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Friday, July 25, 2003

Legendary Miscalculation

Updating my post from yesterday, can I just say what a useless exercise the disseminiation of these pictures was, except to the extent that it gave the cable news shows some tabloid blood 'n gore to fixate upon on the day the 9/11 report was released? In fact, it may have just made everything appear more suspicious. The Washington Post reports:

U.S. military official said "facial reconstruction" was used to repair wounds, particularly to the face of the elder son Uday, which had disfigured the bodies shown originally to the public in photographs taken by soldiers after the battle.

An uncharacteristic beard on the body of Qusay, seen in those U.S. pictures, had been shaved off, leaving a mustache.

Inside the tent, U.S. officials said it was standard practice to use morticians putty to prepare bodies for viewing and was not intended to fool the Iraqi people.

But while it may be common in the United States, the move is unheard of in the Arab world. That could affect Washington's efforts to quash Iraqi conspiracy theories that the bodies are not in fact those of the once powerful and hated sons of Saddam, who is believed to be still in hiding in Iraq.

U.S. officials have already played down the importance of visually identifying the men, saying their dental and medical records positively identified the brothers. Four top Saddam aides have also made positive identification, they say.

"You can make anyone look like anyone else," one U.S. official said, insisting the medical evidence was compelling.

I am pretty much convinced that the bodies were them. And, even it they weren't, I don't suppose it makes a whole lot of difference in the long run.

But, there is an ongoing problem with the way the Bush administration handles things like this. They do not seem to realize that by making such a huge deal out of these individuals they are creating folk heroes amongst the very young men who would do us harm. You do not have to have a doctorate in psychology to recognize that by personalizing all of these dangers, whether it is bin Laden as "the evil one", Saddam's sons, the psychopathic playboys, or Saddam himself as an omnipotent tyrant who is a threat to the entire world, they are actually recruiting for their cause and building a mythic image for the enemy. (You may have noticed that they are doing this again. Just as with bin Laden and Saddam, Junior's statements about Liberia have focused almost entirely on Charles Taylor.)

Far better to be dry, straightforward and impersonal rather than succumb to the rather puerile temptation to characterize threats and potential dangers as being embodied by particular persons. The danger for us in doing that should be obvious by now.

If we kill them and start crowing to the rooftops about it, we provoke suspicion that our "special effects" experts have phonied up the proof because we appear to be so desperate to prove what we say. And, once the idea sets in that we didn't actually kill them, their legend becomes even bigger. And, whether the legend consists of terrible cruelty and ruthlessness or one of idealistic revolutionary leadership, it's a huge mistake to think that just because we say these guys are dead that they lose their power.

And, that is a yellowcakewalk compared to dealing with the heroic status of a man the president of the United States personally declared to be "Wanted: Dead or Alive," and who remains at large almost 2 years and 2 wars later. Added to his legend as the man who singlehandedly led the Mujahadeen to defeat the Soviet Empire, amongst disaffected Muslim youth, this man is now a superhero.

There is probably nothing we can do about the rumors and flights of fancy that surround the disappearance of powerful enemies. But, surely it isn't very smart to build up their legend ourselves unless we can be very, very sure that we will be able to capture them alive, thereby proving irrefutably to their followers and the world that they are nothing more than simple human beings who have no special power and who cannot run from justice. Since we cannot guarantee such a thing, it would be far more prudent to focus on the movement/government/ideology than on the particular leader. Then, if we were able to capture them alive, we could use the forum of a world court to prove not only the evil of the perpetrator, but their essential weakness and impotence as well.

If they wind up dead and we shrug it off as just another enemy eliminated, at least we aren't adding to the rumor mill by wildly pumping our fists like it's a huge victory, thereby giving our enemies a reason to fuel the conspiracy theories.

I have the feeling that if grownups truly were in charge, we wouldn't be seeing spectacles like that which we witnessed yesterday. The constant rhetorical high fiving by the administration, especially the President, is as shallow and meaningless as a street corner pick-up game of basketball. Lotsa bravado, not much talent.

These people do not know the meaning of "playing it cool."