As we have been instructed at regular intervals since September 11, 2001, “they” attacked us because they hate everything we stand for, our freedoms most of all. If that is the case, history will have to explain why post-9/11 America was so quick to rein in the freedom of debate even as we paid constant self-congratulatory lip service to this moral distinction between them and us. September was not over before Ari Fleischer, the President’s press secretary, set the tone. “There are reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do, and this is not a time for remarks like that,” he said, commenting about a wisecrack by a late-night TV comic, Bill Maher, that had gone against the administration’s grain. Lest Fleischer’s own remarks prompt an unruly debate, history was rewritten for the public record; the official White House Web-site transcript of the briefing deleted Fleischer’s warning, an omission the White House later attributed to “a transcription error” (but took days to correct) after some reporters noticed it. It’s hard to imagine how those who “hate our freedoms” could have attempted this Orwellian sleight of hand with greater panache.
But in truth, it was not really necessary for Fleischer to issue his warning. The movement to marginalize or mock any quibbles, however slight, with administration wisdom, to minimize unwanted news that might reflect ill on the competence or motives of its leaders, was the nearly spontaneous reaction of the press and television, needing only a little nudge from the White House. It was a sign of the times that for months even the NBC corporate peacock donned the stars and stripes to serve the agreed-upon triumphal mood, should anyone question the old bird’s patriotism. When Condoleezza Rice warned that Osama bin Laden might be issuing encoded instructions to his minions through his al-Jazeera video manifestoes, most networks heeded her request to censor them, as if unexpurgated al-Jazeera wasn’t widely available to interested parties in the US by satellite anyway. Meanwhile, the administration’s law enforcement excesses and failures—the roundup of thousands of immigrants who had nothing to do with al-Qaeda, the inability to discover the source of the anthrax attacks—disappeared into the journalistic memory hole even faster than the White House’s bogus assertion that a credible threat against Air Force One had precipitated George W. Bush’s disappearing act on September 11.
And so what Joan Didion called the “fixed ideas” of our war on terrorism in her recent essay in these pages* was able to fall into place with scant resistance. The reassuring point of the fixed ideas was to suppress other ideas that might prompt questions or fears about either the logic or hidden political agendas of those conducting what CNN branded as “America’s New War.” Thus the President’s “moral clarity,” which led the dean of Washington political punditry, David Broder, to liken…
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