Corpses on the Campaign Trail
by Ryan McMaken by Ryan McMaken
The wartime campaign season has begun. The Bush administration, having determined that John Kerry will indeed be the competition, has begun to produce TV spots for the fall election, and to no one’s surprise, the terrorism of September 11th is a central theme.
Last week, Geraldine Sealey of Salon.com (among others) reported that some families of those killed in the attacks of September 11th were demanding that the President remove the images of the World Trade Center that have shown up in Bush’s "Stronger, Safer" TV spot.
It spite of this controversy, it is most likely that the Bush team will continue to use September 11th as an emotional foundation of wartime propaganda. This will be done in spite of the fact that the Bush administration has yet to produce any actual victories in the so-called war on terrorism. What matters in election years, of course, isn’t results. What matters is getting the voters to feel good about voting for you. Get them emotionally invested, and they’re yours. Since September 11th has become the bloody shirt of our times, we must expect nothing less.
Employing political opportunism that would rival anything used for political ends in our own post-September 11th America, the post-Civil War Republican Party tried to convince Northern whites that a vote for the Democrats (who had presumably been responsible not only for the Civil War, but for the assassination of Lincoln as well) was a vote for "rum, Romanism and rebellion." That is, booze, Catholicism, and Southern Confederates. Thus, the bloody shirt of the Civil War was waved before the faces of Americans to drive home the message that a vote for the Democrats was a betrayal of everything that the soldiers of the North fought and died for. Appropriately, the Northern veterans (and those merely pretending to be veterans) of the Civil War also used the issue to secure fat federal pensions and subsidies for themselves, and every election season for decades following the end of the war, reminders of the blood-stained shirt of the civil war hero were trotted out with the not-so-subtle message that those who voted for the Republicans were real Americans. Everyone else was a traitor.
And so it will be this year. In addition to the mere appeal to the alleged past heroics of the Bush administration will be the appeal to continue the war on terrorism in earnest. Never mind the fact that upon hearing the news of the attacks of September 11th, Bush and Cheney were busy hiding in "undisclosed" locations. This year, we’ll be asked to remember words, not deeds, and there will undoubtedly be lots of clips of the president talking tough, calling everyone he can think of a coward. If he were using the parlance of an earlier age, the President would say, "Vote for me! Avenge the deaths of those who died on September 11th." Since those who actually committed the atrocity are all dead, you’d think that thousands of Afghani and Iraqi civilian deaths due to American bombs would be enough to satisfy the bloodlust, but alas, such proportionality, if it can even be called that, is unlikely.
Watching Bush’s ads, one might recollect Fred Spear’s 1915 propaganda poster featuring a drowning mother and infant killed by the German attack on the munitions-laden Lusitania. True, the Woodrow Wilson administration didn’t commission the poster, but the image certainly came in useful a few years later when Wilson became convinced that he had been anointed to lead the world to a democratic paradise. At least in the case of the Lusitania, the German Navy was rightly identified as the culprit. Indeed, as has become clear in recent years, the British had deliberately loaded the Lusitania with munitions and left her to fend for herself in U-Boat infested waters. If a tragedy just happened to occur, and the Americans could be duped into the war as a result, what was the harm?
No such complicity occurred prior to September 11th, but with the CIA’s typical ability to be utterly clueless on everything but what antiwar protestors are having for breakfast, who can be surprised that the whole affair was a shock? Wishful thinking at the White House has still failed to make Iraq an accomplice in September 11th, but it is unlikely that such facts will mean very much in a campaign built around an all too real war founded on very fake intelligence.
As with those who died on the Lusitania, or during the Civil War, or at Pearl Harbor, or on the U.S.S. Maine, the memory of those who were murdered by Osama Bin Laden’s little band on September 11th will ultimately be used, and used with great aplomb by the White House to, as Karen Hughes puts it, remind Americans of the "great leadership and strength the president and First Lady Laura Bush brought to our country in the aftermath."
Politicians are rarely so fortunate as when a great tragedy (that can be blamed on foreigners) occurs, since all that is required of them, apparently, is that they not publicly wet their pants. Consider New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s reversal of fortune. He went from reviled despot to hero in a matter of hours simply because he didn’t flee the city screaming after the terrorists struck. Millions of New Yorkers behaved at least as well, yet they don’t command six-figure speaking-tour fees. Bush is looking to capitalize on the same phenomenon, although unlike Giuliani, Bush’s handlers got him as far away from danger as humanly possible. This will no doubt be forgotten by most on election day. A good show of brute force, even when directed at innocent parties as it was in Iraq, can do a lot to convince people that someone bold is in control.
Is Bush’s use of the 9-11 footage a cynical ploy? Certainly, but he is hardly alone in such tactics. There is no reason to believe that Kerry or any other contender for the presidency would not stoop to the same level. Wartime presidents believe they have been sent by God to destroy evil, and even though they have failed at every attempt, there’s no reason to believe that they might let the dictates of good taste get in their way.