War Games

Bonn, here at Ground Zero, walked away from corporate life to immerse himself in criminal justice. Photo by Bill Cardoni

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.

Bonn signs copies of Mass Deception (Rutgers University Press, 2010) in Drew’s bookstore. Photo by Bill Cardoni

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.

18 Responses to “War Games”

  1. Michele says:

    Interesting article, coupled with what I gleaned from John W Dean’s book Conservatives Without Conscience in which he explained that Cheney’s henchmen came up with the plan for a pre-emptive strike on Iraq under #41 and GHWB got so much flack he shelved the plan. As is well known, W asked Cheney(CEO for Halliburton) for a short list for VP candidates and the only name he came up with was his own (obvious conflict of interest). Then Bush and Cheney pulled the original plan to invade Iraq off the shelves and proceeded to create the moral panic Bonn speaks of. So that’s two sources. Dean indicated #41 called his son to advise against attacking Iraq and W hung up on his own father. Once the war in Iraq was under way, Halliburton got loads of no-bid contracts, just as one of their subsidiaries did after Hurricane Katrina. Even if they weren’t in Braille, a blind person could connect those dots.

  2. K.O.Beck says:

    If Glenn Beck keeps equating Progressives with Anti-Americanism/Communists and saying “Progressives should be eradicated” I will go all BUSH DOCTRINE on him and “refudiate” his ass (hat brand) of terrorism. ;-)

  3. things wouldn’t be normal in this fucking country if it wasn’t trying to beat up someone. luckily, bullies don’t always win. unluckily, the deaths of uncountable numbers of people.

  4. Great stuff Scott, Thankyou! I agree with everything you’ve said above! You’re absolutely spot on about the Government & the Media’s seemingly conspiratorial behaviour ever since the very first televised utterances of the two names that would become inextricably linked to all that is wicked & wrong in this world…’Saddam Hussein’ & ‘Osama Bin Laden’ & those worryingly vague yet scary words ”Axis of Evil” were unleashed into both our Nations collective conciousnesses, it’s what I refer to as their ‘Orwellian’ nu-speak! A prime example of this ‘nu-speak’ was the nonsense that we had constantly piped into our sitting rooms on a daily/hourly(depending on which channel you were watching)basis throughout the whole invasion of Iraq fiasco! The phrase that immediately springs to mind is the one most commonly used on our TV reports when they spoke of how we weren’t really Choosing to go to war…but rather we were being ‘forced’ for our own protection(of course)to take part with the U.S. in ”The War on Terror”!!! I’m sorry, but WHAT?!? It sounded to me like some whacky 1950′s B-movie trailer(you know the kind) *THEM*!!!
    I mean, if hearing that & similar taglines(the title of your book, for one)repeatedly, month after month Hadn’t managed to whip the poor sheeple into a total, panic-stricken, frenzied, state of anxiety…then I really don’t know what could have!!! I think Linda made a very good point about the ”dumbing down of the public” by the press & news reporters too. The media in the U.S. & the U.K. have SO MUCH to answer for! (Thankyou ‘Rupert Murdoch’…NOT!!!)
    I also agree that you are Definitely the man for the job of covering(& uncovering)the particularly dangerous practice adopted by the Western media in recent years of questioning nothing Unless they’re told some grim home truth by an undesireable ‘Leftie’ or a Democrat!!! ;0) As you pointed out in the interview…they were Totally complicit in almost all of the lies & half-truths we were being fed about ‘Saddam Hussein’ & his supposed connection to 911(amongst other things!) The sooner these ‘journalists’ get a grip of themselves and start doing some Real, Proper, Investigative-Journalism(like the wonderful articles of the Great ‘John Pilger’ & his ilk)the Better!!! I won’t even begin to go into the whole ‘Palin’/shooting thing right now, mainly cos I don’t want to risk having another stroke!!! I’m sure you could take a pretty accurate guess as to what my feelings are on that one!!!
    Keep fighting the Good Fight, Mr Bonn! & Thank’s again for exposing the destructive lies of the war-mongering, right-wing propagandists & haters! Peace, love & the very Best of luck in all your future writing endeavours, Naomi. :0)

  5. Hassan says:

    In your response to the last question, you said that your message is “Let’s not get fooled again.” You criticize people for being uncritical. This begs the question, if so many millions believe this propaganda, is it a weakness on the people’s part? or is it that the propaganda is so powerful? i.e., are the majority of us so credulous to always believe our politicians, or is the propaganda so overwhelmingly powerful, that one cannot help but succumb to it?

  6. [...] first one was a re-post on Facebook article by a guy by the name Scott Bonn. The standard claims, the UN did not approve, violated international law, we needed the UN’s [...]

  7. Zareh says:

    Mr. Bonn, i’ve read those other very good comments after mine. It really makes me happy to see that people are beginning to wake up from that deep slumber. I’ve given you my feedback here like others, now what i’d like to ask is if you could also in return give yours in regard to the whole of my own comments. You could send a PM or right here, or on my page – whatever suits you – and i can say thank you, in advance. Much appreciated! :)

  8. Andre says:

    The many of his philosophical political and religious ideologies, brought about by the egoist, from the very beginning, has he cursed in his quest to benefit for himself. From his perspective, unaware and acclimated to his place of total darkness, in the bottomless pit of self concern.  The egoist lives only for the sake of preserving in him, his tailored beliefs, environmental, and social status suited according to his false image of nature and it’s will upon him.

    Only by force is the egoist compelled, from his current condition, to calculate and seek out a position pleasing to his desire, and then made to put forth any effort.  It is hard to discern from his level of awareness, that he has not the power by his own will, to make use of his ego in respect to the upper force. If not corrected, the egoist incarnates, and is prodded through to the next life, only by external pressure or pain to force him to do so. Be it in nature, or so called man made. He has no desire for a higher perspective and grinds along with all the other egoists toward the uncertain future brought about by forces alien to him. And yet, it is his sole purpose, for which he owes his life.

  9. Does your book mention Rumsfeld Assistant Victoria Clark’s brilliant plan to “embed” the media with the US troops who launched the attack? I once had the pleasure of hearing Clark brag about her brilliant idea to get the media to go along. Her “embedding” plan was a few hundred pages long, much longer than any plan the Pentagon came up with to deal with Iraq after the invasion. Clark’s plan worked like a charm after it was leaked to the major media outlets in about January 2003 and right after that, the media coverage began to totally swing to being pro-war.

    There was also the Pentagon’s propaganda program where they were sending certain retired generals and officers out to the networks as talking heads. Often the military retiree talking heads who advocated for war, were directly invested in the weapon and military industrial companies.

    Of course the people were consequently duped but all that propaganda.

  10. Dr. Scott Bonn says:

    I appreciate all of the wonderful comments. I just wanted to note that my book is available worldwide on Kindle and in print on amazon.com. Also, other major retailers and independent bookstores. Best wishes!

  11. guad Joe says:

    i worked for DOD at the time of the attack…the rhetoric was ratcheted up and the gov’t would use updates on the status of Al Queta, Bin Laden and weapons of mass destruction constantly…i and most of my fellow civil service workers were for the most part brain washed from the military and from the news… i did not wake up to the facts of 9-11 and this fraudulant war on terror until years later when i retired…for the past 5 years i have been studying this war and find that i and millions of others have been hoodwinked…i feel like a fool… my son who was active regular army at the time told me that the entire war was a set up for oil. I did not believe my son when he told me this in 03….But i certainly do believe so now…..we have also created a war for ourselves and our children for our selfish and beligerant actions…..it is my opinon that the NWO and the Illuminati have set this war up as they have set up all wars in the 20th century, for their own personal gain….money and power….mostly power…they have all the money they would ever need imo…
    excellent work by this very bright and courageous man….i am going to look more into his work…we need more investigative journalists like Boon….humanity needs to rid themselves of the luciferian and satanic NWO and Illuminati…and soon…or we will all be destroyed by these psychopaths….

  12. Zareh says:

    Interesting article! It just goes to show how facts don’t count anymore. It’s all propaganda, and with a nation like America where all kinds of distractions – mindless entertainment, sports, blind ruthless competition for persuing that Corporate slogan: American dream, etc. – dominate the society, there’s not much time left to learn anything about world affairs, and it’s certainly deliberately so designed, hence people with their blissful ignorance fall so easily for the lies and deceptions of the Lamestream media which manipulates the minds so successfully with their number one weopon: fear and repetition of their fear-charged created catch-words that this article also mentions such as WMDs, axis of evil, war on terror, terrorist, etc. Add to that the apathy and carelessness of the people and it’s not strange that things are as they are today.
    As for Saddam Hussain, well, it was the CIA that hepled and put him into power, He was just another installed puppet dictator waging wars against Iran and then against Kuwait and benefiting the US war machine/industry. But like the rest of US puppets they end up dancing to the tune of ther masters, hence resulting their removal. In Saddam’s case one of the main reasons was that he was not going to trade oil in US dollar anymore. But the rabbit hole seems go much deeper. It’s all about the expansion of this evil US empire, the geopolitical control of the Middle East. This evil empire building its permanent military bases with its installed puppet governments inboth Iraq & Afghanistan has also its greedy eye on Iran and Pakistan. I just can’t understand why people in America can be so dumb and numb to support the military under the illusion that its for protection of freedom.
    Lol, sorry for going so much off-topic perhaps, but i thought it was more or less related.

  13. Barb T. says:

    Is there a Kindle version? I would like to add this book to my collection.

  14. john says:

    Interessante, como após a destruição do Iraque, surge agora alguém falando sobre a vingança pessoal da família Bush contra Sadan ….Um hotel de luxo em Bagdá tinha em sua rampa de acesso, ao ar livre, uma caricatura grotesca do Bush pai, onde todos pisavam…rss…George Bush apenas usou a mídia para invadir e destrui Sadan, a custa do 11 de setembro, de (polêmica origem)!! Abs.

  15. Linda says:

    Nice job! Sounds like interesting reading. I love sociology and would have gotten such a kick out of your class if it was offered when I was in school. I hope you’re working on something more current now. An expose of the talking heads at Fox and their effect on the public discourse (and consequent dumbing down of said public), for example. We need to make real journalism mainstream again.

  16. Great article. I look forward to reading Mr Bonn’s book before having him as a guest on the internet radio talk show of Soldiers For Peace International.

  17. Preston W. Harrington says:

    I really enjoyed the read. Eyes open wider!

  18. Kevin says:

    Excellent article. I would, however, bring exception to the statement that Bush’s only motive was revenge. He repeatedly warned the Iraqi people not to destroy the oil wells..

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