have always been a sucker for wide-screen epics. Ever since my Dad took me to see Quo Vadis â€“ which ends with centurion Robert Taylor heading off to his execution with his bride on his arm â€“ I’ve been on the movie roller-coaster. My dad didn’t make a great distinction between the big pictures and B-movies; he managed to squeeze Hercules Unchained in between Ben Hur and Spartacus. But the extraordinary suspension of disbelief provided by the cinema carried me right through to Titanic, Pearl Harbor and Gladiator. Awful they may be. Spectacular they are.
But the important thing, as my dad used to tell me, was to remember that the cinema did not really imitate reality. Newly converted Christian centurions did not go so blithely to their deaths nor did love reign supreme on the Titanic. The fighter pilots of Pearl Harbor did not perform so heroically, nor did wicked Roman emperors die so young. From John Wayne’s The Green Berets, war films have lied to us about life and death. After the crimes against humanity in New York and Washington last September, I suppose it was inevitable that the Pentagon and the CIA would call on Hollywood for ideas â€“ yes, the movie boys actually did go to Washington to do a little synergy with the local princes of darkness. But when Vice-President Cheney and Secretary of Defence Rumsfeld turned up together for the premier of Black Hawk Dawn, I began to get worried.
After all, if the Bush administration is so keen on war, it better work out the difference between Hollywood and the real thing. Yet what we’ve been getting is a movie version of reality, a work of fiction to justify the prospect of “war without end”. It started, of course, with all the drivel about “crusades” and “war against terror” and “war against evil”, the now famous “they hate us because we are a democracy”, the “axis of evil” and most recently â€“ it would be outlandishly funny if this trash hadn’t come from the Rand Corporation â€“ the “kernel of evil”. The latter, by the way, is supposed to be Saudi Arabia, but it might just as well have been Iran, Iraq, Syria or anywhere west of the Pecos. Along with this tosh, history is being falsified. Even a crime movie supplies a motive for the crime but after 11 September, Bush Productions would allow no motives to be discussed. The identity and religion of the perpetrators was permissible information: they were Arabs, Muslims. But the moment any of us suggested glancing towards the area from which these Arabs came â€“ an area rich in injustice, oppression, occupation and UN-sanctioned child death â€“ we were, as I’ve described before in this column, subjected to a campaign of calumny.
As Bush’s regional enemies grew in number to include not just al-Qa’ida but Iraq and Iran and their allies, a fabric of stories began to be woven. Last June, for example, we had Donald Rumsfeld spinning tales about Iran. At a press conference in Qatar â€“ these lies can be spun, please note, just as well in the Arab world as in the West â€“ Rumsfeld told us that Iranians “are engaging in terrorist activities and transporting people down through Damascus and into the Bekaa Valley. They have harboured al-Qa’ida and served as a facilitator for the movement of al-Qa’ida out of Afghanistan down through Iran.”
Now the implication of all this is that al-Qa’ida men were being funnelled into Lebanon with the help of Iran and Syria. Yet we know that Iran, far from “transporting” al-Qa’ida men to Syria, has been packing them off to Saudi Arabia for imprisonment and possible death. We know that the Syrians have locked up an important al-Qa’ida official. The Americans have since acknowledged all this. And, save for 10 Lebanese men hiding in a Palestinian camp â€“ who may have no contact with al-Qa’ida â€“ there isn’t a single Osama bin Laden follower in Lebanon.
So Hezbollah had to be lined up for attack. The Washington Post did the trick with the following last month: “The Lebanon-based Hezbollah organisation, one of the world’s most formidable terrorist groups, is increasingly teaming up with al-Qa’ida on logistics and training for terrorist operations, according to US and European intelligence officials and terrorism experts.” This tomfoolery was abetted by Steven Simon, who once worked for the US National Security Council and who announced that “there’s a convergence of objectives. There’s something in the ‘zeitgeist’ that is pretty well established now.” Except, of course â€“ zeitgeist notwithstanding â€“ it is simply untrue.
The Washington Post had already lined up the Palestinians as America’s enemies â€“ again “terrorism experts” were the source of this story â€“ by telling its readers in May that “the sheer number of suicide belt-bombers attacking Israel this spring has increased fear among terrorism experts that the tactic will be exported to the United States”.
A similar theme was originally used to set up Saddam Hussein as an al-Qa’ida ally. Back in March, George Tenet, the CIA director, stated that Baghdad “has also had contacts with al-Qa’ida”, although he somewhat diluted this bald statement by adding that “the two sides’ mutual antipathy toward the United States and the Saudi royal family suggests that tactical cooperation between them is possible”. Note the discrepancy here between “has also had contacts” and “is possible”.
On the West Bank, Rumsfeld has already talked about the “so-called occupied” territories, a step down from William Safire’s outrageous column in The New York Times last March in which he admonished us not to call the occupied territories occupied. “To call them ‘occupied’ reveals a prejudice against Israel’s right to what were supposed to be ‘secure and defensible’ borders,” he wrote. Now we have Condoleezza Rice, President Bush’s National Security Adviser, telling us that “Arafat is somebody who failed to lead when he had a chance. Ehud Barak gave him a terrific opportunity to lead. And what did they get in return? Arafat started the second intifada instead and rejected that offered hand of friendship”.
Now it’s true that Ms Rice’s knowledge of the Middle East gets dimmer by the week, but this palpable falsification is now the Washington “line”. No mention, you’ll note, that Arafat was supposed to “lead” by accepting Israeli sovereignty over all of Jerusalem, no mention of a “right of return” for a single refugee, of the settlements built illegally outside east Jerusalem in Israeli hands, of the 10-mile-wide Israeli buffer zone round “Palestine”, of scarcely 46 per cent of the 22 per cent of Palestine under negotiation to be given to Palestinians.
It’s not difficult to see what’s going on. It’s not just al-Qa’ida who are the “enemy”. It’s Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Saudi Arabia. Bush Productions are setting up the Arab world. We are being prepared for a wide-screen epic, a spectacle supported by Hollywood fiction and a plot of lies. Alas, my dad is no longer with us to remind them all that cinema does not imitate reality, that war films lie about life and death.
Fergal Keane is away