CSI: Crime Scene Iraq

This is an article I wrote back in March, 2003, out of my pure outrage at the Bush administration’s publicity campaign to justify their desire to go to war in Iraq. Obviously, neither my little contribution to the effort to wake up America, nor that of many others in positions of more influence, managed to change the course set by Vice-president Cheney, Secretary Rumsfeld and the neocon cabal, all the way down to President Bush himself. Nevertheless, I was following in the footsteps of Frank Rich when I researched and wrote this commentary on what I saw then and still see now as the insidious way in which ideologues of every stripe utilize the tropes of popular culture to twist public opinion in pursuit of their own goals. As always, when combatting such tactics, we must first be aware of them.

Poppolitics.com is, for the time being, no more and so I cannot provide a straightfoward link. Thus, I reproduce the piece here.

C.S.I.: Crime Scene Iraq 

As any competent shrink will tell you, continuing trauma on the scale the United States has experienced since Sept. 11 triggers conflicting impulses. Our need to retreat into the safe, the familiar and the reassuring competes with our equally urgent need to obtain justice. At the same time, we have to process a new, grim reality: Gruesome death on a massive scale is not only possible but, in the current world climate, increasingly likely. Popular culture is one significant way in which these conflicting impulses can be resolved, and television, a medium with a pervasive social presence, is the ideal vehicle for such a synthesis.

And, lo, the tube provides. Among its many comforts — the familiar sitcom friends and families, the ribaldry, grotesquerie and grandiosity of the reality shows, and the soothsaying of the psychics — we have also witnessed the flourishing of a standard industry genre, the cop show — but with a macabre twist. Forensic science, especially the medical variety, is everywhere on the tube.

The flagships of this sub-genre are, of course, the shows I think of as C.S.I.: Dark and C.S.I.: Light (i.e. the original show, set largely in night-time Las Vegas and the new show, drenched in Miami sun whenever possible), but in the one-hour drama category there is also Crossing Jordan, about a Hollywood-pretty, shoot-from-the-hip medical examiner in Boston,and John Doe, where The X-Files meets C.S.I. in the person of the eponymous identity-challenged know-it-all.Forensic Files and similar shows on cable take a discount approach, re-examining real life cases in the semi-documentary queasy-cam-reenactment style made famous by America’s Most Wanted.

Even longer running police-and-prosecutor procedurals like the Law and Order franchisedelve into the by now familiar territory of blood samples, DNA tests and trace evidence on a regular basis. Law and Order: Criminal Intent is frequently all about the bizarre and endearing brand of forensic psychology practiced by Vincent D’Onofrio’s Det. Robert Goren and a Law and Order: Special Victims Unit without at least one rape kit is a rarity indeed. It is a cultural trend that is somehow appropriate to a morbid, frightening time filled with the unknowable threats posed by anthrax, sarin gas, radiological weapons, snipers in the parks and parking lots, and airplanes turned into missiles of jihad.

This cultural fascination with forensic science as a way to know the unknowable and come to terms with the unthinkable (personal extinction remains the most unthinkable thing of all) found additional service in recent weeks as an unacknowledged weapon in the Bush administration’s arsenal against Iraq. A few months back, when it was clearly time to refocus the electorate’s attention away from the failed rhetoric of regime change — which wasn’t “testing well,” as the TV folks say — the president’s advisors seized on the rhetoric of disarmament. Iraq’s presumably verifiable failure to comply with UN resolutions on chemical, nuclear and biological weapons was the crime.

Hans Blix and the boys from the U.N. would be our advance C.S.I. team, supplemented, of course, by American intelligence assets — our very own collection of wiretaps, stakeouts and confidential informants to complete the familiar cast. The new inspections put in place with U.N. Resolution 1441 would provide the rationale for war and facilitate the gone-but-not-forgotten policy of regime change. Failing sufficient rationale from the inspectors, the real West Wing gang figured the evidence collected could be supplemented with intelligence and, with the right spin, could be turned into an acceptable pretext for war.

So, when disarmament rhetoric failed to win key demographics and Messrs. Blix and ElBaradei failed to follow the script, find all the pieces to the puzzle and interpret them accordingly, Secretary Powell trotted out his interpretive slide and tape show and played prosecuting attorney. Suddenly, American numbers in support of the war took an up-tick that even the president’s well-received State of the Union address hadn’t managed to spark.

We like to believe we’re plainspoken, hard headed, pragmatic folks, we Americans. We love our tough talking secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, who puts those “Old Europe” realpolitik types in their place with a well-placed barb, ala Lenny Briscoe, while channeling Al Capone (via Robert DeNiro) as the last word on handling Mr. Hussein: “You’ll get more with a kind word and a gun than with a kind word alone.”

With such no-nonsense straight shooters running the D.C. precinct, it’s no coincidence that Joe Friday is back on TV these days. Americans want the evidence that leads to a conviction — just the facts, ma’am (or Mr. Secretary, sir). But, as any real cop or forensic scientist will tell you, the science of criminal investigation isn’t as exact as that portrayed on TV and the conviction rate based on pure forensic evidence isn’t nearly as high as that garnered by TV cops.

There is rarely enough such evidence in a case to provide a single possible narrative of the crime, yet, as the president’s speeches and actions leading up to this week’s opening salvo made abundantly clear, his interpretation of the facts about Iraq supported only one possible conclusion. He and his advisors knew that the strength of any case would rest in the certainty with which the prosecution could convey its theory of the crime, however iffy some of those links between those elusive facts might be.

They must have all watched enough episodes of Law and Order (and seen enough rehashing of the O.J. trial on Court TV) to realize how easy it would be for the citizen jury to become overwhelmed by the technical details of the case and get lost in competing interpretations. Rather than treat the inherent complexity of the weapons of mass destruction evidence as a liability, the administration chose to do what most good TV prosecutors do — present the forensic evidence only in the context of a specific theory of the crime, then repeat that interpretation of the evidence over and over until interpretation was perceived as fact.

This approach capitalized on the intimidation factor such highly complex information carries. We’ve been trained to believe that technical questions should be left to the experts. Thus, framing the Iraq issue in the narrow terms of missile ranges, number of tons of biological and chemical agents accounted for, Iraqi means for concealing said agents, unmonitored interviews with Iraqi scientists and arguments over U-2 over-flights, etc., served the administration’s case by presenting a complex array of expert testimony that overwhelmed the jury/audience at home. Since, as the forensicops tell us week-in, week-out, technical solutions apply to moral problems, the administration’s strategy operated effectively to shut down our critical faculties.

We did not feel qualified to evaluate the technical data on weapons or the validity of the administration’s claims for its intelligence, so we deferred to the experts. We sat back, like good viewers, and waited for the detectives to present their case and confront the criminal with irrefutable proof of his crime. But democracy relies on citizens willing to take responsibility, to provide their own moral context for the facts and not simply accept what the authorities say as the only possible interpretation. That is how the real world jury system functions and it is also one of the underlying principles of the democratic republic in which we live, which demands an electorate that is both informed and willing to hold government accountable.

Taking a page from the playbook of Law and Order’s grandstanding ADA, Jack McCoy, the administration ratcheted up the aforementioned “tough talk” and rolled out its own brand of messianic rhetoric. It quite successfully built momentum and inevitability into its case against Mr. Hussein by offering equal parts “You’re either with us or against us” and “America has a special destiny.”

This was all leavened with a litany of fear and all of it accompanied a rising tide of carefully contextualized forensic evidence. The litany went like this: “Saddam is a bad man, Saddam and Osama are in league with each other. They might hurt us! And oh, by the way, Orange Alert! duct tape! plastic sheeting! gas masks! Remember 9/11!” All of this seemed calculated to interfere with our ability to question the validity of the assumptions on which the forensic case was based.

It is an approach that would be anathema to the cool-eyed, dispassionate science advocated by the Gil Grissom or Horatio Caine — but here is where the C.S.I. and the hard-nosed prosecutor part ways. By generating this rhetorical fog while insisting that the debate be fought out on the grounds of the specific technical details, the administration won its point. In the process, the bigger questions that free citizens in a democracy might be asking themselves were overwhelmed and buried, which also served the administration’s case against Mr. Hussein’s regime.

If we can shake ourselves free from the fog of rhetoric and spin, the facts about Iraq can be seen to exist in a larger landscape of history, ethics, religion, morality, international law, and simple, human justice. On that larger canvas, the important questions aren’t technical questions.

Forensic evidence, medical or otherwise, is not right or wrong, it is either useful in proving the case or it is not. But if the case itself is questionable on other grounds, then the usefulness of the evidence is not even at issue. Race laws in Nazi Germany, South Africa or the antebellum South, for example, gave weight and value to forensic evidence on the racial make-up of individuals. Once the value system on which those laws were founded was discredited, such evidence ceased to have any legal significance.

Outside of the context of the Bush doctrine on pre-emptive war, the administration’s evidence on Iraqi weapons similarly lacked value. Now, of course, it is all a moot point. Yet the real questions Americans should be asking themselves remain much the same as they did during the lead up to war. And they are questions that have nothing to do with the statements, facts, figures and images coming out of the White House, the Pentagon, or General Franks’ command post as war commences. These are, once again, largely technical details that, for better or worse, rest in the hands of our society’s designated experts. For the time being, the military sciences supersede the forensic.

What remains for those of us at home is to continue the debate, to continue to ask the big, hard questions and hold authority accountable for its answers.

We will learn, in the months to come, if this war has moved us closer to victory over terror or if it has simply fueled rage in the region and inspired more atrocities. But if we encounter unexpected difficulties, will our campaign to insure our own security be compromised? Or if we win easily, how can we assure that hubris will not lead us to overreaching?

Questions about the desirability or necessity of the task the president has set for us are off the table for the moment, but we must continue to ask: are the larger goals for Iraqi freedom and American security he outlined being pursued with vigor? How much of our treasure and how many of our sons and daughters are to be devoted to the job in the years to come and what criteria determine the success of the war and subsequent occupation and reconstruction of Iraq?

We must also engage in continued debate on more fundamental questions: As citizens of a nation that chooses to dictate the destiny of other nations with military force, what are the criteria for future applications of such force? How do we maintain our own traditions of individual liberty, openness and the rule of law under the international and domestic conditions generated by this war? How do we extricate ourselves, now that we are in? Is the policy of pre-emptive war in the name of national security to be the final legacy of the republic founded by Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams and the rest, or is the Bush doctrine, by virtue of the consequences it unleashes, revocable in our lifetimes?

Answers to these big questions raised by administration policy don’t lead to arrest, trial and conviction in 60 minutes, minus commercials. They are moral questions that can’t be answered by collecting and sifting evidence through a government-issue sieve, by interpreting and distilling evidence into a PowerPoint show or waving the flag and spouting “Support the Troops” slogans. They certainly won’t be answered in the heat of battle or in the confused aftermath of war.

Instead, they are questions based on fundamental principles rather than current events, questions that require study, discussion, perspective and meditation. They are questions that go to the heart of who we truly are as a people and that will define what we want our country to stand for in the world. They exist at a level of debate this government and this president have sought to avoid since the election of 2000 and have now succeeded in burying, for a time, under a hail of cruise missiles.

Our representatives are making life or death choices, not only for American soldiers and Iraqis, but for people all over the world for generations to come. And they are making these choices in our names. If we believe our representative democracy still functions on any level, then we must accept responsibility for the choices our leaders make and, if we disagree with those choices, make our opposition known by all means available to us as citizens of a free society.

Since Nothing Sacred and The Education of Max Bickford went off the air, there are few TV shows about the philosophers, professors, theologians and ethicists who grapple with such questions professionally. But our Constitution makes each of us his or her own philosopher-king (or queen), the star of our own chapter of the on-going American drama — and the big questions we face today are questions for active citizens, not passive viewers.