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When humor tells us troubling truths...about ourselves

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There is a time for humor, and there is a time not for humor. But then, as they say, all humor has a grain of truth to it. And if that's the case, then yesterday's behavior by President Bush - and the reaction to it by the audience and the media - is a disturbing commentary about both the current White House, and about ourselves.

The moment occurred during the President's speech about Iraq in Philadelphia. His comments, the media's reflexive complicity, and the audience's laughter, is an incredible, if silent, chronicle of just how callous our society has become to the tragic real-life consequences of our current government's immoral behavior. Here was the interchange:

QUESTION: Since the inception of the Iraqi war, I'd like to know the approximate total of Iraqis who have been killed. And by Iraqis I include civilians, military, police, insurgents, translators.

THE PRESIDENT: How many Iraqi citizens have died in this war? I would say 30,000, more or less, have died as a result of the initial incursion and the ongoing violence against Iraqis. We've lost about 2,140 of our own troops in Iraq. Yes.

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QUESTION: Mr. President, thank you --
THE PRESIDENT: I'll repeat the question. If I don't like it, I'll make it up. (Laughter and applause.)

So let's review: immediately after the President told us that more than 32,000 people have been killed, he moved seamlessly into joking around - and the audience yukked it up, as if they either hadn't even heard the casualty count, or didn't care. 32,000 people - that's like filling up an NBA arena and killing everyone in it. How could someone immediately then start hamming it up? Worse, how could the people sitting there laugh along?

The answer is clear for both the President and the audience. The reason the president could laugh it up after telling us an NBA arena's worth of people had been killed is because he and the neoconservative advisers around him who pushed this war have never actually served in combat. Their closest experience to combat was likely seeing the first scenes of Saving Private Ryan - that's it. Because of that hard truth, they clearly see killing 32,000 people as just not a big deal. It is a number representing something they see only on TV - sort of like a score on a video game. You can laugh after a video game, right?

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This is the same reason we see no remorse from the White House about the fact that this war was based on lies. They don't care - they wanted a war, goddammit, and it's easy to want a war if you've never been shot at, and if you know that when you send troops in, no one you know personally will be put in danger.

For the audience, which really represents the media and the broader American public, the answer is even more troubling. Sadly, with the end of the military draft, we have been viscerally disconnected from the real-life consequences of our government's military decisions. Sure, the vast majority of Americans oppose the war. But only a tiny minority of Americans actually have to carry out the war, and deal with the blood-and-guts consequences of getting killed, getting maimed, or having a family member killed or maimed.

So while at one moment we mourn the bloodshed and get angry at our president, we can, in the next moment, be laughing with him as he yukks it up - because in the age of an all-volunteer military, the mourning and the anger don't really flow from a deeply personal place anymore. Put another way, had you or your family member been killed or injured in Iraq - or even had you or they been serving in a combat area - you wouldn't find it so easy to start laughing with the guy who put you or your family member in danger immediately after he told you how many people had been killed in a war based on his lies.

This last point is why we should all be particularly disgusted with politicians of both parties who willingly play politics with the Iraq issue. Barely a day goes by when we don't hear some self-serving hack in Congress trying to have it both ways on Iraq, desperately in pursuit of their own personal ambition, or the ambition of their party, quite literally not caring about the fact that scores of innocent human beings - both Iraqi and American - are being maimed or killed in a war based entirely on false pretenses. This is the reason why people like Rep. Jack Murtha (D-PA) are literally screaming at their congressional colleagues - most of whom have never served in the military - to wake up, look in the mirror, and see how odious their ongoing complicity in this war really is.

Murtha is merely one courageous voice - and he is tapping into the broader realization that we have reached a truly low point in American history, in which life and soul have been beaten out of our political consciousness to the point where issues of war, peace, and violence are seen as just another TV storyline in a pop culture society that can - and will - just change the channel.

This is, in no uncertain terms, the definition of a society overrun by immorality and unpatrotic behavior: when politics becomes so divorced from people, that our own political leaders can publicly refer to ongoing wars in political terms, not human terms; when vice presidents with five draft deferments can stand up in a tuxedo and impugn the patriotism of war heroes; when presidents who purport to care about "moral values" can break into a comedy act after telling us 32,000 people have been killed; and when the public and the media either laughs along or says nothing at all.
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David Sirota is a full-time political journalist, best-selling author and nationally syndicated newspaper columnist living in Denver, Colorado. He blogs for Working Assets and the Denver Post's PoliticsWest website. He is a Senior Editor at In These Times magazine, which in 2006 received the Utne Independent Press Award for political coverage. His 2006 book, Hostile Takeover, was a New York Times bestseller, and is now out in paperback. He has been a guest on, among others, CNN, MSNBC, CNBC and NPR. His writing, which draws on his (more...)
 

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