We, Robot

Print edition : August 13, 2004

The Senate Committee blames mainly the "collective groupthink" of the intelligence community, and not that of the government, for the Iraq war, quite consistent with the record of a country where consensus among the elite sections prevails, even in elections.

IN the same week as the United States Senate Intelligence Committee released its report on intelligence failures on Iraq, 20th Century Fox released its new blockbuster, I, Robot. Loosely based on Isaac Asimov's book of short stories, the movie is set in 2035, where a police investigator tracks a murder in a world that people share with their common drones, the robots. These robots are to follow three cardinal rules: 1. Robots must not injure humans or let a human be harmed; 2. robots must obey orders given by humans, except if it contradicts the first law; 3. robots must protect themselves, but not violate the first two laws. The robots revolt, and it is the duty of our policeman hero to subdue them, to remind them that they are, after all, the servants of humans.

The Senate Committee's report excoriated the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Military Intelligence, the European intelligence services, even the United Nations, for what it called "collective groupthink". The intelligence community, the Senate argued, "overstated" some data on Iraq and made analytical judgments "not supported by the underlying intelligence". The term "groupthink" comes from a 1972 monograph written by the psychologist Irving Janis, who argued that a group might make a decision based on the desire for unanimity rather than on the quality of the choice. The need to be in sync is more important than the need to have fealty to the truth or to reason. The "spooks" wanted to agree with one another rather than think carefully and analytically about the data that the field agents and informers had sent to them. Meanwhile, one tiny U.S. State Department agency, the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, that is generally overlooked and under-funded, found the link between Saddam Hussein and the Al Qaeda "highly dubious". Nobody listened to the Bureau until the Senate highlighted its contrary opinion in its July 2004 report.

The Senate said little about the "groupthink" in the Bush administration, where the strong arm of Vice-President Dick Cheney's staff led the way. In late 2001, Cheney told the press that the connection between Saddam Hussein and the Al Qaeda was "pretty much confirmed," and when President George W. Bush declared victory over Iraq on May 1, 2003, he noted: "The battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on September 11, 2001 - and still goes on. The liberation of Iraq is a crucial advance in the campaign against terror. We've removed an ally of Al Qaeda and cut off a source of terrorist funding." Dissent to this view within the White House became impossible, as all its functionaries did the rounds of the media outlets to repeat this data-less view.

The poster of the documentary Fahrenheit 9/11.-DOG EAT DOG FILMS/REUTERS

Another institution of the U.S. that escaped the Senate's charge of "groupthink" was the corporate media, whose flag-bearer is Rupert Murdoch's Fox News. When Cheney fed the line about Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, the view was repeated not only in the echo chamber of the RadCon (radical conservative) media, but also in the mainstream press. When Cheney's deputy Paul Wolfowitz announced that Iraq had the ability to produce (and possessed stockpiles of) weapons of mass destruction that it could hand over to Al Qaeda for a catastrophic attack on the U.S., none of the major news outlets challenged him or the administration. It was taken as fact. In May 2004, The New York Times offered a delayed apology, after the U.S. had pulverised Iraq, and during an occupation that seems to be as endless as it is brutal. "We have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been," wrote the editors. "In some cases, information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged." They did not refer to any specific articles, but most readers would have remembered reporter Judith Miller's definitive articles on the existence of mobile weapons laboratories and stockpiles of these weapons. Miller's work provided much of the ballast for Secretary of State Colin Powell's presentation to the U.N. Miller continues to be on the staff of The New York Times, even though she should be investigated for her poor journalistic standards for, what some might call, her fables.

Certainly the government and the media played an enormous role in the creation of fear and anxiety among the general U.S. population. But, the public also fell for "groupthink" despite the sirens from the energetic anti-war movement and from those around the world who cautioned the U.S. through the U.N.

In September 2003, 70 per cent of the U.S. population thought that Saddam Hussein's regime had a role in the 9/11 attacks, while 80 per cent of those surveyed by The Washington Post felt certain that Saddam Hussein had financed the 9/11 attacks. The "groupthink" of the population seems to be terminal.

President George W. Bush with military personnel at the MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, on June 16.-CHARLES DHARAPAK/AP

During the run-up to the war, we, the American public, were the robots, guided by the strong hand of the Bush War Party and its media. We obeyed their orders to fear our enemies, to watch as the terror alerts went from yellow to red, to yellow, and back to red. We, Robots, continue to believe the hype about the "war on terror", when in fact this war is simply a continuation of U.S. foreign policy. If the U.S. cultivated the Mujahideen in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq in the 1980s, and if both became the triggers for blow-back in one way or another against the U.S. geo-political interests, the current cozy relationship between the Pentagon and Uzebekistan's Islam Karimov and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak should be an indicator that the next major terrorist strike when our children are adults will be conducted by Uzbeks and Egyptians. The Bush War Party will then be represented by other members of the U.S. corporate elite who will tell us that we, Robots, must not harm them, that we must obey their benevolent orders, and that we must only protect ourselves as long as it does not infringe on their liberties.

THIS month, both the Democratic and Republican parties will nominate their candidates for the presidential election in November. The country is in ferment, with the two sides gearing up for a stiff contest, and the undecided voters and the alienated non-voters being targeted with advertisements to make them choose and get to the polls.

Michael Moore's rousing documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 is a populist call to arms for the population to go to the polling booth and send the Bush family back to Texas. The documentary has broken all box-office records in its category, and it has started a national debate on the events of the past three years that have otherwise been utterly forgotten (such as, did George W. Bush really win the election of 2000?). The Bush War Party has unleashed the dogs of political war to rouse their "base", notably evangelical Christians who might be tempted to come to the polls to ban "same-sex marriage". We, Robots, are to forget both the causes of rage against us around the world, and the roots of our own tenuous hold on the American Dream: both the President and his opponent are eager to tell us that each will conduct the war on terror more efficiently, and that each will do a better job to secure the fruits of globalisation for the U.S. public. The rest of the world be damned.

A FEW weeks ago, Australia-based World Peace Society began a virtual Internet election for the U.S. presidency, but with a twist. The Society believes that since the U.S. is the centre of an empire, why the whole world should not vote in its presidential election. In its idiosyncratic election, the independent social reformer Ralph Nader holds a commanding lead, although Democratic candidate John Kerry is not far behind. Perhaps if there were such a global election, the result might not be far from this: how many people in the world would vote as enthusiastically for either Bush or Kerry given the effects that U.S. empire has on the planet? A South Asian American comic web site, Badmash, is running Amitabh Bachchan for President in an Internet campaign, just as the comic strip artist Servando Gonzalez runs Fidel Castro for President of America each year: the presidential election, particularly among young people, has been reduced to a joke, even though young people know that this office is perhaps the most powerful one in the world.

The 2000 election sealed the frustrations of many people, because we could not understand why the winner of the popular vote lost the election. Al Gore, the Democrat, won 48.38 per cent of the popular vote, while George Bush, the Republican, won 47.87 per cent of the vote. How did the winner lose? What did the Supreme Court have to do with all this? Will the election of 2004 be any different? Will the Bush War Party steal the election as it did the last time? In mid-July 2004, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge fuelled all these fears when he ruminated publicly that in the event of a terror attack, the government must cancel or postpone the election. The Bush War Party is afraid of a Spanish scenario, when the terror attacks there perhaps helped in the defeat of the Bush ally, Jose Maria Aznar. A spokesperson of the Homeland Security Department rather ominously said: "We are reviewing the issue to determine what steps need to be taken to secure the election." Everything rests on what he means by "secure".

In fact, the system is designed to "secure" the election against the wishes of the vast majority, because we either do not vote or even if we do, our choice is filtered through an electoral college system. The "Founding Fathers" of the U.S. created an electoral system for the presidency that minimised the influence of the vast bulk of the population. Alexander Hamilton, a close aide to George Washington, questioned the dictum that the "voice of the people" is akin to the "voice of God". "It is not true in fact," he argued. "The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right." James Madison, another important author of the Constitution, wanted a presidential election process that avoided direct election by the people who are "stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage, or misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men". Instead of direct election of the President or election by Congress, the "Fathers" chose to create an electoral college that would gauge the popular sentiment, but themselves select the Chief Executive of the U.S.

Well-versed in classical theory, the "Founding Fathers" followed the example of the Centurial Assembly of the Roman Republic, where the adult men gathered in groups of 100 according to their wealth to cast one vote on a proposal before the Senate. The votes of all the Centuries (or groups of 100) would be tallied and used to guide the Senators. In addition, the "Fathers" learnt from the Roman Catholic Church's College of Cardinals which elects the Pope. Only the wise must have the power over the highest office in the land. In the eyes of the "Fathers", the people are a mob, the demos, whose will had to be tempered by their betters.

Senator John Kerry with Julian Bond, Chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, at the 95th annual convention of the organisation in Philadelphia on July 15.-JACQUELINE LARMA/AP

The refusal to allow demonstrations at both the Boston Democratic convention in late July and the New York Republican convention in late August is an illustration of this treatment of the people as a mob. Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York refused to allow United for Peace and Justice to get a permit for a 250,000-person rally in Central Park on the grounds that "you have a vast bunch of people together with no ways to get in and out and no ways to control entrance and egress". If the rally cannot be controlled, it will not be allowed. In Boston, meanwhile, the officials allowed the protesters a space that would hold about 400 people, a fraction of those who will come to exercise their right to dissent.

No wonder then that those who are considered to be part of the mob do not vote. The U.S. has very stringent rules that disenfranchise felons, and in the course of the 2000 election it became clear that the partisan election officials used these rules to "scrub" voters off the rolls: people whose demographic information showed that they might vote for the Democratic Party in some crucial districts in Florida, found themselves unable to vote. The statistics of those who could vote are damaging without these irregularities. Those who earned more than $55,500 a year voted at a rate of 66 per cent, whereas those who made less than $11,000 voted at 29 per cent. As you make more money in America, you tend to vote in larger numbers. This formula reverses the trend in countries such as India and Brazil, where the impoverished vote at a greater rate than the wealthy. Additionally, the young, those who are 18-24, vote at a much lower rate (28 per cent) than those who are above 45 (60 per cent). The older, richer Americans tend to get to the ballot more often, and they will be dragged there by organisations such as the Business Industry Political Action Committee (BIPAC). A coalition of half the Fortune 500 firms, BIPAC has created a Prosperity Project to make sure that the rich get to the polls and to ensure that they, as employers, put pressure on their employees to vote for the Bush War Party. Meanwhile, with far less resources and power, the Centre for Community Change has begun its own effort to reach out to the low-income people who are most disillusioned about the ballot box.

The "Fathers" designed a government that is protected from the "groupthink" of the population, but it did nothing to make the people immune from the "groupthink" of the elites. The rich and powerful have always controlled the U.S. institutions and they continue to do so as we move into this election. A victory to Kerry might not change the fundamental direction of the country or the nature of the institutions themselves, but it will surely provide hope to a people who have been led by the nose for far too long.

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