Mass Media and the Myth of the Sacred

Just after September 11, 2001, I - like the rest of you - paid a lot of attention to the news and had many speculative conversations with friends about what the appropriate response to the terror attacks would be. I recall a lady in our local bar who wandered around the day of the attacks, soberly asking us all whether we would all commit to joining the military now that America was at war. None of us could give an answer we felt comfortable standing by, because none of us were entirely sure of the appropriate response to an attack by such a nebulous entity. It was one thing to be invaded by a country, or by a faction specific to one country, but Al Quaeda was different. We knew of the Yemeni Cole attack a year or so prior, and the prior attempt on the WTC, but none of us were really prepared for what came to pass. 9/11 hit us hard, but it strengthened our resolve to respond appropriately, at least for a while.

In the days following, there was a vague consensus - in the media and among a lot of my friends, that the appropriate response to the terror attacks would be a smart, covert series of coordinated special forces operations aimed at a global, trans-national terror organization. It was also determined that none of this could come to pass without taking full advantage of the window of global goodwill that had opened after the attacks.

At the same time, there was another emerging consensus, one that grew louder with each day and trumpeted with particular fervor by those in the Bush Administration. Between 9/11 and the following year, the covert approach was largely scuttled in favor of a broader, conventional land war in Asia. The 'War on Terror,' it was decided, needed to be a broader, sell-able concept. It needed to be a campaign, in every sense of the word, and as many of Bush's advisers insisted, an airtight case for revitalizing the seeds of Democracy in the Middle East. To them, it was a perfect opportunity to go after what they considered our greatest enemies and re-make those countries in our image.

Talk of special forces missions and covert operations ceased. Instead, specific countries - many over which the United States harbored grudges and geopolitical interests - became surrogate entities for Al Quaeda. Afghanistan was a proven operations center for Al Quaeda training, yes, and an attack there, for any non-pacifists, at least made a kind of tactical sense. Iraq, though, was a different story altogether. There was proof and evidence of Iraq's complicity; it was concrete and solid, and then it wasn't, and then it was. Soon, no one was sure, and then Colin Powell raised his right hand and showed us some maps, and there was enough Congressional confidence to pass the Iraq War resolution, and the rest is history.

That was all almost a decade ago. I can scarcely believe it. In the time that since then, we've endured an eight year Bush term and the longest war in our country's history. We've lived through despicable energy manipulation by Enron and reckless energy spillage by Exxon-Mobile and others. The financial instruments that toppled the housing market were not devised by aliens, or by vague, swirling 'market forces.' They were devised by men, to incur and generate profit from dearth of profit - to make money, in essence, by betting on catastrophic loss. The inevitable economic collapse that followed eroded the dignity of the middle class and of the nation's - and the world's - economic confidence. We are, perhaps more than in preceding decades, a nation struggling with our own conflicted sense of glory, and self-worth. Some of us are unwilling to see how our own confidence has faltered, and instead lash out at anyone who dares question the greatness of the United States. Others are convinced that individual states and entities and interests need to rise up and strip the Government of its ability to govern their lives.

In this environment, less and less is sacred. Sometime before mass media came along and ripped the veneer off gilded institutions, there existed a political world where certain issues were, in fact, untouchable, constrained by mutual respect and ritual. This is no longer the case. Nothing is truly sacred now. You can trace this erosion to mass media and its impact on countless political evolutionary cycles. The invention of television helped John F. Kennedy when a perspiring, unshaven Nixon failed to inspire. Lee Atwater and his colossal mark on the political machine helped George Bush, whose son, in turn, employed Atwater's spiritual disciple, Karl Rove. Newt Gingrich's leadership style in Congress impacted Government itself, starting in 1994, and helped to make the unintended abuse of Congressional rules a normal, everyday thing. The rise of media dominance over issues like OJ Simpson and Monica Lewinsky helped to blur the line between celebrity and infamy, between respected office and utter disgrace.   

Astoundingly, all this was before 9/11. 

In just the last twelve years, since 9/11, we've seen another deep erosion, and that is an erosion of respect for the office of the Presidency. Obama is despised by a lot of people, perhaps more vehemently than Bush was, but then again, there have vastly political shifts in Washington precipitating it. Bush wasn't as threatening a character, not quite as fierce with his intellectual focus, and it is in Obama's strengths that his biggest detractors see red and reflect it back on him ten-fold. If the more benign - but vastly more historically destructive - Bush taught us anything, it was to stop taking the Presidency so seriously, and Obama, despite the initial popular success he enjoyed, carries the torch. 

Congress doesn't garner much more respect either, and that is because is dominated by hyper-partisanship. Even if you think it's all the Democrats' fault - or all Obama's fault - you can still see that this hyper-partisanship is now a self-generating phenomenon, not helped by any side, and perpetuated by poisonous rhetoric by shit stirrers like Allen West.

In some sense, mass media has become a kind of Fourth Branch of Government. Political cable news, particularly shows like Meet the Press, have long been reliable havens for advisers seeking to bypass Congress or a White House appointment to influence policy.  It's a media free-for-all where former and current advisers weigh in on the issues of the day, strive for consensus, and shape policy. While this transparency is fascinating - and addictive for politics geeks like me - it is also less civil, less structured, and in countless ways, more and more divorced from reality and from the interests of everyday people. It has come to reflect our Government, and Government is in turn influenced by it. 

For-profit media, since it does not truly serve the public while still acting as this Fourth Branch of it, instead is a gross, deformed facsimile of the political process. Insidiously, this fourth branch's ugliness has reflected back directly onto the discourse in Congress, and in the White House, and by the SCOTUS. The water is muddied everywhere, and it's hard not to blame the porousness between large, profitable media enterprises and the political processes they cover. They, in fact, infect one another, and the infection spreads both ways.

Either way, in politics today, there is no off-limits... there is only the degree of skill necessary is for spinning an off-limits subject into something palatable and acceptable. Today's political advisers are often 'ad men' (or 'Mad Men') and policy wonks. Sometimes these ad wonks must go to places heretofore seen as unapproachable. Sometimes, depending on the political environment at the time, and the party involved, it can work wonders. Other times, it can be catastrophic. President Obama's recent Campaign ad about the fate of Al Quaeda's leader was one such political catastrophe. It has left members of his own party spitting on him, and members of the other party crying foul. So, in this age of no off-limits, how, all of a sudden, has Obama found himself encroaching on the sacred ground of 9/11? What, in fact, does this have to do with 9/11?

Well, I began this piece by spring boarding off 9/11 for two reasons.

First, post 9/11 confusion is a good place to start when discussing how our country has changed, or at least, how our access to the inner workings of Government has changed our perception of our own country. This 'change in access' has, in turn, changed Government, which is made up of people like you and me. We live in the age where mass media defines the way that Government does business and commits itself to certain issues. This in turn, has partially eliminated the 'sacredness' of Government that, when I was a boy, seemed immutable. 

I also began this piece with 9/11 because it's where we started discussing the elimination of a man named Osama bin Laden. The urgency of this mission, this mission to kill Al Quaeda's spiritual and tactical leader, began just days after the terror attacks (on September 13th, 2001, actually) when then-President George W. Bush said: "The most important thing is for us to find Osama bin Laden. It is our number one priority and we will not rest until we find him."

Exactly six months to the day after that statement, on March 13, 2002, President Bush reiterated his commitment to eliminating bin Laden by saying:  "I don't know where bin Laden is. I have no idea and really don't care. It's not that important. It's not our priority . . . I am truly not that concerned about him."

About nine years later, after statement after statement playing down the importance of catching bin Laden, after countless attack ads portraying Democrats as 'soft on terror' and 'unsafe for America,' after years and years of a campaign insinuating that only a Republican can keep the country safe, something changed. President Obama, going off information obtained from covert sources, ordered a raid of a compound in Pakistan. Osama bin Laden, after over ten years in hiding (much of it spent in a relatively affluent suburb in Pakistan), was eliminated. Since Obama took, office, in fact, close to twenty major Al Quaeda seniors were either killed or captured. This was a devastating blow to the image of the Republican Party as the only party capable of swift military action.

The death of bin Laden was achieved due to a variety of factors, including (but not limited to) the skill and prowess and dedication of the Navy operatives involved, the expert planning, the intelligence gathered, timing, and of course, the final decision by the President to go ahead with the mission. The initial approach considered just after September 11, 2001, the one my friends discussed over beers just after 9/11, the approach scuttled in favor of a massive land war, the approach involving covert operations and focused, strategic strikes, finally found its purpose. It has - for better or for worse - become a symbol of the Obama Presidency. Drone strikes and covert operations have defined Obama's approach to this 'War on Terror.' It is an approach that has - for all its dodgy legality and implications about the future face of war - has become the hallmark of a Democratic Administration, something that flies in the face of years, if not decades, of insistence that Democratic Presidents are wimps. 

Team Obama's decision to make a campaign ad trumpeting the success of the Bin Laden raid a year ago has met with cries of foul by those on the left and the right. "Despicable," said Ariana Huffington, who, ironically presides over a tabloid news empire bursting with sensational, exploitative headlines. Huffington does not take issue with the Administration's very public reminder of the Bin Laden raid, but rather with an ad that, in her words, questions "the depth of Mitt Romney's patriotism."

There is a quote attributed to Romney, from the Spring of 2007, which implies a certain reticence on Romney's part to 'move heaven and earth' seeking just one man. This is the quote that the Obama Campaign ad seeks to exploit. What the ad doesn't elaborate on, and what makes the ad nothing more than political fodder, are Romney's full comments, and the context they provide.

Romney's larger statement was: "[Bin Laden] is going to pay, and he will die . . . We'll move everything to get him. But I don't want to buy into the Democratic pitch that this is all about one person - Osama bin Laden - because after we get him, there's going to be another and another..."

Romney's is an important quote to consider, because it strikes down the Obama ad's false thesis that Romney dismissed bin Laden. It also provides an important window into the long-standing narrative of the GOP about the 'Democratic pitch' for prosecuting the War on Terror. Romney's comments imply that all the Democrats did was call for the death of bin Laden, above all other interests, and did not see the broader picture. Not only is this a straw man argument, but plainly false. The Democrats largely stood by their Republican colleagues in Middle East ventures, and if they called the Republicans out on their failure to kill or capture bin Laden, it was only a single political football not indicative of their collective focus. Romney knew this - and knows this - but for him, as with team Obama, it is a political football that he's going to run with for as long as he can.

So now, facing an Election year and still dogged by falsehoods about the 'Democratic pitch' that Romney refers to, team Obama decided to get aggressive. In doing so, they hadn't run but a few yards with the ball when they found a land mine buried under the 30 yard line. Romney's comments about bin Laden - not the ones in the ad, but the actual quote - reminds us of Republicans' constant implied insults about Democrats' capacity to competently wage a war against al Quaeda. Once Obama came in and re-organized and re-defined efforts against terror cells, that whole premise fell apart. Now, facing a once successful and now D.O.A., strategy, the Republicans play straight from the Lee Atwater playbook and use this incredible political strength against Obama. They also employ the outrage of a media and a public obsessed with this notion of the sacred, and notion that - as I have illustrated plainly here - falls apart if you look at history.


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