One of the most interesting conclusions of the Baker report lies in the fact that, since the beginning of the war in Iraq, the U.S. government has often dismissed information that contradicts its policies, and that this refusal to acknowledge the truth has had dire consequences.
The report states in measured but unyielding terms: "Good policy is difficult to make when information is systematically collected in a way that minimizes its discrepancy with policy goals." In other words, the government has treated truth as an insignificant value, which can be readily sacrificed to the will of power.
This finding comes as no surprise for observers outside the United States. The war against Iraq was based on a dual lie or dual illusion — that Al Qaeda was linked to the Iraqi government and that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.
Since the fall of Baghdad, this casual approach to truth has been demonstrated repeatedly. As the world discovered images of torture and stories of executions in the Abu Ghraib prison, we were being assured that democracy was starting to take root in Iraq. While hundreds of prisoners have been rotting for five years in the Guantánamo camp, deprived of the possibility of legal recourse and subjected to degrading treatment, we hear that the United States is working to uphold human rights.
What does come as a surprise, however, is that for nearly five years, it was possible to put a moratorium on truth in a great democracy like the United States. There is good reason to worry: Despite the pluralism of political parties and the freedom of the press, the population of a liberal democracy can still be persuaded that black is white, and white is black.
How can such a degree of susceptibility be explained?
First, the majority of the population in any country blindly obeys politicians and the mainstream media (opinions from foreign countries are generally treated with suspicion).
From September 2002, clear-headed statements were heard from various U.S. politicians and publications, but these messages were not conveyed by prominent institutions like the Democratic Party, major television stations and leading newspapers. America was consumed by a patriotic fever, with truth relegated to the back seat.
Opinion makers discarded their duty to truth not because of evil intentions but because of the fear that gripped America after 9/11. Customary precautions were disregarded. Monitoring and assessing information, debating and reasoning were perceived as signs of cowardice and a lack of a sense of responsibility. Yet fear is a poor adviser, and we must fear those who live in fear.
Are European countries more impervious to this propensity to ignore the truth to achieve stated goals as quickly as possible? They may have a few additional safeguards: their plurality and hence the obligation of listening to their neighbors' opinions; or perhaps the awareness that their recent past was not entirely glorious.
But all it would take is an adversary making threatening remarks, a few spectacular events stirring up widespread emotion, for the French, Italian or Spanish to view danger as imminent and to consider that all means are valid to combat it and that the time for patiently seeking out the truth is gone. Indeed, this is already the case, in statements about Islam, its army of terrorists and its future atomic bomb.
In totalitarian countries, truth is systematically sacrificed in the struggle for victory. But in a democratic state, a concern for truth must be sacred: The very foundations of the regime are at stake.
Germaine Tillion understood this well. A member of one of the first resistance networks in Paris, she wrote a tract in 1941 in which she appealed to her comrades-in-arms never to compromise truth, even if victory was temporarily kept at bay as a result: "Because our country is precious to us only if truth is never sacrificed for it."
Tzvetan Todorov is a philosopher and historian of ideas.
Copyright © 2006 The International Herald Tribune