There are four people at the bottom of Dante’s hell, and two of them are assassins.
Largest of the damned is Satan. The impact of his fall from Heaven plunged him into the center of the earth, where he stands, waist-deep in the lake Cocytus, which is kept perennially frozen by the beating of his bat-like wings. The mouth of Satan’s central face—he has three—chews on Judas, who hangs there, headfirst, legs flailing.
The sins of these two are theological: They betrayed God, and Christ. But the people in Satan’s remaining mouths, Brutus and Cassius, are there for very human reasons: They led the plot to murder Julius Caesar. It may take an effort to understand why Dante put them there. Our history and culture condition us to think of emperors, and would-be emperors such as Caesar, as villains. Shakespeare’s Brutus is noble, if indecisive; Cassius was a male first name in the highfalutin’ South (it was Muhammad Ali’s, before he changed it). For Dante, however, the Roman Empire was a symbol of society, of the way men live in this world. He knew that individual emperors could be weak or wrong (he put “hawk-eyed Caesar” in limbo, where virtuous pagans live without hope). But by murdering Caesar, Brutus and Cassius struck at human society itself.
The medieval version of Rome that Dante knew claimed divine sanction and called itself the Holy Roman Empire. Nowadays, we derive legitimacy from popular support. Vox populi, vox dei. If Dante were an American, his symbols of murderous rage against society might be John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald.
Could he use Gabriel Range? Mr. Range is the writer and director of Death of a President, the British TV movie that was recently screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. Using real clips, actors and digital effects, it shows the assassination of George W. Bush after a speech in Chicago in 2007. Mr. Range claims he made his movie to raise questions. “It is about the polarization of America … post-9/11,” a spokesman said. Many philosophers say the same thing; so do many hatemongers. Diogenes or David Duke? He provokes, you decide.
But Mr. Range has other motives. He wants to make money, which he does by making a stink. (In its small way, this column helps him.) Senator Hillary Clinton nailed this motive: “I think it’s absolutely outrageous that anyone would even attempt to profit from such a horrible scenario. It really makes me sick.” And how can we avoid concluding that Mr. Range doesn’t think the scenario is so horrible? Senator Clinton and every other Democrat want Mr. Bush weakened; that’s politics. But beyond weakness, many want him impeached, and beyond impeachment, some dream of him dead.
Let me tell you where you are going. I have been there—not so far as you, but in the neighborhood. We know the thoughts that come to us before sleep; we also know the hopped-up pseudo-wakefulness of the white screen and the comments box. Let me disclose the gifts reserved for rage to set a crown upon your nighttime efforts.
Eight years ago, President Bill Clinton was impeached for lying to a special prosecutor. The special-prosecutor statute should not have been renewed, and the sexual harassment suit, brought by Paula Jones, which gave rise to the investigation, should have been dropped. These were the views of National Review pre-storm. But fortune decreed otherwise, and the storm broke. See what that storm did—what all storms do.
You sink in a mass of conspiracy theories. What was being flown into Mena Airport in southwest Arkansas, and under whose auspices? Didn’t eyewitnesses give contradictory accounts of the wounds on the body of Vincent Foster? In the Clinton years, I reviewed two rug-chewing books that raised these questions; grave journalist, I reported the existence of the controversies. But “controversies” like these stretch back to the grassy knoll, and forward to 9/11. Let them lie in the Fresh Kills landfill where they were dug up.
Crazed thoughts bring dubious associates in their train. I remember early in the Clinton years calling someone who supposedly had information on Whitewater (remember that?). In the course of the conversation, he used a memorable phrase: “You could push the story if you looked at …. ” Huh? I’m trying to decide if there is a story. If you know the story, tell me what it is, or write it yourself; don’t play me like a trout. I never spoke to him again. He, and many other he’s, however, played a lot of us like trout, and the rest of us, grave journalists, wrote about the controversies stirred up by their reports.
So there was a ruckus. There have been many such in American history, more or less bogus, and the Republic has survived them all. But the distraction of this ruckus was fearful. The conservative movement, and the Republican Party, went down a blind alley. When we emerged, the new subscribers to our magazines melted away, and the G.O.P. barely retained its majorities in Congress. Certainly little in the way of creative work was done on the conservative mind, and what was done—national greatness, Buchananism, compassion—was wrong.
Far graver was the distraction of the country. Bill Clinton and his band of renown waxed wroth at ABC for airing The Path to 9/11 docudrama, which suggested that he was shooting off legal briefs when he should have been shooting off teams of Special Forces. But isn’t that so? And isn’t it somewhat of an exculpation? We didn’t see the big thing that was murdering our airmen (Khobar Towers), our embassy employees (Nairobi, Dar es Salaam) and our sailors (the U.S.S. Cole), and that would murder 3,000 of us at home, because we had small, stupid things on our plates instead.
And anyway, Bill Clinton was acquitted by the Senate, and Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000. So, you’ll degrade yourselves, you’ll hurt the country, and you’ll lose. It’s the Madness Trifecta (written and directed by Gabriel Range).