And many more Destructions played
In this ghastly masquerade,
All disguised, even to the eyes,
Like Bishops, lawyers, peers, or spies.
. . .
And Anarchy, the Skeleton,
Bowed and grinned to every one,
As well as if his education
Had cost ten millions to the nation.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Mask of Anarchy
By the smirk, ye shall know him. It is Bush’s identifying mark. The cruel sneer fissures across his face at the oddest moments, like an execution or a spike in the deficit or the news of a light-stick being rammed up the anus of an Iraqi prisoner. It hints at this own sense of inviolateness, like the illicit grin of some 70s porn star–which may not be so far off target if even half of what Kitty Kelley dishes in her delicious book The Family about Bush’s peregrinations turns out to be true.
Flash to Bush’s most famous moment, the instant when he supposedly redeemed his tottering presidency. There at ground zero, megaphone in hand, using firefighters as props, Bush squeaks out his war cry. It won’t be a war of justice, but revenge, cast as a crusade against evil. Then, hands palsied with anxiety, he closes with his signature sneer and gives the game away.
The mask drops, revealing in a flash, like a subliminal cut, the dark sparkle of the real Bush. You get the sense that he detests his own supporters, those who refuse to see through the act. But perhaps that’s giving Bush too much credit. He reminds me of one of the early popes or one of the more degenerate emperors, such as Domitian: cruel, imperious, humorless, and psychologically brittle.
Bush and his team turned 9/11 into a kind prime-time political necrophilia, an obscene exploitation of the dead. For example, Flight 93 was transformed into Bush’s Masada, where the passengers committed group suicide by bringing the plane down into the remote Pennsylvania field in order to save the White House. Of course, this was a lie.
Bush lied about his actions in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. He lied about why the US was attacked. He lied about what his own government knew in advance about impending plans by al-Qaeda to attack targets in the US. He lied about how much the wars would cost. About weapons of mass destruction. About the relationship between Saddam and Bin Laden. About the progress of the war. These daily manipulations of the truth aren’t impromptu faux pas. Bush is kept on a tighter leash by his staff than any president in US history. He’s not permitted extemporaneous comments. Bush’s prevarications roll right off the teleprompter.
In the memorial service at the National Cathedral, Bush announced his mission: “Rid the world of evil.” Part of that evil would, naturally, be the burdensome tax rates on the super-rich.
Bush was hot for war without congressional debate. “I’d rather have them [American troops] sacrificing on behalf of our nation than, you know, endless hours of congressional testimony.” And they were primed to give him any thing he wanted. Any thing at all. No one rose to stop him. No one would even question him at the precise moment he most needed to be restrained.
The remote-control war on Afghanistan is a shameful chapter in American history. It rode unbridled on the fervor of a kind of national bloodletting against one of the most destitute nation’s on earth, which had only the most tangential responsibility for the events of 9/11. More than 3,400 civilians perished, most of whom had never heard of Osama Bin Laden.
The Pentagon drilled Kandahar and other Taliban strongholds with cruise missiles and pulverized convoys of pack mules with unmanned Predator planes armed with Hellfire guns. The ground war was turned over to the Northern Alliance, a CIA-financed band of thugs with a bloodier reputation than the Taliban.
Why do they hate us? Bush proffered the two word cue-card answer: Our freedom. But how could this be? Only a few years ago the Mujahideen, the Taliban and the Chechen separatists were hailed by neo-cons and neo-libs alike as “freedom fighters.”
Yes, they knew them very well indeed. They had not only traded with the enemy. They had created them. Bin Laden and Mullah Omar were armed, funded and sheltered by the CIA in its insane proxy war in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. A $3 billion war that brought to power the most tyrannical and fundamentalist’s sect this side of Falwell’s Liberty Baptist College. The Taliban regime was fired by an unquenchable hatred of the West, a political pathology it acted out through the violent suppression of the nation’s own women, homosexuals and academics. Then came the first Gulf War, the US bases on Saudi soil, the misguided adventure into Somalia, the blind support of the bloody Israeli suppression of the second Intifada. Al-Qaeda, financed by Saudi millions and sequestered by the Taliban, turned its attention to the great Satan, which was indeed acting like a malevolent titan across the globe. The events of 9/11 have blowback written all over them.
In the end, though, the Taliban weren’t toppled. They simply dispersed back into the Pashtun tribal areas from which they arose, where they knew the US and its mercenary army would never come to get them. As recounted in Seymour Hersh’s Chain of Command, the few ground engagements were US troops faced off with the Taliban proved embarrassing for the Pentagon. And today the Taliban have reasserted their control over most of Afghanistan. The only city that remains under the uneasy grip of Hamid Karzai and his CIA masters is Kabul, the old British capital which has never been a Taliban stronghold.
So much for the opening act. As Condoleezza Rice put it, Bush, the conquistador in a jogging suit, soon got bored with “swatting flies.”
(Torturing flies was, of course, a favorite past time of Domitian. According to Seutonius, “At the beginning of his reign, Domitian used to spend hours in seclusion every day, doing nothing but catching flies and stabbing them with a keenly sharpened stylus. Consequently, when someone once asked if anyone was in there with the Emperor, Vibius Crispus made the witty reply, ‘Not even a fly.” Domitian, that wanton boy emperor, was also the inspiration for the famous line in Lear.)
Bush wanted to put away such childish things and squash bigger game. Iraq, naturally.
JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and, with Alexander Cockburn, Dime’s Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils.