The fact that 1 in 3 Americans still believe that Saddam Hussein was somehow involved in the 9/11 attacks is not a big surprise. If you add up all the reasons, it makes more sense:
- The invisibility of retractions. Newspapers and politicians rarely make their retractions as prominent as their original claims. Therefore, a person who's not motivated to follow current events closely may not hear a retraction, or the reasons for it.
- Social distortion of perception. Solomon Asch's famous experiment is only the most famous example of how group pressures could convince people to doubt the evidence of their own eyes.
- Tribal identity. Any group struggling to distinguish itself from other groups erects a series of basic tenets to which all members must adhere. Sometimes, these tenets make sense; at other times, they can be nonsensical, and even self-destructive. However, the group identity--in this case, the diehard adherents of the Bush Administration--repeat the core tenets of their movement, no matter how many of them (Iraq's phantom WMD program, etc.) have been disproven.
The United States will need to recover from many wounds inflicted on it since the 9/11 attacks and the Iraq invasion. This particular injury--the untruth itself, and the political lacerations it keeps splitting open--might be well on the way to healing. However, cynical people, including the top leaders of the executive branch, at first promoted the lie. When it became unsustainable, they did nothing to undo it.
If we say, "That's just how self-interested politicians act," it's worth remembering what happened in the aftermath of the Vietnam War--something that Bush and his subordinates all lived through. Confusion and disagreement over what actually happened--how serious a threat the NLF presented, how much these guerrillas depended on the North Vietnamese government, whether or not the NLF was largely defeated after the Tet Offensive--made it impossible to discuss counterinsurgency in any reasonable fashion in most public forums for decades.
By doing nothing to disperse this misperception, the Bush Administration is displaying more than cynicism. In fact, these wielders of power--one hesitates to call them 'leaders" in this situation--dishonor the dead of two wars that have divided Americans, in some ways that were preventable. They may also contribute to the envenoming of future political disputes, if politicians gamble on the persistence of untruths.