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William Pitt: An Open Letter to Richard Cohen

An Open Letter to Richard Cohen

By William Rivers Pitt
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Tuesday 09 May 2006

Greetings! I was inspired to write you after reading your missive in today's Post regarding all the nasty emails you have received of late. Personally, I found Colbert's performance hilarious and timely, the kind of satirical backhand so desperately needed these days. I don't begrudge you your opinion that he wasn't funny, and I agree with your belief that it wasn't your opinion on his performance that motivated such an angry response.

It wasn't. You yourself nailed the reason: "Institution after institution failed America - the presidency, Congress and the press. They all endorsed a war to rid Iraq of what it did not have."

The fact that your Colbert commentary became the flint against this rock doesn't mean that Colbert, or your opinion of him, is to blame for the resulting firestorm. The fact is that people are angry - brain-boilingly, apoplectically, mind-bendingly so - at what has happened to this great country. I am, quite often, so angry that my hands shake. Yes, a former high school teacher from New England here, so filled with bile and rage that I sometimes don't recognize my face in the mirror.

You, sir, should not be asking why so many of your email friends are so angry. You should be asking why you yourself are not with them in their rage. I have admired a number of your articles over these last years, and know that you are no fool regarding our situation in Iraq and here at home. It isn't your grasp of the issues that concerns me, but the absence of outrage. Do you really care about the things you write about, or is all this merely grist for the mill that provides you a paycheck?

"I have seen this anger before," you wrote, "back in the Vietnam War era." No, sir, you have not.

You hearken back to rock-throwing days in Vietnam, and lament hatred and rage. But you do not see that those days are quaint by comparison given our current geopolitical situation. Johnson and Nixon, whatever else their faults may have been, were internationalists who understood the need for connection to the wider world. The war in Vietnam, barbaric as it was, did not inspire tens of thousands of Vietnamese to join martyr's brigades. It did not threaten to unleash chaos in a part of the world that holds the economic lifeblood of our whole existence. It did not threaten to shake loose nuclear weapons from quasi-rogue states like Pakistan.

You speak of the angry mob because you got slapped around via email, but your characterization of the anti-war crowd tells me you have not spent a single moment out in the streets with them. I have. I have covered dozens of protests, large and small, in cities all across this country before and after the invasion of Iraq. Millions upon millions of Americans participated in these, and never once, not one time, was a rock thrown.

No violence was offered anywhere, unless it was violence offered to old ladies by riot-garbed police, as was evidenced in Portland several years ago. I have the photographs to prove it. If you want to see anger, enjoy this picture of a 60-year-old woman holding an anti-war sign while being placed in a hammer-lock by a riot cop:

"The hatred is back," you say, as if such hatred is beyond justification. It is interesting that you make so many allusions to Vietnam; the comparison is apt, yet not on point. This is not a situation of "Then" and "Now," but "Then" and "Again." The two issues are joined by a common theme: official malfeasance, presidential lies, administrative fear-mongering and horrific body counts in a faraway land. The lesson of Vietnam was so searing, many believed, that it would never have to be learned again.

Why the anger? Because that lesson didn't take, at least with this crowd. Why the anger? Because millions of people are staggered by the idea that, yes Virginia, we have to go through this again. We have to watch soldiers slaughter and be slaughtered for reasons that bear no markings of truth. We have to watch the reputation of this great nation be savaged. We have to watch as our leaders lie to us with their bare faces hanging out.

Why the anger? It can be summed up in one run-on sentence: We have lost two towers in New York, a part of the Pentagon, an important American city called New Orleans, our economic solvency, our global reputation, our moral authority, our children's future, we have lost tens of thousands of American soldiers to death and grievous injury, we must endure the Abramoffs and the Cunninghams and the Libbys and the whores and the bribes and the utter corruption, we must contemplate the staggering depth of the hole we have been hurled down into, and we expect little to no help from the mainstream DC press, whose lazy go-along-to-get-along cocktail-circuit mentality allowed so much of this to happen because they failed comprehensively to do their job.

George W. Bush and his pals used September 11th against the American people, used perhaps the most horrific day in our collective history, deliberately and with intent, to foster a war of choice that has killed untold tens of thousands of human beings and basically bankrupted our country. They lied about the threat posed by Iraq. They destroyed the career of a CIA agent who was tasked to keep an eye on Iran's nuclear ambitions, and did so to exact petty political revenge against a critic. They tortured people, and spied on American civilians.

You cannot fathom anger arising from this?

I wrote a book called "War on Iraq" in the summer of 2002. That book stated there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, no al Qaeda connections in Iraq, no connections to 9/11 in Iraq, and thus no reason for the invasion of Iraq. It is now almost the summer of 2006. That book was right then, and is right now, and the millions of Americans who agree with the facts contained therein have shared these four years with me in a state of disbelief, shock, sorrow and yes, anger. None of this had to happen, and the fact that it was allowed to happen inspires the kind of vitriol you got a taste of via email.

If you want anger, you should try reading some of the emails I get on a weekly basis. The mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, wives, husbands and children of American soldiers killed in Iraq write to me asking why it happened, what can be done, how this is possible. They write to me because I wrote that book, because somehow they think I have an answer to that bottomless question.

I am sorry you were so wounded by the messages you received. I wish that hadn't happened; I am personally from the more-flies-with-honey school of journalistic correspondence. But in the end, truth be told, I don't feel too badly for you. It isn't an excess of outrage that plagues this nation today, but an abject lack of it. Instead of castigating those who take an interest, who have gotten justifiably furious over all that has happened, I suggest you take a moment within yourself and ask why you don't share their feelings.

This isn't Vietnam, Mr. Cohen. This is a whole new ballgame, and the stakes are higher by orders of magnitude. It took almost ten years of Vietnam for people to reach the boiling point you are so apparently horrified by (and worthy of note, that rage may have elected Nixon, but also served to stop the killing in Southeast Asia). Should those of us who are angry today wait until 2013 to raise hell?

At a minimum, I suggest you head down to your local hardware store and buy a few sheets of 40-grit sandpaper. Apply it liberally - pardon the pun - to any and all parts of your body that may be exposed to the scary anger of the anti-war Left. Toughen up that hide of yours, and greet the coming days with a leathery mien impervious to a few angry emails.

Afterwards, you could perhaps figure out why the anger of those who see this war as a crime and this administration as a disaster is so terribly threatening to you. Anger is a gift, after all, one that inspires change. If you don't think we need a change, real change, I can only shake my head.

P.S. Another reason for the anger you have absorbed can be laid, frankly, at your own feet. There are enough of us around who can still remember your words from November of 2000: "Given the present bitterness, given the angry irresponsible charges being hurled by both camps, the nation will be in dire need of a conciliator, a likable guy who will make things better and not worse. That man is not Al Gore. That man is George W. Bush."

Locate a mirror, Mr. Cohen. Stare deep within it. Know full well that today, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, will recast all your yesterdays as having passed like a comforting dream. Your ability to remain within the safe bubble of the beltway clubhouse, drifting this way and that in some meandering, rudderless fog, has ended. Al Gore invented the internet, or so we are told, and some bright-eyed editor decided to staple your email address to the bottom of your works. Welcome to the age of electronic accountability.


William Rivers Pitt is a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of two books: War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know and The Greatest Sedition Is Silence.

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