Bullies and Secrets

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

The Vice President's accidental shooting of a a hunting companion has already begun to evaporate from the public consciousness. Like most administration sagas these days, it is most significant for what was never said about it.

I saw no discussion of hunting norms. Was the Vice President grossly negligent to whirl and shoot at a noise without first pausing to identify what he was shooting at? It would be interesting to know whether hunters generally consider this normal or shocking. If the latter, the Veeps's violation of custom would go a long way towards establishing his gross negligence. If the former, we would know that hunters constitute a culture of gross negligence--something I already suspected from the public discourse in hunting states whenever an innocent bystander is shot by a hunter. In my favorite example, a woman was killed sitting on her own front porch in Maine. After some agitation, the hunter, a respected local man, was never charged, and the consensus was that the woman, an outsider who had recently moved to town, was at fault for her failure to wear orange on her own premises. We saw the same tendency to blame the victim when the ranch owner announced, in the immediate follow up to the incident, that the victim had failed to announce his presence as he walked up behind Mr. Cheney. Blaming the victim is a common refrain, whenever a hunter shoots a hiker or jogger.

I would also have liked to hear hunters opine on whether they normally regard the field of fire as extending 360 degrees around them, or whether you would normally fire only in front when operating in the vanguard of a hunting party. And finally, I would have liked some context for the Veep's acknowledgement that he had had one beer at lunch. Is it very common to mix hunting with alcohol?

The coverage I read of the incident confined itself exclusively to implicit criticism of Mr. Cheney's decision-making process: was he correct to wait so long after the incident to say anything, did he inform the President soon enough, should he have been more contrite? This falls neatly into place in a trend that has now lasted more than thirty years, where the press reports only on process, not substance--never on whether a campaign promise or legislative initiative is right or wrong, but only on questions of timing, disclosure, and adroit manipulation of public opinion. From the same philosophy, there has been more attention to the issue of whether the President was smart or stupid to promote the Dubai ports contract just now, than to the issue of whether Dubai should manage our ports. The journalistic approach to the Cheney shooting incident can be described as: "Assuming the Vice President was going to shoot someone, could he have done a better job of communicatinmg with the President and the public about it?" Not, "Should we be shocked or upset by the shooting"?

The Village Voice also raised a question as to what the Veep was doing, hunting with a beautiful ex-ambassador when his wife Lynn was not present. Was the paper just being scurrilous, or is there another story there which the press is studiously not reporting? Is adultery only important when committed by Democrats?

In our culture these days, the powerful are given a virtually free pass as to the morality of their beliefs and actions. One gets no sense from the newspapers either that there is any disconnect, or even any irony, in Bill Clinton's impeachment for lying about sex compared to president Bush's virtual immunity for lying about WMD. I do not justify Clinton--I said he should resign at the time--but nobody died for his lies. The only way you can rationalize or even explain the difference is by looking at power: Bush is a powerful president, not as an individual but because he has powerful people protecting him. Clinton was weak and exposed. Always follow the power to understand the journalistic and therefore the public view of the morality of an incident.

The press, which we counted on to be our main bulwark against the abuses of government in the Vietnam and Watergate eras, has become a very weak, very constrained voice which too often hesitates to confront power with truth. Consider the extremely cautious reporting on Abu Ghraib, and the reluctance to print the photographs--ore how little follow-up there has been as one soldier after another is acquitted at courtmartial. Another recent example of the extreme weakness of public discourse, and its general sinking into silence, is the failure of many public television stations to carry a documentary about the Armenian genocide--Turkey, after all, is an important ally right now--and the face-saving impulse for those who did air it to follow it with a panel discussion as to whether the mass murder of Armenians was genocide. Just imagine by analogy any proposal to follow a documentary on Auschwitz with a panel discussion with Holocaust deniers. But--I can say this as a Jewish person-- Jews are more powerful in this country than Armenians, and public discourses are shaped by power.

Another interesting story this week involved an off-Broadway theatre which backed out of producing a British play about Rachel Corrie. Rachel was a young American peace activist who was run over and killed, at all appearances in cold blood, by an Israeli soldier operating a bulldozer. He was never charged with any crime. The obvious motivation was not to offend the Israeli ally, and a large and important bloc of New Yorkers who support Israel and could cause contributions to dry up to the theatre responsible.

Finally, consider the recent reporting on the offensive Danish cartoons which caused so much distress,and so much killing, in the Moslem world. It was really remarkable that the United States papers saw fit not to reprint a single cartoon, so that we could make up our own minds on issues of free speech, taste, respect and caution. The American press obviously concluded that it wouldn't be worth losing the life of a single editor or writer. Here we are backing down before another kind of power: an enemy who is a dangerous bully, more determined and more violent than we are. Our own press is becoming like the Mexican papers who no longer report on narcoterrorism.

A major symptom of the loss of democracy is the scrubbing of public discourse. The narrowing of the permissible public terms of discussion of an issue is just the first step towards propaganda or silence. We need an active, voluble and agitated discussion to protect us against this otherwise inexorable impulse of government. Governments kill discourse as they acquire power; only an assertive press, backed by an assertive public, can counteract it. As I said last month, we have only the judiciary protecting us now, but it is too big a job for them alone.