I love courtroom dramas. Maybe that's why I keep going back to that February day when Colin Powell, as powerfully persuasive as any district attorney ever was, put on that famous multimedia production that convinced me -- convinced America -- that Saddam Hussein really was developing (and hiding) weapons of mass destruction.
Here, the secretary of state was telling the jury masquerading as the U.N. Security Council, you see the chemical and biological labs at one of the production sites. And here, you notice, the trucks are gone -- just hours before the U.N. inspectors are due on the scene. Here are the time-lapse photographs, taken by satellite and spy planes, showing the bulldozed-over locations where the WMD plants used to be. And here is the incontrovertible evidence we would have preferred not to show you, because it could compromise our intelligence sources, that Saddam Hussein not only is in open defiance of U.N. resolutions but also is a threat to the security of the world.
I believed it -- and for much the same reasons I believed the prosecution's DNA evidence against O.J. Simpson. That is to say, I didn't understand most of it, but I was terribly impressed by the certitude of those who said they did.
I suspect I had a lot of company -- that hundreds of thousands of Americans who had earlier had their doubts were now convinced that all the charges against Hussein had been proved. And a lot of them, according to the polls, were ready to endorse military action against him -- with the United Nations if possible, alone if necessary.
And here's what I can't get out of my mind. Those weapons of mass destruction that our intelligence sources had pinpointed and that became the principal rationale for our preemptive war on Iraq haven't turned up. The inspectors couldn't find them while Hussein ruled, and our military, with virtually free range of the country, can't find them now.
I won't say they don't exist; something is sure to turn up sooner or later. And I certainly don't say Hussein should have been declared not guilty and sent home. But I do say that Powell's spellbinding display looks more and more like prosecutorial hokum. And either Powell or the intelligence professionals who supplied him with his talking points must have known it was hokum. Not deliberate lies so much as a glib presentation designed to paper over holes in the evidence. Think of the district attorney who is so convinced he has nailed the right guy that he sweeps aside whatever facts don't fit.
It doesn't happen only on TV. Scores of Americans are on death row as a result of not-quite-ironclad evidence adduced by prosecutors who were certain the defendant was guilty. Juries believed it, and in most cases so did the public. Why shouldn't we believe that what our officials say is the truth? After all, we've had a look at the defendant's rap sheet, and we don't doubt he could have done this crime as well. Besides, doesn't he look guilty?
So we convict -- and, too frequently, execute. And when someone comes up with new evidence that the old evidence was cooked, we don't know what to do.
We don't know what to do in our judicial system, and we don't know what to do in Iraq. It's tough enough when the new evidence proves someone else did the crime, or when a witness admits to having lied. It's a hundred times tougher when the new evidence is merely that the old evidence was oversold.
In the case of Iraq, we're inclined to blur the line between rationale and objective. Maybe the reasons offered for giving up on inspections in favor of war weren't as sound as we thought, but surely the objective of ridding Iraq and the world of Saddam Hussein was a worthy one.
Maybe such blurring is all we can do. I don't know anyone who regrets that Hussein is gone, even those who would have preferred stronger evidence and U.N. support for the war that removed him. All we can do now is hope that Iraq can survive its near-term civic chaos -- couldn't Arab governments supply police officers to help in the emergency? -- and end up an oasis of democracy in a desert of tyranny.
And we can hope that our own leaders won't interpret our gratitude for America's military triumph with open-ended support for more Middle East adventurism.
I love drama, but I don't need a sequel to this one.