It’s no secret to people who’ve read this blog for a while that my trust in our federal government is a rather weak and sickly little beast. Still, I’ve always taken pains to distance myself from the loony fringe that thinks every evil in the world has its origins in some smoky backroom in Washington, D.C. So it was that I argued with a left-leaning friend the other night about the proposed war with Iraq. However misguided the case for war, I had said, it is at least sincere, so let’s argue with that, and dispense with all the “no blood for oil” nonsense. Whatever you might think of our leaders, they’re surely not so truly morally monstrous as to kill thousands for some secret, self serving reasons.
That’s when my friend pointed me to an ABC News report on the declassification of documents related to something called Operation Northwoods, apparently old news in lefty circles for a while now. I hadn’t heard about it. What I hadn’t heard is that, in the 60s, top American military brass — not a couple lone wackos, top brass — developed a plan to instigate war with Cuba by killing Americans using terrorist tactics and then blaming Castro for it.
Let me repeat that for the hard-of-reading. The Pentagon had plans, documents declassified only recently, after 40 years, to launch terrorist attacks against the U.S. as a pretext for war. This is not a conspiracy theory; it is a matter of public record. What most of us do still recall, though it’s not brought up all that often, is that in order to gain Saudi permission to use the country as a staging ground, Bush I totally fabricated satellite photos showing Iraqi troops massing on the border. I also needed to be reminded that Saint Colin Powell, paragon of credibility, was implicated, at least tangentially, in the Iran-Contra coverup by the Independent Counsel.
I cite a few points now generally acknowledged as correct, though of course, there are plenty of other rumors and half-truths that circulate among those who like to find conspiracies afoot everywhere — witness Amiri Baraka’s boneheaded line about Jews staying away from the WTC. Still, looking over the Northwoods documents got me thinking.
Is it possible, Eris help me, that I’m not skeptical enough of government? Raising certain possibilities — that, for example, the administration is just flat out lying about what its intelligence shows — typically places you beyond the pale of reasonable public discourse in short order. Some other anti-war folks and I have by and large gone along with this, partly because we think the case against war stands well enough on public information, without delving into conspiracy theorizing, and partly because I, at least, have typically assumed that while our leaders might be willing to bilk us out of a few extra billion in tax monies to buy interest group votes, they are at least constrained by the most basic, rudimentary moral sense from doing things like starting wars on false pretenses.
Well, now I don’t know. The problem, of course, is that things like Northwoods, or the Gulf of Tonkin lie, typically come out well after the fact, so that we don’t get the same degree of outrage and skepticism we might have seen had they been revealed at the time. And the fatal problem with thinking along these lines is, of course, that an effective cover-up actually covers things up: you can’t expect to find contemporaneous evidence. But then you’re just set adrift on wings of paranoid fantasy, judging imagined motives instead of evidence. Like Marxism or Freudian psychoanalysis, conspiracy theories are “unscientific” in that they are structured so as to be immune to falsification. Evidence that appears to refute the theory is the product of false consciousness, or denial and repression, or Freemasonic action, or whatever. But on the other hand, why on earth should we assume that the information we’re getting in this instance isn’t at least partly just made up out of whole cloth, an attempt to manipulate public opinion to jibe with administration desires? Certainly there’s not much historical basis for thinking that a likely hypothesis. Why should we accept that these things happened ten or twenty or forty years ago, but find it inconceivable that the same thing is happening now? Why, for that matter, should we find it remotely plausible that the folks in charge now are much more honest, more incapable of such foul deception, than the folks in charge then?
But then, how are we supposed to know what to think, one way or another? How to avoid being too suspicious on the one hand, or too naively accepting on the other? And why do I have a feeling that even raising this sort of question will confirm some people’s belief that I’m just a crank (or an “idiotarian”) after all? Maybe that’s why we brush aside these possibilities, sometimes with a chuckle, other times with bluster and annoyance. We know, after all, how to have a disagreement about the wisdom of a policy — even something as weighty as a possible war. But taking seriously the prospect that a lot of the information we’re using as the basis for our opinions could be an elaborate deception? That leaves us without any ground to stand on at all. I hadn’t taken that possibility very seriously until now, and contemplating it is so discomforting that I’d like very much to be able to brush it aside again, to laugh at the misbegotten little Sontags who betray their own moral deformities by suggesting that our very own government might be as capable of dissimulation as rogue states like Iraq or France. But the splinter of doubt is in, and I don’t know how to go about extracting it. Maybe this is how one begins to become a crank…
Addendum: Maybe part of the reason we typically find it easy to put worries like this out of our minds is that they’re so often raised by folks who really are cranks. In part, it takes a certain amount of personal weirdness just to entertain thoughts like these for long enough to find out whether there’s any basis for them. Worse, the feeling of uncertainty, of thinking you probably don’t have the first clue what’s going on, is so unsettling (well, it is to me) that folks who do start down this line of thought almost immediately leap to the opposite extreme. The believe every awful story and weird rumor, as long as the U.S. government is the villain, and they seem as certain that they know the administration’s true, base motives as the warbloggers are that Bush is a samite-clad Galahad. I do hope those aren’t the only options.