Making Monsters the Modern Way

Essay by Martha Quillen

Politics – June 2008 – Colorado Central Magazine

Last month, I received a flattering letter:


Martha Quillen:

I would like to read a short (12 pages or less) editorial detailing exactly how you as President, or the President You Elected, should have responded to 9/11 & the five years following.

John Sturtz

It was nice that someone wanted my opinion on world events (even though I suspect that asking me about Homeland Security is a bit like asking your county commissioner about Arab/Israeli relations).

But I don’t actually believe that there was any “correct” response to 9/11.

Personally, I view war as a grave solution that should only be embraced after all other options are exhausted. Yet, I don’t regard sending troops into Afghanistan as blameworthy. The evidence, the Bush administration, Congress, most Americans, and numerous nations supported America’s move against the Taliban.

Unfortunately, however, the Bush administration wasn’t content to retaliate against the perpetrators of 9/11. Instead, they pledged to defeat all terrorism, everywhere — in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Korea, Indonesia…. The sheer scope of their ambition was dizzying.

But in the early days after 9/11, the world offered the United States its sympathy. And U.S. citizens rallied around the 9/11 victims and our troops, providing goods, money, aid, and support.

The United States could have built upon that good will. We could have declared bin Laden and Al Qaeda arch enemies and asked the world for help in apprehending them. We could have called upon our allies; solicited an international police effort; and tried to build consensus at home and abroad.

Would it have worked? Perhaps. Or perhaps not. In the end, terrorist threats may have escalated, thereby compelling the U.S. into war.

But war isn’t like a dog; if you don’t go to war today, it doesn’t run away. The U.S. took its sweet time getting into WWI and WWII (because our Presidents didn’t think the American people would stand for war). Yet the U.S. not only won, it became a superpower in the process.

Perhaps it helped to enter those wars after all of the other players were exhausted. Or maybe not. I’ll leave that to the military historians. But one thing is certain: If a country initiates a war, and it goes badly, there is no easy way out. Whether the U.S. leaves or stays, the dead will still be dead; the wounded maimed; and the memories bitter.

Although I’ve addressed foreign policy issues fairly frequently in Colorado Central, I’ve generally approached the topic from the perspective of how divided we’ve been here at home.

OCCASIONALLY, HOWEVER, I went on and on about my thoughts on Iraq, because our national discourse had gotten so angry, volatile, and accusatory that people tended to assume all sorts of things about a person based upon his or her position on the war. For example, editorial comments clearly indicated that some people assumed that if you were against the war in Iraq, you were against all wars, or for gun control, or an atheist, or a Democrat.

And likewise, opponents of the war often assumed that if you supported military action in Iraq or Afghanistan, you were xenophobic, bigoted, and believed in the superiority of America and all things American.

I, on the other hand, view America and Americans (including myself) as considerably more ambiguous, ambivalent, and confusing than that.

I find it irritating when people criticize me for supporting things that I don’t actually support. And thus whenever I wrote about war, I kept trying to define exactly what I advocated and what I didn’t. But in retrospect, it was a waste of words.

— Clearly, Americans should be able to discuss U.S. military policy and foreign diplomacy without getting all riled up and resorting to name-calling and stereotyping.

— And U.S. Senators and Congressmen should be able to ask questions and express reservations about the advisability of warfare without being accused of disloyalty, weakness, or treason.

— And citizens against a war should be able to cite some reason other than the fact than that their political opponents are “warmongers” (which doesn’t really tell us anything about whether the war is worth fighting or not).

And so, before Bush sent troops into Iraq, I listed dozens of reasons why I thought the U.S. should refrain from such a course, among them: There was no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with Al Qaeda or 9/11. We were already at war in Afghanistan, and dividing our attention might subvert our efforts against Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. And even if our troops prevailed in both Afghanistan and Iraq, we might not be able to re-establishing peace in regions so riven by ethnic division, and historical unrest. Etc. Etc. Etc. I definitely have a knack for going on and on and stating the obvious. But none of my reasons for avoiding war were radical, shocking, or extreme. In fact, most of my concerns are commonplace now.

REGARDLESS OF THE TASK at hand, if you want to do a passable job, you’ve got to keep reviewing your work, judging your progress, and adjusting your plans accordingly.

But the Bush administration didn’t do that. They suppressed criticism, disregarded U.N. recommendations, rejected our allies qualms about war, spurned the advice of leading military leaders, and stayed their course — no matter what.

Today, I feel a little sorry for Bush and Wolfowitz, because they had such grand plans. (Although thus far, I haven’t been able to muster much sympathy for Cheney). But I think we may have led them astray.

The horrifying thing about politicians gone wrong, is that we may be creating them, just like Dr. Frankenstein created his monster, without intent, or malice aforethought, or even really meaning to do so.

Everyone criticizes the press, our politicians, our educational system, and our culture, but what role do ordinary citizens play in their leaders’ conduct?

When you think of the soaring approval ratings, adulation, and compliments President Bush received in the early years of the Iraq War — despite legitimate concerns about the absence of WMDs, Hussein’s role in 9/11, our country’s unpopularity abroad, and our government’s inability to restore life as usual in Baghdad — you’ve got to wonder whether the citizens’ boisterous acclaim could lead a saint astray.

Nor is suppressing criticism and supporting questionable behavior merely a Republican aberration. Should lying under oath, and giving his girlfriend a cushy Pentagon job have earned Clinton a 97% approval rating? I think not.

And during his wife’s campaign, Bill Clinton has proven that he has almost no restraint and very few principles. But he expects us to venerate him, and we do — because he’s such a lovable lug.

We rally around the guys we believe our enemies are picking on.

We protect our favorites from answering the hard questions.

We treat our political representatives like rock stars — with support, adulation, and applause — until they mess up.

And all too often, they do mess up.

The question is: Do we encourage their descent — by dividing into two camps, with one side always booing and the other side always clapping — at least until the war has continued for three years beyond the victory speech (or his sperm is found on her dress)?

Do we encourage conscientious response? Serious reflection? And earnest analysis? Or do we demand bold reactions and gut fighting?

It’s crazy how duplicitous and hypocritical some of our public figures have been. How did Newt Gingrich have the nerve to castigate Bill Clinton for having illicit affairs?

Gay politicians rage about homosexuality. Popular preachers of family values consort with prostitutes. Have they no shame? Or sincerity? Or sense of proportion?

Is their risky conduct something we inspire?

Are our politicians just milk-toast versions of Britney Spears — desperate to grab and hold our attention, because if they don’t they’ll be neglected, ignored, or even worse: condemned to being has-beens?

WHEN HILLARY CLINTON warned Iranians that as President she could and would “obliterate” them if their government struck out against Israel, I figure she handily converted several thousand young Iranians into terrorists. After all, Iranians don’t live in a free society, and presumably they have little say about what their government does. All they can do is simmer and hate.

Yet Hillary grabbed the podium and directed their fury our way.

And it wasn’t only would-be terrorists who responded to Hillary’s taunt. Iran complained about her comments to the U.N. Whereupon the U.N. Secretary-General Ki-moon Ban’s spokesperson, Ferhan Haq said, “If she becomes president and she keeps saying that, then we’ll have to react.”

That, of course, was a wholly predictable and totally inactionable comment on Haq’s part, and was obviously merely meant to assuage irate Iranians.

But why did Hillary threaten Iran? Isn’t that exactly what the Democrats have been criticizing the Bush administration for? For threatening, grandstanding, and inciting terrorism? For being reckless? For acting like a bunch of Hollywood-style cowboys — fond of theatrics but not very diplomatic or careful?

Last fall, when the 2008 campaign was just beginning, I couldn’t believe my luck in being a Democrat. The Democrats had a full array of good candidates, smart, quick, well-informed, and far more adept and well-spoken than the Republican candidates. No matter who won the nomination, I thought my party would be good for America.

BUT IN RECENT MONTHS, I’ve lost heart. Hillary’s saber-rattling, the thinly veiled racist ploys of her associates, and her contradictory, overzealous rhetoric (“Shame on you Obama” ; “I am so proud to be sitting with Barack Obama” ) made me realize that I could not vote for her. And yet I didn’t want a President who makes it sound acceptable to fight in Iraq for 100 years, either.

So I’ve supported Obama. But I have little doubt that he may eventually break down and give in to belligerent tactics, too.

Humans have always been cruel to one another — war, murder, slavery, genocide — but now manners, etiquette, and rules for public address seem to be falling by the wayside, allowing for more blatant duplicity, mockery, and hypocrisy.

We bait our candidates, ridicule them, and egg them on. We vigorously defend their actions, then impeach them. We hate our leaders, or love and exalt them. What we don’t do, is expect much of them.

Hillary’s bombast gleaned lots of attention, as bombast generally does. But it also helped her make a point.

Since Iowa, Barack Obama has tried to take the high road, forsaking dirty tricks, insults, and attack ads. And Clinton has frequently seized the low road, resorting to accusations and taunts (while her closest political associates invoked racist sentiments). And in doing so, Hillary Clinton has emphasized her toughness, experience, and resilience — with considerable success.

Even voters who prefer Obama, generally rate Clinton as tougher and more experienced. In recent weeks, even Hillary’s adversaries have started praising her tenacity, persistence, spirit, and grit.

By being critical and caustic, Hillary got noticed. This time around, she may not win the nomination, but she has commanded our attention. No matter what happens this year, I suspect we will be seeing more of Hillary Clinton on the national scene.

What remains to be seen, is whether we’ll be seeing the bright, well-informed, capable Hillary. Or the tough, contemptuous street-fighter?

And which McCain will be running? The moderate? Or the newly awakened champion of border wars and making the poor pay their way?

And exactly who will Obama be by the time this race is over?

Who knows?

IN ESSENCE, Americans admire toughness, strength, and authority. We have little patience for complexity or nuance. And we frequently characterize measured and carefully researched commentary as boring, dispassionate and weak.

As adults, Americans are, perhaps, not much different than they are as children — all too fond of bullying, cliques, put-downs, derision, and ferocity. We seem to be simultaneously drawn to and repelled by rude, crude, mean, obscene, and bullying traits.

That should hardly surprise anyone, given the success of Don Imus, Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh, and Ann Coulter. But it does suggest that when it comes to politics we may be getting exactly what we’re asking for — and that’s usually not decorum, wisdom, diligence, or competence.