Monday, August 15, 2005

The Black Hat

Like many of you, I have been watching the Cindy Sheehan story evolve with a strange mixture of sadness, hope, and revulsion. Like so much of what passes for political discourse these days, this event plays out as a spectacular piece of calculated theater. But unlike our traditional diet of sound and fury, the emotions that drive Cindy Sheehan's display are not drawn from theory or generated from method. No matter what else you might say about Sheehan the activist or Sheehan the political figure, she is Sheehan: mother of a dead son. Everything else is drawn from that cruel reality. And everyone knows that.

So, in the moments where I am able to successfully repress the rage I feel as the soulless war apologists do everything in their power to obscure this woman's clear and simple message, I'm struck by how foolish the conservative reaction to this protest has been. In a certain sense, their reaction has been just another rendition of the old standby: attack the messenger. But by playing hardball with the mother of a soldier who died for the cause they support, it's nearly impossible to get away without looking like a total asshole. That might work when targeting a former ambassador, a presidential candidate and war hero, or a former counterterrorism adviser -- all of who have made a living, to varying degrees, in the rough and tumble world of professional politics. Not so with Cindy Sheehan. When they go after her this way, they voluntarily wear black hats.

I suppose that it's possible that this has simply become a reflex or that they simply don't know any better. But, I think it's a little more complicated than that. I think that Cindy Sheehan is extremely dangerous to the conservative case for war and I think that, consciously or unconsciously, they know it.

Last week, while justifying his use of the term chickenhawk, Publius had the following to say:
But even putting the whole chickenhawk point aside, you can tell from the actions of both the administration and the nation that people’s hearts are not in this war. Again, not from their words, but from their actions and. For example, the draft is not even whispered by an elected official in Washington (well, ok, 99.9% of elected officials). That’s an extremely telling action. If people really – really – believed in this war, they would be willing to accept a draft. But it’s worse than that. The American public won’t accept – indeed, are not asked to accept – even the tiniest sacrifice for the war effort. No new taxes to fund armor. No new taxes on gasoline to limit dependence. The President won’t even press people to sign up for the military (one sentence in passing, last I checked). And we are all familiar with the recruiting shortfalls.
This points to one of the most disturbing aspects of this conflict -- for most people, this war doesn't really exist. We see the news reports and we hear about the costs in terms of dollars and coalition lives, but all of that is an abstraction. Although there clearly will be a price to pay for this excursion somewhere down the road, there is nothing that is immediately tangible to it.

This fact has been critical to the marketing of the war. True, many of those who initially supported the war did so because of the threatened cross-section of Islamic terrorism and Iraqi nuclear weapons. However, an important corollary was the belief that we could easily achieve our goals and that the costs would be minimal. Now that the primary justifications for our invasion have evaporated, and weaker justifications have been promoted to replace them, it becomes even more important that the perceived cost of the conflict be low. Since the perceived benefit of the conflict has been reduced, our cost threshold has been similarly lowered.

But, as Publius pointed out, we really haven't been asked to pay anything. It's been a free ride. As long as you aren't directly connected to the military or living in Iraq, your metaphorical wallet has been safe.

However -- what happens when those who have actually been footing the bill start to complain?

This is the threat that Cindy Sheehan represents. She and many others like her have been paying the costs for the rest of us. First she paid by having her leave her side to enter the conflict. Then she paid by losing him forever. And when she does her cost-benefit analysis, it doesn't add up. It isn't even close.

Thus far, the families of those who have died or been injured in Iraq have quietly endured the burden we have placed upon them. They have chosen to believe that the cause has been just and their sacrifice noble. Some surely believe this. Others cling to it, the cognitive dissonance of meaningless death and dismemberment too overwhelming to face directly. Still others question the costs outright, but do so silently, afraid to speak out alone.

Sometimes, though, all it takes is for one person to speak out. When they do, others of like mind begin to crystallize around them. If that were to occur to any significant degree, the illusion of a cost free conflict would be broken. The sheer duration and the abstract tallies of combat losses have already begun to erode this myth. An army of Cindy Sheehans would demolish it completely. And though they might stoop to slime a single mother standing alone, they could not hope to turn the tide against a movement built around her. It would be the end of the war, pure and simple.

It is better to wear a black hat and hopefully nip this movement in the bud. Discredit her, label her a traitor, imply that she is dishonoring her son, and hope that this dissuades other mothers from asking why their sons and daughters had to die, whether this conflict is worth the cost they are paying. Before it's too late.

I've got to admit -- the war apologists find himself in a bad spot. Given that they can't address the argument on its face, they have no choice but to slay the messenger before her message reaches too many ears. It's ugly and they know it. Yet, above all else, the conservative justification for war must be preserved. If it means wearing an ugly stain on their conscience, so be it. All other priorities have been rescinded.

So, while it may be painful to watch this disgusting display, we can take heart in knowing that the uglier the response, the closer to the end we are. And given how ugly things have become, I think it's safe to say that there is at least one movement that is truly in its last throes.
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