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Abstraktes Bild (Abstract Picture) by Gerhard Richter (oil on canvas, 1995)

Not Again
Iraq's Undivine Comedy

Every week as I prepare to write this piece I tell myself: Not Iraq , not this time. Almost every week something makes it impossible to stay away, to get away. Iraq is 6,800 miles from our shores in geography only. What happens there in any given week has more bearing on what we’re becoming here than anything happening between the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains in any given month. And what we’re becoming is a fraud of our former selves.

The 1970s had “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” the Talmudic treaty on gender and sexual identity that midwifed feminism’s ascent toward the ankles of America ’s power structures. This decade has “ Iraq , Ourselves.” Less Talmudic, more communal, it’s written every day and — fittingly for the Internet age of diffusion — in innumerable parts by anyone who chooses, and by many who don’t, and whose last words are etched on tombstones in every state. “ Iraq , Ourselves” traces the descent of American values into various circles of hell. The lust and gluttony for power, the greed for cheap and easy profit from Iraq’s ruins, the wrath of our terrified military, of our mercenary “private security” goons, and now of Iraq’s government-backed death squads and their hunt for heretics: All of it combines into a three-ring circus of violence with the Tigris for a River Styx and the Potomac for a Rubicon. Our imperial president crossed that one three years ago, with fraud on his lips and hubris in his plastic laurels.

He, of course, is the head writer of this shameful testament, its editor-in-chief, though he cannot see past fictions. The White House has become his very own Eighth Circle where he wallows in the sloth of flatterers, false prophets, falsifiers, counterfeiters and roving hypocrites. He plays with them in their little ditches, then rises every little while to spin their tales in front of big audiences in uniform before sending them off to etch their marble stones while he retreats back to his circle, unrepentant.

The Bush-Pentagon vast disinformation campaign in Iraq is finally generating the reaction it ought to have generated back when, in the earliest days of the war, the Pentagon was spilling Jessica Lynch-like lies as liberally as it was spilling other people’s blood, staging statue-toppling victory parades in the heart of Baghdad and manufacturing a “Mission Accomplished” celebration on the deck of an aircraft carrier. No one should be surprised about the vast right-wing confabulations that take their source in the White House’s messianic conviction that its little junta should represent the Middle East’s second coming. But the sense of outrage isn’t discouraging still-more dangerous fantasies on the part of the administration’s foot soldiers. Television’s fair-and-bullocks propagandists, radio’s dittoheads, the blogosphere’s approximation of a mobosphere — they think more disinformation abroad, more censorship at home, more of the same policies and strategies everywhere, including torture and secret prisons, are the answer.

Charles Krauthammer’s defense of torture in last week’s issue of The Weekly Standard gave every intellectual sadist and me-generation jingoist reason to cheer. The argument is too craven to answer. But Krauthammer throws in a popular myth along the way, that the Pentagon treats Guantanamo’s inmates so well that “our scrupulousness extends even to providing them with their own Qurans, which is the only reason alleged abuses of the Quran at Guantanamo ever became an issue. That we should have provided those who kill innocents in the name of Islam with precisely the document that inspires their barbarism is a sign of the absurd lengths to which we often go in extending undeserved humanity to terrorist prisoners.”

Never mind the assumption about the Quran’s barbarism, which is demonstrably false, or the more serious guilty-until-proven-innocent assumption about the detainees, even though not one of them has been found guilty of anything. There’s a more monstrous fallacy here. As a new book by James Yee, the Army chaplain falsely accused of having “infiltrated” Guantanamo as an al-Qaida member, makes clear, the Quran has itself become an instrument of torture. Because of the petty abuse heaped on the book by their captors (dropping it, kicking it, mishandling it), Gitmo inmates took to refusing to have a book in their cell. They weren’t allowed to refuse. Those who still resisted were forced, violently, to accept a book — a procedure known as a “forced cell extraction” — then placed in isolation until they relented. Their captors, with creative cruelty, have turned the inmates’ one and only haven against them while still making us believe that “our scrupulousness extends even to providing them with their own Qurans.”

No lie more demonically speaks of the undivine comedy of this whole war, of the falsehoods corrupting its core assumptions, of the brutality that shadows America in others’ eyes, and not only in others’. Rot is replacing our ideals from here to Baghdad, to ourselves.

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