See No Evil -- Another article in the Ordinary Potato series

See No Evil

Copyright 2004 by Leonard Grossman

"What do Janet Jackson's nipple and a flag covered coffin have in common?" "Our government doesn't want us to see either of them."

That appalling riddle seemed so clever when I first told it, yet every time I repeated it the conversation curdled. Not only was it in bad taste, but it somehow touched a nerve. It describes the essence of the past four years. We live in a paternalistic world where government officials decide what is good for us to know and strongly believe that it is not good to see the truth, to see the facts. The problem, they believe, is not in the facts but in disclosure. Indeed, this government prefers not to look too closely itself.

Perhaps it is not surprising that an Administration conceived in a conscious decision by the Supreme Court to ignore the truth, should refuse to see or let us see it.* The old proverb, "See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil," has roots in many cultures and can be interpreted in many ways,** but rarely if ever has it had such application to an era.

See no evil

Is it nearly only six years since we pretended to put our hand over our eyes, but peeked between our fingers with glee at Bill Clinton's private conduct? This tendency is ingrained in our society. We shrieked in horror at Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" but ignored the fact that the script itself was based in force and rape. The baring of her flesh was perhaps the least offensive moment in the production. But the moment became the cause of a crusade, a righteous campaign to "clean up" the media. The Oscars became a pallid farce, absent of any possible excitement, broadcast with tape delay to prevent possible titillation [or political expression]. And the stars took their cue and bored us to tears. Television shows were screened and edited to avoid sanctions while plots and commercials continued to tease and arouse us unrestrained.

How seriously we took it all, at the same time sharing in the joke. An intern with a cigar, a pop star reveals a bit of flesh. Each time a nation's attention was riveted. Each time there were editorials and cries of "Shame!"

But then something happened to truly give us pause, to put things in perspective: The photographs from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq hit the Web. Our national innocence has been corrupted. We have been made to look in the mirror. Our right to point fingers at others in self righteous indignation and superiority has been challenged. Or has it?

Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld suggested that the problem was not really the abuse, which had been known at some levels of his Department for some time (and ignored by higher-ups). Rather, the problem was the distribution of the photos documenting the "un-American" conduct of a few soldiers.

Incredibly, he ultimately apologized and offered "compensation" to the victims of abuse. Everything has its price, he must believe. Would he have offered compensation if the world had not seen the photos. Or would this been pushed under the table with God knows what else.

In the ultimate absurdity, Rumsfeld suggested it would be "not be a bad idea" to tear down the prison as though removing the building could clean his conscience. President Bush then jumped on the bandwagon. In a major address Bush said, "Under the dictator [Saddam Hussein], prisons like Abu Ghraib were symbols of death and torture. That same prison became a symbol of disgraceful conduct by a few American troops who dishonored our country and disregarded our values." The prison will be destroyed "as a fitting symbol of Iraq's new beginning, " he said, indicating that the U.S. would build a modern prison to replace it. Now you see it now you don't. Once its destruction could have been a symbol of change; now its destruction can only serve as a reminder of how much stays the same.

Two sides to the coin

"See no evil" can be both a command and a description of behavior. From Washington goeth forth the word: Thou shalt see no evil. A nation is told to hold blinders over its eyes. Truth is withheld. Only disclosure and revelation bring shame and cause to change. But we are not to see.

On the other hand, "We shall see no evil -- nor even the truth," seems to be a motto of this Administration. Now I see three monkeys holding their hands over their eyes and ears, willfully ignoring what is plain to see.

I thought I was original in my application of this proverb, but I am part of a great multitude. It is impossible in one essay to begin to touch the surface.

[*] Recognizing the vast number of undercounted, overcounted and miscounted ballots, cast in Florida in the 2000 election, the Court stated in Gore v. Bush that [t]he contest provision, as it was mandated by the [Florida]State Supreme Court, is not well calculated to sustain the confidence that all citizens must have in the outcome of elections, and decided, therefore, that ignoring those votes would provide greater confidence. Actually counting those votes could lead to inconvenience and chaos, the Court suggested. The people must not see the true count even if it could have ultimately strengthened the Administration.

[**] Sculptures of a trio of monkeys depicted with one having its hands over its ears, another having its hands over its mouth, and the third having its hands over its eyes are a tradition in Japanese culture going back to at least the 14th century. The trio can represent a positive attitude not unlike the ancient Jewish tradition of Lashon Hara, refusing to speak ill of others or to listen to such gossip. Or it can represent willful blindness, refusal to acknowledge the truth, and fear to speak out.

Visitors to my office are sometimes suprised to find a small framed photo of John Ashcroft on my book case. Close observers will note, however, that he is standing in front of the statue, Spirit of Justice, in the Justice Department.... the statue he later had draped to cover an exposed breast. Janet wasn't his first cover-up.

While looking up the exact title of the statue, I found this relevant Urban Legends information.


The articles listed below give just a hint of the extent of willful blindness. [Some links may have expired.]:

See No Evil: What Bush Didn't (Want To) Know About 9/11

When Was Bush Transformed Into the See-No-Evil President?
by Elizabeth Sullivan

See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism.
Interview with the author

See No Evil
A political psychologist explains the roles denial, emotion and childhood punishment play in politics

War On Error: Colin Powell's see no evil, see no evil, see no evil
Sidney Blumenthal

Bush's Hear No Evil, See No Evil Presidency

See-No-Evil Journalists
Stefan Kanfer

Hear no evil, read no evil, speak drivel Bush's press conference shows just how ill-informed he is about Iraq
Sidney Blumenthal

See No Evil, Hear No Evil: The Schultz Theory, Applied October 4, 2001
By Busby Breasley

See No Evil How Good Intelligence Falls on Deaf Ears
By DAVID KAHN Published: March 27, 2004

This article first appeared in WindoWatch Magazine
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Rev. 7/4/2004 6:42:51 PM.