Baghdad Versus Laci

Unless you have a loved one in Iraq, the war news has a way of getting lost in the daily noise, like faint, vaguely troubling background music.

"I've got the will of the people at my back," President Bush said at his news conference last week after a reporter asked him about the Middle East. A few days later, he moved on Falluja.

But is the public really behind this war? Are most people even engaged by it? The diviners of mass opinion think they are. "Iraq Must Be a Priority, Voters Say," advised the headline over an AP story I saw online this week. Read into the story, however, and you find it's based on a poll taken immediately after the election in which people were asked, "Which issue should be the highest priority for President Bush in his second term?" Of the 844 people surveyed, 27 percent chose "the situation in Iraq."

So we're in a momentous war that Bush casts in starkest Churchillian language, and just a quarter of the nation puts it at the top of the priority list? In the same poll, 48 percent of those surveyed chose one of various domestic issues—the economy, health care, taxes, etc.—as their top priority.

Would anything like those numbers have obtained in, say, 1943? World War II was a much larger conflict, of course. Both in that war and in Vietnam, the American death toll was far higher than it is right now in Iraq, and a civilian draft left a huge swath of the population with no choice but to engage.

Still, here at home, there's something unreal and flickering about this war. Unless you have a loved one in Iraq, the war news has a way of getting lost in the daily noise, like faint, vaguely troubling background music.

Yes, there are all those yellow-ribbon magnets on the cars— "Support Our Troops"—and who can argue with that? But when you see one, is the war already on your mind? Or does it remind you of a subject that, while undeniably important, is often pretty far from your thoughts? "Have you forgotten?" the ribbons seem to ask.

We've just come through an election in which the candidates disagreed sharply about how the war is going, and you might expect that it was a factor in the outcome. But the post-mortems have been all about gay marriage, abortion—almost everything but the war. The one bloc that was supposedly galvanized by the war, the much-touted and allegedly decisive "youth vote," didn't even materialize. It's as if Iraq was beside the point.

I wouldn't blame the media for this one. The war is in the headlines every day. In Vietnam, television coverage shocked America—for the first time, a war was playing out in the national living room. But now we're used to war on TV, and next to the violence offered every day down at the multiplex, the images look pretty mild.

In a way, the media are serving as a kind of beard for the public, letting us feel as if we're deeply engaged, when most of the time we're not. Last week, Newsweek's cover had a photo of three U.S. soldiers and the headline, "The Slog of War: Why Fixing Iraq Will Be Harder Than Bush or Kerry Told You." Inside was a long essay by Henry Kissinger, the ghost of a bad war, back to remind us that this one is a big deal: "If a radical government emerges in Baghdad ... the entire Islamic world will find itself in turmoil."

It sounds like it's worth losing sleep over, but I'm not sure America is doing that. One day this week, I got an indignant e-mail from a journalist colleague noting that Fox News had just cut away from Falluja to bring viewers "breaking news" on the Scott Peterson trial: "Is something seriously wrong with their news judgment, or do the American people really care more about Laci Peterson than about Iraq?"

It's a good question. The Peterson story is gigantic on cable and in the downmarket rags, but in elite circles there's widespread wonderment at the drawing power of this tawdry whodunit. At least O.J. was a celebrity.

But these sensational crime stories are never what they seem to be on the surface, and to dismiss them is to ignore a window into the popular psyche. Laci Peterson disappeared at the end of 2002, when the country was in the throes of the war debate. The case was classified as a murder investigation in March 2003, just as we went to war. The bodies of Peterson and her child washed ashore on April 13 and 14, just days after the fall of Baghdad.

In short, the Peterson case runs exactly parallel to the war, and you might say it has served as a kind of populist release valve, a way of escape. On one hand, you've got death and mayhem on a large scale in a strange, faraway place, and no end in sight. On the other, you've got death and mayhem on a small scale—where the characters are simple and somewhat familiar, the judicial process is so familiar it's become a cultural ritual, and the question couldn't be clearer: guilty or innocent?

News isn't binary, and anyone can follow both the Peterson news and the war. Still, one story has Middle America riveted, while the other flits strangely in and out. And that might tell us something about the will of the people.