I mean this in a precise rather than rhetorical sense that applies directly to how we view the alleged plot to blow up 10 transatlantic flights bound for the U.S. When public truths are consistently shown to have been lies, to paraphrase Jefferson Airplane, then actual truths themselves are routinely viewed as lies. Truth no longer becomes merely a casualty of war but another English Patient, doomed, moribund, wrapped in bandages, clinging to a volume of ancient history, Herodotus's "Persian Wars", that can no longer provide him solace. Not for nothing was Herodotus, "the father of history", also called "the father of lies", for both potentials exist in every account of events both current and past. But where Herodotus earned his less flattering sobriquet because of the limitations of data-gathering in the fifth century B.C., our current leaders engineer their lies purposefully in support of their own personal self-interest.
Still, the current legal definition in both the U.S. and Britain of just what constitutes a terrorist plot may have served to magnify the scope of this particular conspiracy. FBI guidelines, as exhibited on http://welfarestate.com/pamphlet/, basically consider an overt concern for the U.S. Constitution a potential indicator of terrorist leanings. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, the Adams cousins, James Madison, and that radical inventor of the bifocals and Franklin Stove, had they been alive in George Bush's America, might well have found themselves on a clandestine CIA flight bound for torturous interviews in an Egyptian jail or at least searched extra-carefully at the airport. The two young men recently arrested in Ohio on a tip by a Wal-Mart employee were buying cell phones and supposedly possessed sensitive information about airline bookings. Are they terrorists or just two guys in the cell phone business and the wrong sites bookmarked on their computers? Did the British conspirators really have their sights set on 10 airplanes or was the number just something bandied about by a boastful hothead? Or even more questionably, was it the suggestion of an informant whose interests, or those of his handlers, would be better served by injecting the plot with a gruesome grandiosity, however unrealistic its achievement may have been, as appears to have been the case with that hapless young man recently arrested in Brooklyn?
In other words, we don't know anything for sure about the reality of the conspiracy to blow up airplanes. Worse, we quite likely never will know. What we do know is that until this recent spate of highly questionable arrests, the Bush administration's anti-terrorist campaign has done far more damage to the Constitution than to any terrorist network, real or imagined.
We live midst such a tangle of public lies that in its long-term impact on U.S. or British politics, it really doesn't matter whether the airline plot was real or not. Of course it does matter in the most vital way, most importantly in terms of the safety of those people whose lives may have been saved by good solid police work, assuming there was indeed a conspiracy, be it against one plane or many. And it should matter because the existence of such a plot and our ability to thwart it should provide the citizens of all concerned nations with some benchmark of the real dimensions of the terrorist threat and our ability to deal with the dangers it poses.
For example, Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff already has claimed that the plot could have taken "hundreds of thousands of lives". His words echo similar hyperbole from British Secretary of Home Security John Reid. That actually would translate into one thousand planes being blown up. The "lie" here is so outlandish that no one can take it seriously and if we didn't know the source, we would think it the ravings of a misguided lunatic. However, our top officials' other lies have at least seemed purposeful (for instance, to lead us into war), so we need to look a little deeper and ask what Chertoff our man in charge of protecting our shores could possibly have been thinking to say something that even he must know has no conceivable relationship to reality.
This administration has, from the beginning, constantly tested the American people to see just how big a lie we will swallow. Chertoff, in effect, composed a totally surreal statement and sent it up as a trial balloon. If the statement can float around the media-zone without provoking widespread condemnation, or if the reaction against such nuttiness can be neutralized by a few broadsides from Fox's talking marionettes, then the boundaries of what can be injected into the public discourse on terrorism has been pushed way into the ozone, or what's left of it. The more passively we accept the most outrageous statements and submit to every new set of security regulations and "anti-terrorist" laws, the more we become complicit in the loss of our own freedoms.
Such tactics are already working in the wake of Ned Lamont's victory over Joe Lieberman in the Connecticut Democratic Senatorial primary. Lieberman and V.P. Dick Cheney both achieved new lows in American political discourse by saying that a vote for Lamont in November's election would represent a boost for al Qaeda. Perhaps Cheney is simply frustrated at having done so little to undermine the real al Qaeda that he decided that if his administration couldn't get Osama Bin Laden, Ned Lamont would have to do. Perhaps Lieberman truly is more of an unethical, power-hungry hypocrite in pusillanimous clothing than we suspected, or perhaps he is still reeling from being kissed by George Bush.
Whatever the cause, linking Lamont and al Qaeda is so contemptible that one would think that Lieberman's newly re-erected candidacy would be D.O.A. and that Cheney would finally be called to task by a media that has spent far too many years lapping up after him. One would think it no longer possible to take either man seriously, except insofar as their policies have caused untold suffering throughout the world and threaten to bankrupt our own country while sending hundreds of thousands of our own troops into a totally concocted war. Instead, journalists formerly known as responsible have actually openly wondered whether Lamont is "the al Qaeda candidate", while right-wing media hounds can't seem to refrain from repeating this slander.
So there's the technique: say something hideous and grotesque, see whether it floats in the media-zone, and let it insinuate itself into the consciousness of the American people. If it works, it serves not only as a propaganda coup, but a precise experiment in just how far public discourse can be corrupted before the American people revolt in revulsion. Unfortunately, we are still waiting for that outer limit to be reached.
George Bush used a lie more subtle than Chertoff's but no less unmoored from reality, that the conspiracy somehow justifies his conduct of the "war on terrorism" and presumably the war on Iraq and perhaps, in time, an assault on Iran. Keep the Bush, Faith. But we might wonder why the Bush administration was seeking to divert six million dollars in funds earmarked for explosives detection. Or whether the existence of a plot automatically justifies a policy that many leading anti-terrorist experts have stated has left us more vulnerable than we were before 9/11. Or we might remind ourselves that good old solid procedural police work apparently thwarted the airline plot, work that had nothing to do with any U.S. anti-terrorist measures. We could also point out that the existence of such a plot, five years after 9/11 was perpetrated on Bush's watch in the face of friendly warnings from our allies, speaks more to the failure of Bush's efforts than to their success.