Weapon of Moral Deliverance

spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London).

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

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During the weekend’s media Simpsons-fest, marking the 300th episode of that wondrous animation show, events in Iraq called to mind the one where the Simpsons’ school caretaker Willy is ‘exposed’ on some sensationalist crime-as-current-affairs programme. ‘But Marge,’ says Homer, as the darkly melodramatic soundtrack blares from the TV, ‘he must be evil. Just listen to the music….’ Watching the news, it occurred to me that the Americans scratching around in the Iraqi desert must wish that they could prove the existence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) simply by choosing the right mood music, rather than having to unearth any actual evidence for the cameras. President Saddam Hussein’s WMD have become a sort of modern Holy Grail in reverse.

Whereas the knights of old went on perilous quests to find the Grail as the source of goodness, today’s crusaders are searching for those elusive WMD as the embodiment of evil.

Saddam and his WMD have long served as a metaphor for evil in the Western imagination. That is a useful thing to have to hand, when our societies appear to have lost their traditional moral bearings. In domestic politics, we find it hard to agree on definitions of good and evil that could give society some sense of self-certainty (apart, perhaps, from our annual summer game of hunt-the-paedophile). Every issue, from genetic engineering to urban planning, sparks divisive debates about morality, with all sides claiming that right is on their side. How much easier to find some universal symbol of evil ‘over there’, by identifying an alien menace against which to unite in the name of good.

The campaign against Saddam’s WMD has been deployed as a sort of Weapon of Moral Deliverance for an uncertain West, behind which President Bush and Tony Blair (playing the Grail-seeking Sir Galahad to Bush’s King Arthur) could try to rally their forces. Some might think that if Saddam’s WMD had not existed, or had ceased to exist, somebody would have to invent them.

With opinion polls showing that most Americans now approve of the war even if no WMD are found, the Bush Administration might be expected to let the issue quietly fade away. Yet its importance as a metaphor for evil means that the coalition remains desperate to exorcise these demons.

From the start of the invasion of Iraq, we have been bombarded with instant reports of every trace of white powder, murky liquids, gas masks, germ warfare suits and, in one case ‘about 1,000lb’ of, er, paper that might provide some proof of Iraq’s WMD. On each occasion to date, the search for the unholy grail has proved more of a wild goose chase. As coalition forces neared Baghdad, one Pentagon source was quoted as saying: ‘If he’s got them, and we’re sure he has, now is the time to use them.’ That sounded rather like wishful thinking, as if some of our seekers after evil would almost have welcomed the release of a small, containable, but suitably photogenic, cloud of poison gas in the desert.

It seems certain that the coalition will eventually find something that can be presented to the world as Iraq’s chemical or biological arsenal. Whether it will be considered enough to justify Bush’s warnings about Saddam putting America ‘at the mercy of an outlaw regime that threatens the peace with weapons of mass destruction’ is another matter.

The latest story, reported in yesterday’s New York Times, concerns a mysterious Iraqi scientist, who apparently claims that Saddam’s weapons programme had recently focused on ‘research and development projects that are virtually impervious to detection by international inspectors, and even American forces on the ground’. Is ‘impervious to detection’ the same thing as invisible? As with the Holy Grail, even if they cannot be seen just now, the faithful believe that those weapons are there. The remarks at the weekend from the British defence minister Lewis Moonie -’I have no doubt at all in my mind that Saddam possessed these weapons’ -confirmed the sense that this is an article of pseudo-religious faith, not to be shaken by any shortage of hard evidence here on earth (or beneath it).

These days the US authorities always seem to be searching for some symbol of evil that they cannot quite pin down -Osama bin Laden, Saddam, Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. It looks increasingly like an exercise in US soul-searching projected on to Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria, a restless quest not to build a foreign empire but to colonise moral high ground for America itself. It does not seem to occur to the searchers that it might be they who have lost their way. Or as Homer, the modern American hero, has it: ‘I don’t believe in God, but if you’re up there, please help me, Superman.’

This article is republished from The Times (London)

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Topics World


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