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While We Laughed: The Cost of Comic Relief

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Today, Vice President Cheney will deliver a speech to the state legislature in his home state of Wyoming. It's familiar turf - every morning news report today has been carefully designed to inform the public that the visit was a pre-arranged engagement, lest any of us see it as a desperate effort to regain some home-court advantage.

Still, it's the first public appearance he's made since hospitalizing Mr. Whittington, and as I watched him descend to the tarmac this morning, his usual imperial swagger did seem diminished. He damaged himself along with Mr. Whittington and the lobby for weaker gun laws. But what his mishap may have done to the Bush administration more broadly remains to be seen. If history is any guide, this too shall pass and without much incident.

Why? Well, that's the $64,000 question. How does the Bush administration manage to survive so many scrapes that might have killed a lesser group?

Remember "shock and awe?" That was the idea that was supposed to secure instant victory in Iraq - a show of power so vast and overwhelming that it literally jams the circuits of the public mind, paralyzing the population for just long enough to overhaul the society as they know it. When they awake, it's a new day.

Well, something like that happens here, only instead of bombs it's bombshells. Among the many jokes that swept the blogosphere and telesphere was the idea that shooting your friends might make it hard to get invited to future hunting parties but it does help knock pesky stories off the front page - stories about real crimes like wiretapping, leaks, abuses of executive power, and torture.

So while we all laughed, lonely Russ Feingold has been fighting in vain to slow the sure passage of the corrosive Patriot Act. While we laughed, the prospect of any real investigation of the NSA scandal has been all but laid to rest. While we laughed, the United Nations' call for a closure of Guantanamo Bay has gone unnoticed. While we laughed, new Abu Ghraib images were released and instead of reminding us of the pain this administration has inflicted on others, they stood as a reminder of the continued lack of any high-level accountability for those crimes. While we laughed, Mr. Cheney and his boss have slyly whispered that Mr. Cheney's violation of the law in authorizing the leak of classified information was permitted by a previously unknown (perhaps unwritten) Executive Order making such conduct lawful. (Of course, the question does arise: if such an order had once upon a time been written, why was it not offered as the first line of defense in the Plame scandal and rather kept more secret than Ms. Plame's identity itself?)

The lesson in all this is one that should be learned by every social, political, military, or business organization around the world. To maximize forward movement, forget subtlety, forget reason, forget accountability. Just barrel forward, overwhelm your adversaries with audacious initiatives heaped one upon another so that, while they struggle to process one, another comes hot on its heels. You may lose some face here or there, a friend or two, but amid the complexity of contemporary life, you simply outpace your adversaries' processing capabilities. Reeling in disbelief at your blatant disregard for any sense of decency or order in the universe, their last refuge will be a desperate retreat to the funny pages.

Eugene Jarecki's new film WHY WE FIGHT, an examination of the anatomy of the American war machine, is currently playing in theaters nationwide.