Editorial: Cassandra Factor Revisited

Becky O'Malley
Friday May 21, 2004

As this is being written (Thursday morning) the latest news from Iraq is that, according to the Washington Post, “U.S. soldiers raided the home of America’s one-time ally Ahmad Chalabi on Thursday.” Well, sure. Guess what, guys? As we say in the trade, W E TOLD YOU SO. You’re just learning that Mr. Chalabi is a thug? Somewhat sleazy? It’s hard to believe that it’s little more than a year since huge demonstrations were mounted world-wide to tell whoever was running the show in Washington that: 

1) there we re no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; 2) if you break it, you’ve bought it; and 3) your seeming friends among expatriate Iraqis are a bunch of crooks. As I remember, Chalabi was specifically mentioned at the time in the left-liberal press as Crook Nu mero Uno. But no, the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz administration swallowed Chalabi’s brand of snake oil, and now look where it’s gotten them. 

This is yet another instance of what has been called in these pages “the Cassandra factor,” after an unfortunate woman in ancient Greece. She was able to foretell the future, but no one ever believed her. The people in charge (among whom I include, for example, John Kerry, Thomas Friedman, the editors of the New Yorker and just about everyone in Congress except Barbara Lee) allowed themselves to be gulled at the time the invasion started, though these days they’d like to pretend they didn’t. 

The government of the United States is now arguably worse than it’s ever been in the whole 200-plus years since the count ry was founded. The country has been in the hands of scoundrels from time to time before this, but they pretty much limited themselves to graft and corruption, and they had nothing like the firepower which the current administration is able to throw at its insane foreign adventures. And they lacked the terrifying combination of stupidity and self-righteousness which is Bush’s signature style.  

The hearings over the torture which has been going on in Iraqi prisons under U.S. direction are frightening. It’s no surprise, to anyone who is familiar with Phillip Zimbardo’s Stanford experiments of 20 years ago, to find out that humans, given half a chance, will become ravening beasts under the wrong circumstances. For that matter, it’s no surprise to anyone rai sed in any of the well-known world religions to discover that evil-doing has always been a human tendency (some Christians call this the doctrine of original sin.) Pop anthropology characterizes this as “the chimpanzees versus the bonabos”—we, and the chi mps, are on the violent side of the tree of primate evolution. 

What is newly appalling is the parade of inarticulate grunters who have been testifying before congressional committees, apologizing for and defending policies which appear not only to have allowed the torture in Iraq but to have encouraged it. These are people who in the old days would have been called “officers and gentlemen”—high ranking military men, including generals, who are so disconnected from the effective use of language that they don’t seem to be able to explain, even to themselves, what the hell they thought was supposed to be going on in the prisons under their command.  

Military officers in the past did not have this problem. General Douglas McArthur was profoundly irritating and wrong on many points, but he was able to explain what he wanted to do and why, whether you agreed with him or not. General Eisenhower was chided for his sometimes blunt, inelegant use of language, and for mispronouncing the word “nuclear,” but he was able to get his point across when it mattered. Colin Powell, when he was a general, was almost too smooth, too articulate, to be completely trustworthy, but he clearly demonstrated that he is well educated and intelligent. But the new breed of generals se ems to be so tangled up in the language of bureaucratic obfuscation and military jargon that they can’t even give a straight answer to questions the senators ask. Many senators, notably Kennedy, Clinton and McCain, have made a valiant effort to ask direct questions followed up by more direct questions, but the going has been tough. (Others, of course, such as Lieberman and Imhoff, have shown themselves once again to be disgusting toadies.) The answers that they’ve received have been almost unparsable. It’s hard to believe that these inarticulate generals are holding rational high-level discussions of policy options behind the scenes at the Pentagon. 

And then there’s their boss. Rumsfeld seems to have survived, at the least for the moment, the world-wide demands that he be sacrificed in the prison torture scandal. It clearly makes no difference to his patrons in the White House that even the conservative British magazine The Economist had “Rumsfeld, Resign” in large type on its cover. The fact that Rumsfe ld’s lasted thus far lends credence to the theory that he’s the ventriloquist on whose knee Dubya sits. 

Knowing any of this, however, does no good. We know what’s wrong, we’ve known all along, but it doesn’t seem to make any difference. So much for the t heory that the truth will make us free. Anyone have any new ideas? 


—Becky O’Malley