This weekend, I saw the movie Lives of Others, about an East German author under a totalitarian regime, and the Secret Police officer assigned to monitor his daily life, relationships, and conversations. The film portrayed graphically the coercive effects of a power structure built on lies: in order to keep the truth out of circulation, bribery and blackmail are deployed in an expanding circle of complicity. Informants are recruited down to the lowest levels of political discussion. Too many people are too good to be silenced by threats to their own person; so the regime learns to threaten their loved ones. When I compromise my integrity to protect my wife or my daughter, I must not allow her to know what I am doing. She senses that she is being deceived, but may not figure out that the deception is rooted in a tortured desire to protect her. Her suspicion weakens our bond, and extends a chain of distrust. Political corruption has metastasized to personal malaise. No relationship is safe.
During the first two thirds of the film, I was thinking about communism and the East German police state. Then I caught a glimpse of George Bush’s America.
This is a regime built upon lies. The lies that led to the War on Iraq are now being exposed in the press. Other lies concern the president’s past, the health of the economy, global climate change, abstinence education, and many, many smaller issues. These are the lies that we know about, because some politician, some columnist, or some editor of the mainstream press has been courageous enough to break the silence.
Other subjects remain murky. We hear that our electoral machinery is vulnerable to corruption. We have come to expect that Republicans do better in the ‘real’ election than they do in surveys and public opinion polls. We don’t get to read about real-life election theft, because there are no investigations by the press or by Congress. We don’t know whether our president was legitimately elected in 2004, or whether the Democratic swing in the 2006 Congressional election was really the residual portion of a Democratic landslide.
Liberal politicians die conveniently in plane crashes. A peremptory announcement is made by the FBI, and the ‘accidents’ go un-investigated by local police and by the press. After forty years, we are beginning to learn what really happened to JFK, RFK and MLK. How long before we know what happened to Paul Wellstone, Mel Carnahan, John Kennedy Jr., Gary Webb, Athan Gibbs?
It is clear that the War on Terror includes a major component of opportunism. But once we peel away the distortion and exaggeration, is there anything left? Is there a credible international Islamic terrorist network that threatens us? Do ‘terrorist leaders’ work secretly, hand-in-hand with agents of Bush and Cheney? These questions go to the heart of our government’s legitimacy, and they all lead back to the crazy, mysterious, paradoxical events of 9/11. We know that the government's official account released on 9/12 was fraught with contradictions and physical impossibilities. The Keane Commission Report was incomplete and unsatisfying. There has been no investigation by an independent government agency, nor have investigative journalists brought the resources and credibility of a major news organization to these questions.
Meanwhile, social cohesiveness in our country is tenuous. Divorce rates are high, and antidepressants are prescribed to children. Students graduate with no faith in the future, no sense of their mission in society. Employers no longer feel any obligation toward their employees, and employees have no loyalty to their employers. Friendships are harder to maintain, and the community organizations that once sustained us are hanging by a thread.
We begin to ask, ‘By what measures has the Bush Administration kept the truth from being published?’ and the Patriot Act and Military Commissions Act take on central significance. These laws together set up the core machinery of a police state: secret, unaccountable ‘law enforcement’, domestic espionage, indefinite imprisonment on the President’s say-so. The Patriot Act was a 1200-page document that the Bush Administration had ready and waiting, passed without debate in the wake of 9/11.
How many people have been compromised to keep the Bush Administration’s lies from being exposed? How is the silence of the newspapers and TV stations maintained, and how many lives have been touched by the ripples of blackmail and intimidation that hold the truth at bay?
Someday, the system will collapse from the weight of its own failure, and we as a society will begin a slow and painful self-assessment. Until then, we will continue to forage on the Internet for hints about reality, speculate on political blog sites and list serves, pass on what we have discovered to our neighbors and friends.
We embrace our personal integrity the more tightly, we cherish our loved ones the more deeply, we reach out to our most trusted colleagues and thank them, knowing the breadth of mendacity against which we stand, together.