While they haven't yet reached the mea culpa finale, the dealers of the Long News Needle in the American Empire do seem to have begun their inevitable Act III breast-beating routine.
Or perhaps, inasmuch as the performance is both predictable and funny (in the way only a Central European finds something funny), we should describe this scene as the one in which the lapdog turns wolfish and bites its owner.
The owner, of course, being George W. Bush, along with his cadre of testosterone-pumped Empire Builders. (Ms. Condoleezza Rice, in this instance, ought to undergo the same sort of tests Olympic weightlifters undergo.)
The dog of note is the Empire's loyal Mass News Media, otherwise known as the Long News Needle. (This multiple-identity requires mixing metaphors, but news entertainment is not a finer art.)
And the drama being performed we will call "The Empire Brings Democracy to Iraq (Ready or Not)". Regrettably, the titles "Desert Storm" and "The Young Guns" have already been used.
Now, for a quick review:
In Act I, you will recall, we learned Saddam Hussein was the most dangerous man in the world, a villain truly worthy of instigating a Major Global Drama. Not only did he possess weapons capable of destroying every drive-thru eating joint in America, he was secretly behind the attack on the World Trade Center, to be remembered forever in history simply as "9/11". How did Americans learn all this? Why, through the steady drip of the Long News Needle.
In Act II, we enjoyed the spectacle of the Invasion, the frenetic excitement of the War, and the subsequent Occupation and Search for the Weapons. But the Bush Empire Builders did not like the word "occupation", which implies aggression. The embedded Long News Needle adapted accordingly, calling it "liberation" instead. Thus Act II offered many thrilling scenes of flag waving, most of them performed by Americans (the Iraqis proved to be surly extras).
Now we move to Act III, in which it transpires that "occupation" -- a.k.a. "liberation" -- actually means "quagmire". Not only that, but "very expensive quagmire". Urgent calls from the Bush Empire Builders for Europeans to help pull the imperial tractor out of the mud (where it is buried to the frame) go unanswered, not even an "I told you so" taunt. The former allies seem to be busy with incidentals, such as trying to bolster domestic economies, something the Bush Empire Builders intend to do eventually, perhaps right before the 2004 elections.
So, faithful to its owner, the indignant Long News Needle assures the hoi polloi that the French are wusses, the Germans afraid of their own shadows, the Brits (both of them) are still with us, and the Drama must go on.
In Iraq, meanwhile, the extras are still surly, some are attacking their liberators, most miss the good ol' days when flipping an electric switch produced light, and the Empire Builders seem to be humming beneath their breath a tune eerily resembling the sweet sixties hit, "We Gotta Get Out of This Place".
While back in the USA, the average citizen has begun to wonder if his heroes, the Bush Empire Builders, might not have overstated their case in some minor details, such as those pertaining to Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, his role in 9/11, the Iraqi desire for a secular democracy, and the ultimate financial cost of producing said Drama.
Enter once again the Long News Needle, now in the guise of lapdog, who suddenly sniffs a change in the air. Is that the scent of anxiety, perhaps? Of public doubt? Is that a cue? Is it time to leap from the lap, maybe even turn and take a bite out of the Empire Builder's trousers?
In fact, yes. Time to make the transition from lapdog to snarling wolf. Start with the trousers, and if the public applauds, perhaps go for the throat. After all, Empire Builders routinely lie, they cheat, they betray sacred principles. Geez, who could've known?
Once this stunning scene has been performed (and it might have been done so by the time you read this), the snarling wolf will make yet another transition. It will rise on two feet to beat its collective breast with bitter regret (well, maybe not Fox, but the rest), sounding as guilt-ridden and tormented as Isaiah, Jeremiah and Hosea rolled into one: "Forgive us, for we strayed! We betrayed you because we were misled! But we will never do so again!"
The mea culpa performance will astound us and effect us all deeply with its sincerity, its anguish, its utter volume. Thus we are apt to forget all the previous performances of this same scene by the Mass News Media in Empire Dramas which stretch back to ... well, put it is this way: My grandpa remembers some mighty fine shows.
And we will have some more in the future. You might have noticed that, for an Empire, the Drama never really ends. Not until the Empire does. Which won't be soon, not for America. Until then, we'll enjoy sequel after sequel. After all, US Army Special Operations are presently deployed in about 65 countries and are conducting operations in almost three times that many. It ain't easy being an Empire.
Nor is it easy to cover the official news of such an Empire's efforts to deliver freedom, justice and democracy (altruism lubricated, perhaps, only by a dab of oil) to the unwashed and unsaved of the world. Not easy, no. Especially if one's corporate owners are eyeballing the bottom line, inspecting the profits.
It's a tad schizophrenic, truth be told, being a lapdog in one scene, a wolf in another, a grieving, cuckolded prophet in the finale, all the while trying to keep a straight face and stay gainfully employed. But they are good actors, those boogers -- almost as good as the Empire Builders they cover -- and otherwise suitably prudent and flexible.
Offstage, back in the dressing room, once the makeup is removed, they'll light a cigarette and evaluate the latest performance. Then they'll strap on the rubber band and pop a vein, insert the needle (the same one used for you and me) and hit the valve.
Drip, drip, drip.
Now, don't you feel better?
Christopher Cook, a Texas native and former journalist, is the author of the novel Robbers and the short story collection Screen Door Jesus & Other Stories. His story "The Pickpocket" appears in the recently published anthology Best American Mystery Stories 2003 [Houghton Mifflin].