At the Santa Monica Public Library last Monday night, beneath chrome light fixtures that looked suspiciously like UFOs from the mushroom-cloudy ’50s, Scott Ritter, the former weapons inspector for the United Nations Special Commission in Iraq, did his best to make everybody in attendance feel like crap. But only in the most communally embracing sort of way. It was like a mass singing of “Kumbayah” without pants — unifying, but not altogether uplifting.
Ritter looked like your typical ex-Marine: a 6-foot-4 nerd capable of snapping your neck in the blink of an eye, the perfect posture belying a gigantic gut, the itty-bitty haircut so well maintained it looked like a toupee. He was here to discuss his new book, Target Iran, and to convince the overflow crowd that a U.S. attack on Tehran and the subsequent global disaster would not be the exclusive fault of George W. Bush, but rather it would be, for the most part, the fault of We the People. (For a more uninformed rabble of nationalistic and tribal sycophants one would need to reference 1930s Berlin for a viable comparison.) Opposite Ritter sat Robert Scheer, formerly of the L.A. Times, a left-leaning journalist who for 50 years has been accused of being so pinko that much of his writing was little more than him looking at his own nihilism through rose-colored glasses. Remarkably, Scheer found himself often taking a position to the right of the former jarhead, one-time Fox News analyst and card-carrying Republican he was interviewing.
“Years from now,” Ritter insisted, “we’ll realize that Saddam Hussein was the best thing going in Iraq,” and that it was a “real tragedy” that he was gone, to which Scheer responded with a look one might otherwise expect from, say, Jack Benny upon learning that Rochester had murdered a prostitute, eviscerated her and slept in her skin.
Punching the air with the chubby tip of his huge thumb like a Kennedy, Ritter enjoyed surprising his audience, every 15 minutes or so, with a pop quiz designed to demonstrate how little they knew about the Mideast and how much he knew. “You shouldn’t even have an opinion about what’s going on in [the region] if you can’t tell me the difference between Sunni and Shia, Persian and Arab.” He was like a well-intentioned scoutmaster, buoyantly cruel and whimsically demeaning.
“Can anybody tell me what a Sunni Wahhabist is?” he said, eyebrows high. “Anybody?”
Nobody could answer him; they were too busy looking remarkably happy, elated even, like they were watching a magic trick for which their self-confidence was being made to miraculously disappear right before their eyes. Poof!
“Can you tell me what the significance of Baghdad, Mosul and Kirkuk is to these different groups? Can anybody tell me what Isfahan is? You can’t?” Now he was yelling. “Well, I’m here to tell you, ladies and gentlemen, most Americans can’t — they fail the pop quiz. But don’t feel bad! Nobody in the United States Congress knows the differences, either! The head of the Intelligence Committee, Congressman [Silvestre] Reyes of Texas, certainly doesn’t know the difference.”
Oh, everybody seemed to say with their applause, everything sucks in the world not because I deliberately make it that way, but because my innocence is corrosive — I’m a bad person by proxy, not by design. And thank goodness I’m not alone.
“If you’re so smart,” Scheer asked his guest following a long, protracted explanation of why the Iranians are incapable of enriching enough uranium for use in a nuclear-weapons program — protracted meaning nearly 10 minutes of Ritter juggling terms such as uranium hexa-fluoride and tellurium and ruthenium and molybdenumcontamination and interior rotors spinning at 70,000 rpms like meat cleavers before turning to how the Bush administration knows that the Iranians are at this stalled stage of nuclear development because Article 4 of the Nonproliferation Treaty gives Iran the right to develop nuclear technology, and there are inspectors with whom Tehran is operating in complete compliance — “if you know so much, why don’t you become president?”
“Because I don’t know anything about politics,” responded Ritter.
“So,” Scheer finally asked him at the end of the program, “are we going to Iran?”
“Yes, we’re going,” answered Ritter, “we’re already there. Right now there are two carrier battle groups in the Persian Gulf and a third is on its way and you don’t send that much military force into a region just to pull it back.”
The audience clapped for doomsday as they were invited to ask questions. Perhaps it was the subliminal hostility of Ritter’s pop quizzes, or merely the general fury modern human beings experience whenever life doesn’t mirror the seamless brevity of television discourse, but nearly every questioner’s preamble was met with gritted teeth and shouts from their fellow audience members — “That’s not a question!” or “Get to the point!” or even “Shut up, shut up!” — somehow proving that if we don’t hurry up and start a war with Iran we are in danger of tearing each other’s heads off.