I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Competing realities

(updated below - updated again)

There is a small though quite vocal and tenacious group of individuals on the Internet who contest the official version of how the World Trade Center collapsed, claiming that at least one of the buildings fell as a result of hidden explosives packed at its base. They appear to have won some converts to their analytical approach, though not necessarily the type they were seeking.

Ever since 60 Lebanese civilians were killed by an Israeli bomb at Qana -- an act for which the Israeli government has apologized -- the right-wing blogosphere has been abuzz with claims that the "official media version" of what happened is actually a massive cover-up, and that it was really Hezbollah -- not the Israeli airstrike -- which brought down that building. Powerline's Scott Johnson intones:

On a related note, Confederate Yankee raises a serious question concerning the media coverage of the building collapse: "Qana media coverup?"

That post which Scott says "raises a serious question" engages in all sorts of paranoid speculation about time lines and the gender composition of the dead -- "34 children. 12 adult women. Not a single adult male officially listed among them. How strangely asexual these 'civilian' families seem to be" -- and then concludes as follows:

It also seems possible that the deaths of the Shalhoub and Hashem women and children came not as a result of the initial Israeli air strike, but because of secondary explosions more than seven hours later, explosions that would seem to be consistent with ammunition and rockets "cooking off."

Based upon the evidence emerging, it seems more plausible than not that Hezbollah men were responsible for the deaths of Hezbollah women and children, and over-exploited that fact for media consumption.

Somehow, this more plausible scenario gets little play from Shrader and Gannon and the rest of the media. It must be the CNN effect.

That theory -- that it was Hezbollah, not the Israelis, who brought down the Qana building -- is being repeated by right-wing pundits and bloggers everywhere. One is hard-pressed to find mention of this vast media-Hezbollah conspiracy in the Israeli press, but among the American pro-Bush movement, there is no bit of reality-denial too extreme to be rejected. For instance, John Hinderaker last week:

Jennifer Harper of the Washington Times reports on a Harris Poll that, among other things, shows that 50% of respondents--up from 36% last year--believe that "Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when the U.S. invaded."

The Harris folks term this result "surprising," but it's hard to see why. "Yes" is indisputably the right answer to that question. . . . But about the fact that Iraq possessed WMDs, there is no doubt.

Several days later, John explained: "Based on this and a number of other reports, it seems likely that some, at least, of Iraq's WMDs were shipped to Syria shortly before the war started in 2003." As this Tom Tomorrow cartoon illustrates, the capacity and willingness to choose one's reality in the face of conflicting facts is so widespread that it has virtually no limits.

I was listening to Shepard Smith last night on Fox News introduce a story purporting to document that the Arab world gets its news from media outlets which often only present one side of the story, and which often distort facts to fit the reality they want to depict. I have no doubt that there are television networks catering to the Arab world which are skewed and biased in many ways, but it would be hard for anyone to compete with this most revealing fact from USA Today in September, 2003 -- six months after the invasion of Iraq:

Nearly seven in 10 Americans believe it is likely that ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the Sept. 11 attacks, says a poll out almost two years after the terrorists' strike against this country.

Sixty-nine percent in a Washington Post poll published Saturday said they believe it is likely the Iraqi leader was personally involved in the attacks carried out by al-Qaeda. A majority of Democrats, Republicans and independents believe it's likely Saddam was involved.

That happened because of statements like this, from Condoleezza Rice in September, 2002:

No one is trying to make an argument at this point that Saddam Hussein somehow had operational control of what happened on September 11, so we don't want to push this too far, but this is a story that is unfolding, and it is getting clear, and we're learning more. . . . But, yes, there clearly are contacts between al-Qaida and Iraq that can be documented. There clearly is testimony that some of these contacts have been important contacts and there's a relationship here.

This reality-denying syndrome essentially prevents meaningful debate of issues among a substantial portion of our population. How do you have a meaningful debate over what the U.S. ought to do in Iraq with people who believe that things are going really well over there and who insist that Saddam really did have WMDs? How do you have a meaningful debate with people over the Israel-Lebanon war who insist that reports of civilian deaths in Lebanon are the by-product of a massive conspiracy/cover-up between the international media and Hezbollah rather than Israeli air attacks? And how do you have a meaningful debate with people who continue to insinuate that Saddam helped plan the 9/11 attacks?

Meaningful political debates require agreement at least as to the basic facts comprising reality. For a substantial portion of the American population, that agreement is lacking, due to a desire to believe only those facts which comport with one's beliefs and the powerful, self-contained ideology-based media bubble which enables that desire. Those who live in the world where Iraq helped Al Qaeda plan terrorist attacks, Saddam had WMDs, things are going well in Iraq, and Hezbollah rather than Israel collapsed the apartment building in Qana, don't merely have different political views but really live in a different reality.

UPDATE: Compare the conspiratorial, fact-denying drivel coming from American pro-Bush followers regarding Qana with the forthright, fact-based manner in which the Israeli press is disclosing facts about what occurred: "It now appears that the military had no information on rockets launched from the site of the building, or the presence of Hezbollah men at the time. The Israel Defense Forces had said after the deadly air-strike that many rockets had been launched from Qana. However, it changed its version on Monday."

Incidents like Qana happen in every war from every side and do not, in my view, constitute evidence as to whether the war is justified or not. But there is no excuse and no justification for attempting to hide the realities of war or simply concocting fantasies about what happens. The Israeli press seems to understand this in a way that American pro-war commentators do not -- not just on this issue but on every issue of political significance.

UPDATE II: Hume's Ghost documents some additional examples of this reality-denying syndrome, found, unsurprisingly, at the core of Michelle Malkin's daily condemnation today.

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