In his new book, Mass Deception: Moral Panic and the U.S. War on Iraq, Assistant Professor of Sociology Scott Bonn lays out how George W. Bush marched into battle while the American media napped.
By Christopher Hann
The theory of moral panic was first advanced in the 1970s. Can you describe what it means generally and how it applies to your book? A moral panic is a situation where a particular group or condition becomes perceived as being threatening to society through the attention of the media and the articulation of political leaders. But this alleged threat is exaggerated. The reality is grossly overstated. There’s a notion here of a symbiotic relationship between the media and the political elite, that sometimes it’s in both their best interests to promote this fear. If you have an issue or agenda and you want to sell that agenda, there’s nothing like fear to promote your point of view. Politicians rely on the media to promote their positions and rhetoric. At the same time, the media rely on the political elite for juicy stories. I’m not implying there’s a conspiracy. I’m not arguing that the Bush administration sat down with Time Inc. and said, OK, how can we scare the hell out of the public? I’m saying the news media was uncritical of the Bush administration, uncritical of their claims of weapons of mass destruction, and they just passively went along for the ride.
Before becoming an academic, you spent 20 years as a media and advertising executive, including a time as vice president for client marketing at NBC Television. Did that give you insight into the workings of a major news organization? All you have to do is look at the ownership of a given news organization to understand the political orientation of that news organization. There’s no coincidence that Fox News, owned by Rupert Murdoch, who describes himself as one of the most conservative men in the world, is the most conservative news outlet. An example that I have looked at since leaving NBC: General Electric is, if not the most heavily fined, one of the most heavily fined corporations for various infractions—such as consumer injury, faulty products and false advertisements—and is penalized by the federal government accordingly. I did an analysis where I looked at the coverage of General Electric’s infractions by various television networks. At the time, NBC was owned by General Electric. NBC provided practically no coverage of General Electric’s infractions, where the other networks provided meaningful coverage. It was my exposure being on the inside of the machine, if you will, that led me to even ask these kinds of questions in the first place.
What are you teaching at Drew? I teach the sociology of deviance, which is really anything considered different or unusual. My interest is more at the elite level—white-collar crimes and crimes of the state. I’m very interested in how the media portray and frame issues related to crime and terrorism and the perceptions that the public develops.
In the book, you analyzed statements from the Bush administration in news accounts. Can you describe what you did? I looked at more than 5,000 news stories about Iraq in The New York Times from March 20, 2000, to March 19, 2003. Only 1,100 of them had direct quotes about Iraq from the administration; those are the ones I used. I compared the presidential rhetoric published during the 18-month period beginning the day after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and ending the day before the invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003, to the rhetoric concerning Iraq published during the 18 months before Sept. 11. I found that the presidential rhetoric became much more punitive and inflammatory toward Iraq almost immediately after Sept. 11. I then compared the rhetoric to 24 Gallup public opinion polls that measured the nation’s willingness to go to war against Iraq, starting in February 2001, a month after Bush took office, and ending in March 2003. I looked at the extent to which the presidential rhetoric that preceded these polls influenced public support for war. And I found that, yes, it did. As the rhetoric became more punitive, public support for war increased. It maxed out at almost 70 percent of the American public in support of going to war. And the same percentage believed that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and that it was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks. The Bush propaganda campaign worked very effectively in manufacturing support for war.
In what way did the rhetoric become more inflammatory? The administration began to use terminology like evildoers, mad men, axis of evil, weapons of mass destruction, imminent threat, mushroom cloud. All this terminology was essentially introduced after Sept. 11 and specifically so in the context of Iraq. Bush knew there wasn’t evidence to link Iraq to Sept. 11. Instead he did it through deception. He would say things like, “We can’t have another situation like the falling of the Twin Towers.” He was trying to incite retaliation and fear regarding Iraq, without saying that Iraq was responsible for Sept. 11.
Does moral panic require the collaboration, implicit or explicit, of both the ruling political class and the media? There are two types of moral panic: grassroots moral panic and elite-engineered moral panic. An example of grassroots moral panic is something like satanic cults in schools or the witch hunts in Salem during Colonial times, where the fervor of society in general created the moral panic and political leaders jumped on later. In an elite-engineered moral panic, yes, it requires both. It requires the elites, whoever controls the rhetoric, with the assistance of the media. This methodology has never been applied to an international event before, or specifically a war situation.
Why do you think the Bush administration had to create a moral panic in order to go to war with Iraq? Couldn’t the administration have cited commonsense concerns about Saddam Hussein and his potential threat, given his track record? They did do that as part of the argument, but that alone would not have constituted a valid justification for the war. Instead, they came up with the Bush doctrine of preemptive self-defense. Preemptive self-defense is an oxymoron. It’s either self-defense or it’s not. Preemptive self-defense is something different. Their argument was that the United States has a right to preemptively strike against another country if it’s believed that country potentially poses a threat to our security, whether or not that threat has manifested itself. The trouble with that is that it’s in direct violation of the United Nations Charter, the Nuremberg Charter and the Geneva Convention, all of which the United States helped write. The invasion of Iraq violated all of those. Not only was an attack not imminent, but Saddam Hussein declared that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction. In terms of international law, even if he had weapons of mass destruction, it still wouldn’t have been allowed. Oh, by the way, he wasn’t involved in Sept. 11 either.
Why do you think George Bush was so hell-bent on taking out Saddam Hussein? In the book you theorize that he was trying to finish a job that his father had started. Absolutely. These are not just unsubstantiated accusations. Scott McClellan—Bush’s press secretary and a close personal friend—talks in his book about being very disenchanted about essentially being used. Yes, it was very personal. Bush’s father was much criticized in conservative circles at the end of the Gulf War. There were a lot of people, a lot of neo-cons, who wanted his father to take Saddam out. I think part of the rationale was finishing his dad’s business. When they finally captured Saddam Hussein in that hole in the ground, he had a pistol with him. George Bush kept that pistol on his desk in the Oval Office. That’s an indication of how personally he took it.
Does the book give lessons on how to prevent a moral panic from occurring again? My message is essentially Let’s not get fooled again. The average person tends to be rather uncritical. The Bush administration very effectively created a moral panic, using language such as axis of evil and weapons of mass destruction. The party that uses the word evil is generally trying to strip out humanity. Once you do that, you’ve removed any possibility of discourse. You can’t have dialogue with evil. The Bush administration created a dichotomy in the world. Good people were the ones who went along with them. Evil people were the ones who didn’t.