We were never here. This never happened.
Such is the pervasive attitude of the federal government these days. Executive privilege and limitless secrecy have probably been objects of desire to every U.S. president, but the current administration has taken the ritual celebration of concealment to near-Dionysus cult status.
The Bush administration sometimes appears to be immersed in its own private drinking game, in which everyone in the West Wing does a shot of Jaeger each time someone manages to fully realize an aspect of George Orwell’s 1984. Having already mastered “Doublespeak” (see “Clear Skies Initiative”) and “Newspeak” (“These evildoers hate us for our freedoms,” etc.), the administration, either drunk on power or just drunk, turns out to have been working on a much more ambitious project for quite a while: the great American memory hole.
Consider President Bush’s 2001 Executive Order 13233, which effectively nixes the Presidential Records Act of 1978, the act erected in response to the presidential tomfoolery of the Nixon era. Stated plainly, Bush’s order allows for any current or former president or vice president or their families to conceal any documents connected to the executive, essentially in perpetuity.
Let’s think about that for a minute. What legitimate purpose could this order possibly serve?
As far as I can tell, it’s good for exactly one thing: covering one’s own tracks – as well as those of the dearly beloved – since presidential records are normally released 12 years after the executive leaves office. Bush made this move just after Sept. 11, 2001, and just prior to the expiration of his own father’s executive privilege, perhaps concealing some potential embarrassment to which now only the Bush dynasty is privy. Hey, who wants to connect some dots?
The New York Times reported on Feb. 21 that as part of a secret program initiated in 1999, government agencies have been removing declassified State Department documents from public access at the National Archives and reclassifying them. Some of these documents are more than 50 years old. While this policy was enacted under Clinton, its execution has been aggressively accelerated under Bush.
The memory hole serves several other functions as well, including providing an element of cohesion to American’s public myths, often allowing them to avoid unsettling discussions. It doesn’t help that Americans are notorious for daily brain flushes to begin with. Ironically, the enhanced recall to be gained from superior nutrition is repeatedly thwarted by their incomparable comfort. People in third-world countries, they remember things. They don’t even have paper to write half the crap down, but they remember – because chances are, they were fighting in the streets about it. Americans? We’ve got TiVo. We can’t remember jack.
Don’t believe me? Quick quiz: How many buildings collapsed in New York City on Sept. 11? If you guessed three, you’re right, but I bet you had to Google it. In addition to the Twin Towers, which were struck by hijacked planes, World Trade Center Building Number Seven also collapsed, about six hours later.
Why is this not common knowledge? Because its very occurrence – WTC 7 being struck not by a plane but by “debris,” and yet collapsing in a perfect vertical footprint, controlled-demolition-style (just like the Twin Towers, wink) – is so dubious that any discussion of it would call the entire official story line of that day into question. And nobody wants that headache – nobody in Washington, anyway – so everyone’s just been allowed to forget.
With the memory hole, not only do complete fallacies never have to be reconciled, they can be told again and again. Case in point: The looming mushroom cloud that is Iran. With midterm elections gearing up, dollars to donuts says every Republican contender from here to Seattle is about to start terrorizing everyone with fears of a nuclear Tehran, pitting the image of the crazed Arab against that of the Great Defenders of Empire. The U.S. State Department has been planting seeds of doubt about Iran in the U.S. media since 2003, and now that voters have become more or less inured to the steady stream of violence in Iraq, the fruits of all that subliminal labor are primed for harvest.
I’ll be the first to admit that the irrefutable caveat about Iran is that it may indeed be the real deal – a dictatorial theocracy, onerous nuclear ambitions and a seething mass of true believers ready to stick it to the Great Satan (that’s America) – but that’s beside my point. My point is that technically, the U.S. government’s credibility in the “selling war” department should be completely shot – but thanks to the memory hole, it’s not.
Over the next six months, I fully expect a perfect pantomime of 2002: “Imminent threat,” “smoking gun,” “weapons of mass destruction” and so on – possibly with a little “yellow cake uranium from Niger” thrown in for good measure. Whatever else is debated, I’m willing to bet the one thing not on the discussion table will be the fact that of all the identical claims used to peddle the invasion of Iraq to the American people, not one of them turned out to be true. And that’s something worth remembering.
Ryan McGeeney is a senior majoring in political science.