Bill, Bill, What Were You Thinking?

A paradigm shift is required to set the stage for this essay. Ever since the Enlightenment, Western humanity has placed virtually all of its eggs in the basket of the intellect. We are indeed the “animal that reasons” but is reason enough, does reason work in building a sustainable human community, does reason even enable us to make “rational” decisions? Sadly, history tells us it does not.

Fortunately, we have resources beyond reason that will guide us along a divergent path to more profound conclusions, conclusions more in harmony with Simple Reality. As Pascal said, “the heart has reasons that reason knows not of.” In short, the heart is the seat of human wisdom and is connected to the source of the creative impulse itself. If we took the time to calmly consult our intuition, we would have better outcomes that would transform human behavior over time. In the meantime, we are stuck with our bonehead decisions based on idiotic analysis, simpleminded synthesis, and egghead evaluations. Too harsh? Read ahead and decide—but be careful—your much-vaunted mind will be of little help.

Too often when the human intellect is deployed it is a “reaction.” A reaction is a human behavior that is clouded by fear and the energy of irrational delusions. Human beings caught up in these behaviors are anything but rational regardless of how intelligent they might be. As a group, American journalists are indeed intelligent and have a powerful influence on the thinking of their fellow Americans. Many of us turn to the Op-Ed writers for help in analyzing what is happening in our world and in formulating our opinions about what should be happening. The pundits have failed us, but we have also failed ourselves.

Even those of us who are committed to practicing patience with our deeply conditioned reactions can fly off the handle on a daily basis. Those in positions of immense power who are quick to turn to fight or flight pseudo-solutions can be responsible for incalculable pain and suffering. On the anniversary of 9/11 it would be instructive to re-visit the behavior of just such people and ask if perhaps wisdom might have been available to them if some restraint had been practiced.

Carrying signs on the picket line which urged just such aforementioned restraint in the lead-up to the declaration of war on Iraq was a somewhat lonely business for many of us who were counseling patience. I remember being especially disappointed in the number of hitherto “liberal” journalists whom we counted on to voice moderation and calmness instead spouting the worst jingoism and deluded rationalizations imaginable.

We are not picking on journalist Bill Keller (b. 1949) but precisely because he has the experience, intelligence and integrity necessary to have avoided the influence of his reactive “self,” he is the perfect example of the mesmerizing power of the old “shoot now ask questions later” American identity.

But, as we shall see, in his own words, he was helpless when unconsciously choosing to react to his intense level of fear and the resulting vengefulness. “The suddenly apparent menace of the world awakened a bellicose surge of mission and made hawks of many—including me—who had a lifelong wariness of the warrior reflex [reaction].”[i] Lest any of us begin to feel superior to Keller we should remember that we all have difficulty transcending our conditioned reactions in search of a heart-felt response, a lot of difficulty.

First let’s establish Keller’s credentials as a representative of his profession. He had served as a reporter and editor of the New York Times for 17 years and was beginning to write for the Op-Ed department when the planes hit on 9/11. He became one of the liberal hawks that the Bush administration neocons liked to cite as justification for their invasion of Iraq. The so-called “club” of liberal journalists who supported the war would eventually have much to answer for. This exclusively boys’ club came to be called by Tony Judt in 2006 “Bush’s Useful Idiots.”[ii]

By 2008 Keller had moved from the Op-Ed page to executive editor and was obliged to keep his personal opinions to himself so as not to unduly influence the objectivity of his reporters and the reputation of the Times. Just this past week (September 2011) he has returned to the role of columnist and to having the freedom of giving voice to his objective intellectual analysis and subjective personal opinions and has revisited his decision.

While the “club” members struggle with hindsight, the neocons (the original idiots who were manipulating the “useful idiots,”) who couldn’t come up with 50 cumulative I.Q. points among them, i.e., “Shrub” [1], Rummy and Dickie C. are signing their royalty checks for their chest-pounding memoirs. In the meantime, Bill Keller is having doubts about his own simian-like machismo of eight years ago. While he deploys his powers of reason to revisit the neo-conservative rationale for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, those of us who took the time to be “thoughtful” ten years ago can only sadly shake our heads in disbelief once again.

Had Keller taken more time and been less reactive, what might his thinking have been in 2003? We can get some idea because now he can breathe, count to ten and give the whole thing some thought. “So, let me be the last of the club to retrace my steps, and see if there is any wisdom to be salvaged there.”[iii]  Let’s not hold our breath here for any wisdom and just hope for a little common sense. There are three arguments that Keller sees in retrospect for having invaded Iraq.

To summarize those arguments they are first, Saddam Hussein was a monster that we needed to remove; secondly, we had the opportunity to plant the seeds of democracy, the so-called “nation-building” argument; and finally, Saddam’s harboring of terrorists and the hiding of unaccounted-for weapons. These all sound reasonable but don’t forget the limitations of the human intellect that as we have seen, even the most brilliant of our pundits can fall prey to.

Argument number one brings this reflection from Keller: “But there are plenty of monstrous regimes that we do not go to the trouble of overthrowing.”[iv]  Samantha Power, who wrote the Pulitzer-winning A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, gives us some criteria that Keller could have used in 2003. “My criterion for military intervention—is an immediate threat of large-scale loss of life. That’s a standard that would have been met in Iraq in 1988 but wasn’t in 2003.”[v]  Samantha Power advised President Obama on human rights and her conclusion was one that Keller apparently agrees with.

On to rationale number two! “Beyond Iraq, the idea that a country democratized under American occupation would become a beacon to the region, an antidote to the poisonous doctrine of extremism, was highly questionable given the region’s bitter history of occupation and the popular resentment of America for, among other things, its generous support of so many Arab autocrats.”[vi]

Thirdly, “Iraq was not, as Afghanistan had been, the host country and operational base of the new strain of Islamic fascism represented by Al Qaeda. At the time Iraq was one of seven countries designated as sponsors of terrorism by the State Department, and in the other six cases, we settled for sanctions as recourse enough. And his conventional military—what was left of it after it was laid waste in the deserts of Kuwait and Iraq in 1991—was under close supervision.”[vii]

The sanctions and the U.S.-enforced “no-fly” zone had Iraq locked down in 2003, caged like a restless tiger and members of the State Department and the Department of Defense (even Colin Powell) knew this and they folded like the press—weak as water! They were too terrified, too self-absorbed, to access their inner wisdom let alone their common sense, too protective of their careers and personal political power.

The other part of reason number three was the most prominent and least credible—weapons of mass destruction. “We now know that the consensus was wrong, and that it was built in part on intelligence that our analysts had good reason to believe was cooked.”[viii]  Have you noticed, although politicians lie all the time, that word is rarely used to describe their behavior? They can be disingenuous, they can exaggerate, they can dissemble, they can stretch the truth, they can get caught with their hands in the cookie jar and prevaricate under pressure, etc.

Mentioning a few of his colleagues who began to have doubts during the early years of the war about what the outcome be would Keller says, “The rest of us were still a little drugged by testosterone. And maybe a little too pleased with ourselves for standing up to evil and defying the caricature of liberals as, to borrow a phrase from those days, brie-eating surrender monkeys.”[ix]  As we have seen earlier in this essay, that is not the kind of primate the war-mongers were (chest-beating gorillas) and it wasn’t cheese (but crap from the administration) that they were eating.

Comparing the two wars in Iraq, one led by an older, less reactive Bush to a less mature more impetuous, more macho Bush, the desirability of at least trying to access a wiser inner guidance becomes apparent. In the first gulf war 148 Americans died in battle as opposed to 4,500 Americans and at least 100,000 Iraqis as of today (2011). The cost of Bush I’s war was $100 billion over two years and the war that Bush II started stands at $800 billion in 2011 with much of the amount spent on nation building pilfered and squandered. [2]

The integrity of Bill Keller, revealed by his history as a journalist, is demonstrated in his honesty in admitting his mistake without feeble excuses. “President Bush got it wrong. And so did I; I think Operation Iraqi Freedom was a monumental blunder. It is one of the most corrupt countries on earth. And there is little confidence that things will not get worse.”[x]  

At the tenth anniversary of 9/11 (2011) we realize that we are a nation responsible for more deaths in the region than even Saddam Hussein at his worst could have been responsible for. The journalists of the Fourth Estate now seek the truth only after the fact, and with few exceptions failed to challenge at the time the three rationales (excuses) for the war in Iraq. Madrassas (schools teaching Jihad or “holy war”) against the “Crusaders” (that’s us!) have sprung up from the Middle East to Indonesia teaching that America is the “Great Satan.”

We have with incredible stupidity, in chasing a handful of isolated terrorists, created one thousand times that number. Maybe the people we call terrorists want the CIA, the State Department, the Department of Defense and American multi-national corporations to respect their nation’s sovereignty. We American’s would never tolerate any such “presence” by foreign nations on our soil—we would probably have some kind of “tea-party” reaction—remember those terrorists?

The sad reality is that a pundit is a person who purports to understand the nature of reality but rarely, if ever, does. By 2011 the whole region of North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean was destabilized. Paranoid American leaders, aided and abetted by the press that exists expressly to prevent just such fiascos, blundered into the Middle East and created the very nightmare it sought to avoid. There was no rational reason underlying that action, only reaction and retaliation.

We can choose to live in fear for the rest of our lives on this planet, creating turmoil inside ourselves, conflict at home, clashes at work and school, and wars abroad. Or we can open our hearts, breathe and turn inward before acting, consciously choosing a response rather than a reaction.

What will you choose?


[1]  Mollie Ivins coined “shrub” as her nickname for “Bush”—ha, ha, get it. In the meantime, she has moved on to writing diatribes in heaven, probably gaining entry with a fake I.D. and is surely an irreverent angel reminding god of that other disrespectful angel … err … what was his name? Oh yeah—Satan! I know! Digressive self-indulgence—but admit it—you enjoyed it too.

[2] Keep in mind that the source material for this essay is a 2011 article, which obviously does not reflect current events. Today in 2021 this ghastly 20-year war finally ended. The cost is estimated to be $2 Trillion! The tragic number of lives lost and injured have not yet been published. You can find details online.


Bill, Bill, What Were You Thinking?

[i]     Keller, Bill. “My Unfinished 9/11 Business.” The New York Times Magazine. September 11, 2011, page 36.

[ii]     Ibid.

[iii]    Ibid.

[iv]    Ibid.

[v]     Ibid.

[vi]    Ibid.

[vii]   Ibid.

[viii]   Ibid., page 56.

[ix]    Ibid.

[x]     Ibid., page 58.


Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.

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