First, I have to say I have not seen American Sniper. I like Brad Cooper, and I like some of Eastwood’s past work, but I’m not sure I’ll see this one. Don’t read this article with the idea it’s a movie review.

Second, I don’t know that much about Chris Kyle, and therefore don’t have strong opinions about him. I would like to know more about how he died. I looked through his book with interest when it came out, but did not read it. I understand why he is a military hero, and I also understand that heroes are not perfect. Clearly, response to the film is related to Kyle’s status as a war hero.

Third, arguments about whether the war in Iraq was related to 9/11 are what interest me here. Writers have complained that the film suggests we went to war in Iraq to avenge 9/11, and to prevent another attack from Al Qaeda. They criticize the film for basing its story on a false premise.

Here’s the problem with that criticism: the United States _did_ go to war in Iraq to avenge 9/11, and to prevent another attack, even though Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. As Richard Clarke said around the time we launched the war, attacking Iraq after 9/11 was like attacking Mexico after Pearl Harbor. _No_ evidence linked Saddam Hussein, or anyone else in Iraq, to Al Qaeda or to the 9/11 attacks. No evidence connected the state of Iraq in any way to planning or execution of the 9/11 attacks. Substantial evidence connected Saudi Arabia – Iraq’s next door neighbor and our friend – to the 9/11 attacks, but we did not want to attack Saudi Arabia.

No matter what evidence we had about who attacked us on 9/11, and who did not, the United States government insisted that Saddam Hussein and Iraq, along with Al Qaeda, were behind the attacks in 2001. By the time we attacked Iraq in March 2003, three out of four people in the United States believed that claim. That is a large majority. It is the kind of majority you might see in a community that plans to form a lynch mob. You don’t go against your leaders in a situation like that. You believe them, or you keep quiet. Bad things happen to you when you try to resist a mob.

So the United States formed a mob, called it an ‘international coalition’, and headed over to Baghdad to lynch Saddam Hussein: a man guilty of many evils, but not guilty of attacking us. Motivators for an action like that are not rational; the fuel comes from equal parts of anger and fear, with hatred a partially invisible catalyst that people back home try to conceal. The battlefield is less civilized. From what I’ve read about American Sniper, Chris Kyle refers to Iraqis as ‘savages’. In the middle of war, he does not need to conceal his hatred for them. Some Iraqis want to kill him, but he does not know which ones. Therefore they are all his enemies.

You can see now why a lie becomes true in the context of the film, and in our own history. It is a lie to say that Iraq and Al Qaeda, together, planned and executed the 9/11 attacks against the United States. If most people in the United States _believe_ the government’s false claim that both parties cooperated in the attacks, then the war we launched in 2003 occurred in response to 9/11. That is the power of public lies. You can use them to start wars.

Consider the matter of a lynching. An innocent black man is executed because white members of the community believe he raped a white woman. The evidence clearly exonerates the accused. It is obvious that leaders of the mob lie when they charge him as guilty. Nevertheless, because the community believes the man committed the crime, the collective belief accurately accounts for the mob’s actions.

That starts to sound as if you can justify the crime of lynching because you came to believe a false accusation, just as you might try to justify launching an aggressive war because you falsely attributed responsibility for an attack to another country. That is _not_ the case. You cannot justify a crime because you have convinced yourself that another party threatens you. You cannot cook up some belief, unsupported by any evidence, to justify whatever crime you want to commit. Nevertheless, false beliefs – including false beliefs that result from propaganda and public lies – can explain why large groups of people commit crimes.

Regarding war, we have reached a state that Orwell described in _1984_. Remember the role that propaganda and public lies played in Winston Smith’s world. His country constantly waged war, with people in a constant state of agitation and fear, due to one lie after another about vague, unexplained and terrible attacks originating from overseas. Enemies all around kept the government strong, as people saw no other source of protection. The state’s power was secure, since everyone was so scared.

We have arrived there. We went to war with Iraq on the same, ever shifting lies we recognize from _1984_. Orwell’s template for state control arose from his observations about totalitarian, socialist states, such as Stalin’s. At the time he wrote, people did not foresee the United States would evolve toward the same mode of dominant state power. People also did not foresee that public lies about supposed enemies would become woven into films about war heroes.