When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone,
"it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so
many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master - that's all."
-- Lewis Carroll: Through the Looking Glass
Poor Alice. Trying to navigate in a world where words have come unmoored from their traditional meanings is a harrowing experience. In such a world reality becomes elusive, shifting in and out of focus, making rational judgments difficult. For example, "We do not torture." The statement is definitive and straightforward. No ambiguity there. Yet, this bold assertion by Bush, Rice, and Rumsfeld flies in the face of all the evidence that has accumulated over a period of months, even years. Are we supposed to forget those searing images of Abu Ghraib prisoners enduring fake executions, pyramids of naked bodies, cattle prods, attacking dogs? Are we supposed to ignore the reports on the public record that catalog numerous other instances of prisoner abuse, including water boarding? With such obvious contradictions, how can we not conclude that various government officials are lying to us? Ah, well, it all depends on how you define "torture." While most of us have a clear idea of the definition, to Bush and his minions torture is only torture when the abuse involves "organ failure and death."
Poor Alice. Where does reality lie? At various times we have been assured that things are getting better in Iraq, the claims frequently coinciding with images and written accounts that are in stark contrast to the sunny interpretations offered by Washington. We were momentarily comforted by the President when, almost two years ago, he stood before an immense banner stating, "Mission Accomplished." The American body count since that triumphant assertion has increased by 2,000. Our outrage at the feeble response to Katrina was temporarily quelled when the president stated, "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees." Better for us to believe the citizens of New Orleans were victimized by an act of God, not the failings of the Army Corps of Engineers and a sloppy inspection system. And what a surprise to find that two years prior to Katrina, the Times-Picayune, in a five part series, predicted the failure of the levees and the loss of thousands of lives. Or that FEMA, together with Louisiana officials, came to the same conclusion after computers produced a simulated hurricane that predicted catastrophic results.
Poor Alice. What would she make of the "Clear Skies Initiative," the inventive title for the program allowing more toxins to be spewed into the atmosphere? Relaxing the standards set in the 90's was one of the first things the Bush administration had the EPA accomplish. What was once a watchdog agency has become a lapdog agency, ignoring scientific findings and fitting policy to accommodate the industries they are supposed to monitor. Looking at the title "The Clean Water Act," Alice would envision sparkling water fit for the gods. Peel back the advertising slogan, however, and reality intrudes. Once again, the EPA eased restrictions so more viruses, parasites, toxic chemicals, and other pollutants could be present in our water.
Poor Alice. If she had heard the President's past assurances in a news conference that a court order is required before any electronic surveillance of American citizens is undertaken, she would assume that the Constitution still commanded reverence, that we lived in a land of observed laws and were safe as a result. Imagine her confusion, however, if she had observed the President's most recent statements and found that he not only dismissed the necessity of court orders but brazenly announced that he had the authority, as the Commander in Chief, to do whatever he deemed fit to "protect" the American people.
Poor Alice, indeed. But, more importantly, poor America. Since 9/11 we have witnessed the slow, deliberate undermining of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, both sacrificed by a craven Congress and a docile public paralyzed by the fear of terrorism. That fear has been nurtured by the Administration at every step. We have been conditioned in Pavlovian fashion to react to color codes, to cringe at every announcement of a potential attack, to sigh with relief when government triumphantly announces the interception of a dangerous cell in America. Typically, the notice is timed to divert attention from news that is embarrassing to the administration. It seems we have been transformed into mindless sheep, trusting that in return for our docility government will deliver us from the perils of the world. Hermann Goehring, Hitler's evil genius and founder of the Gestapo, knew exactly how to attain control of the people through fear, saying "...the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders.
That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."
The culture of fear explains the lack of public outrage over being lied into war, over spending half a trillion dollars with reckless abandon, over sacrificing thousands of lives, over scandalous no bid contracts awarded to insider companies wallowing in war profits, over a festering swamp of corruption in Washington, and now the revelation of illegal spying on American citizens, even including a most inoffensive group of Quakers in Florida. All this is the result of an imperial president, a subservient Congress, and a judiciary polluted by ideology. Instead of a system of government based on three separate and co-equal branches offering a barrier to imperial powers, we are offered what amounts to a monarchy, two branches bowing to the authority of the third. We see the modern George as a reincarnation of the historic George -not George Washington, unfortunately, but George III of England. Although Bush is 43rd in a succession of presidents derived from revolutionaries who rejected the idea of authority vested in one person, he acts like a monarch who believes that HE is the state, that HE is above the laws controlling ordinary people, and that HE, due to his royal prerogative, may bend language to mean anything he wants it to mean.
It is best that we not rely on the Humpty Dumptys of government to define democracy for us. Despite their soothing assertions, they cannot be trusted, they cannot be believed, because they are devoid of any credibility at this point. Winston Churchill once said that Americans can be counted on to do the right thing once they have exhausted all other possibilities. We are approaching the time when more and more people are getting tired of the con men and are beginning to realize that the real threat to our country is not from terrorists who bomb buildings but terrorists who think they can rewrite the Constitution and gut the oldest continuing democracy in the world. There is a cruel irony in the very public campaign boasting how we are exporting democracy to the world, while, at the same time, we are assaulting it here at home.
Since liberty requires eternal vigilance, we need to heed the warnings. This time the Homeland Security color code is bright red, and this crisis is the real thing, not political manipulation. If we would only demand better government, applying the same passion normally expended on sports and other frivolities, we could make a difference. As a writer once said, "When government fears the people, that is liberty. When people fear the government, that is tyranny." Therefore, let us reject the fog of deception laid down by the White House and put aside the fear intended to immobilize us. Instead, let us prove that WE - mere common citizens - are the force to be feared. That simple conviction could reverse our slide toward despotism.
Gilbert Jordan is a retired professor of English from Monroe Community College in Rochester, New York, an anti-war activist, and a full-time landscape artist. E-mail Gilbert at: email@example.com.