Sleight of hand, or prestidigitation for those who like using big words, is usually a big part of any magician’s act. A lot of it depends on getting people to look at the wrong thing, on distracting your audience with a diversion while you are doing something else.
I think that we need to create a new term: sleight of mouth. To really catch what’s important, we often have to look at what people don’t say, rather than what they do.
One place where I think this is true is war. There is a natural fog of war that clouds the information process; even those involved don’t know everything that’s going on. There’s also a manmade fog of war, where those involved practice sleight of mouth, saying only what they want people to hear.
One of my language teachers in Argentina was able to illustrate this for me. She was living in Los Angeles during the 1982 Malvinas (Falklands) War between Argentina and Great Britain. She said that she heard news from three sources: the United States (which she could hear for herself), Argentina (which she heard from friends there), and Germany (thanks to a neighbor). The U.S. news consistently presented the news from the viewpoint of Great Britain. The Argentine news was slanted toward Argentina, so much so that when Argentina surrendered, her friends wouldn’t believe her when she called them. (“How can that be? We’re winning.”) In the end, it was the German news that seemed to be the most objective.
What makes me wonder is why it’s so hard to find out civilian death totals from Iraq and Afghanistan. I can understand the difficulty in knowing how many enemy fighters have been killed, but it seems like our government could present a clearer picture of how many bystanders have been killed. Actually, we know that they can: the Wikileaks documents confirmed the numbers that non-government sites have reported.
So why doesn’t our government talk about this? Sleight of mouth. Nobody wants people thinking about the tens of thousands of people who have died. Let’s focus on the three thousand or so that died 9/11 or the four thousand or so U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq. Talking about the deaths of over one hundred thousand civilians might dampen the enthusiasm for the war. Let’s talk about something else.
We should mourn those one hundred thousand as strongly as we do the ones who died 10 years ago in the terrorist attacks. That needs to be said time and again. Let’s not be children who are deceived by a magician’s tricks. Let’s not just look where they tell us to look. Let’s look at the whole picture.
There’s a reason why we keep saying we want to “fight them over there.” Because if those one hundred thousand dead were American citizens, this country would look at things in a whole different light.