actually did any good. Memos will be written, departments will be restructured, policies will be retooled — and none of us will be any safer than we are now.

So my answer to her was, “Because there is no one left in this country’s government who can look at anything from a point of view that is not shaped by politics.” In other words, even though the 9/11 hearings are seemingly meant to address the gravest, most serious threat to America’s future since World War II and help the nation overcome that threat, no one participating in them sees them that way. They truly do not. They do understand that is the contextof the hearings (or, for the more cynical among them, the pretext). But they are also acutely aware that the important stakes for these hearings are political, and will be won or lost on November 2nd.

The next general election–rather than the next terror attack–is what drives the majority of participants’ responses, their analysis, their very thought processes in preparing to testify or question those who testify.

It’s unfortunate, but I believe we are at such a point. We have reached a state of politicization and polarization that does not allow for any situation, however much it may endanger the populace, to override the single guiding principle of all activity in Washington today — which is to preserve power (for those who hold it) or to gain power (for those who do not).

What this means in the context of testimony and questioning at the hearings is equally straightforward: no testimony means anything, because its meaning is interpreted by virtue of which side you’re on. It’s akin to Orwell’s true definition of doublespeak: you say one thing, believe an entirely opposite thing, and yet can embrace both concepts as inherently “true” because one is “objective” truth (for example, that the war against Iraq was a war of choice) and one is “political” truth (the war against Iraq was a war of necessity).  Take Condaleeza Rice. The pundits have been batting her testimony around for weeks, and if you read the analysis you come up with two perfectly opposing versions of what she said.

If you’re anti-Bush: Rice spun the facts and misrepresented the nature of pre-attack warnings from intelligence agencies to cover for Bush’s and her own inability to effect top-down control over security agencies in the face of clear warnings and evidence of impending attacks.

If you’re pro-Bush: Rice acquitted herself and the administration admirably, providing a solid basis for her assertion that there was no “actionable” intelligence for the administration to act on and that no one could have predicted the time, place and scale of attacks prior to the event based on the intelligence at hand.

Can both versions be correct? Probably not, but each are effectively “true” for the equal halves of the country that believe each version. Does the truth inhabit some “middle ground” between the two partisan interpretations? Possibly, but not necessarily–the moderate answer is not more true by virtue of its being  non-partisan. It may simply be a wishy-washy interpretation of baldly partisan rhetoric.

And the result? Paralysis. Since it cannot be determined which version is “empirically correct” without access to an independent evaluation of the evidence (as opposed to the conclusions of a “bipartisan” committee, which can be painted as political by those who don’t like them), the result for politically dispassionate observers is a kind of circular syllogism of cause and effect:

If A is true, it follows that B is true
A may or may not be true
therefore,
B may or may not be true

To put it in the context of 9/11:

If our leaders were warned of impending attacks, they should have done something to prevent them.
Our leaders may or may not have been warned of impending attacks;
therefore,
they should or should not have done something to prevent them.

And so on, forever. So we might as well get used to the terror attacks–while it may be theoretically possible to prevent them, it’s become politically impossible to figure out whose job it is.

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