In Washington, at times of stress, international crises play out in black and white. As in a flickering newsreel from a former age, complex events are reduced to symbolic emblems of right and wrong. Grainy video images of “evil-doers”, George W Bush’s favoured term, purport to show faceless Iranians acting suspiciously around a burning oil tanker in the Gulf last week. As new Middle East troop deployments are announced, US battleships are pictured bravely patrolling freedom’s frontline.

Monochromatic simplifications of this type suit multiple purposes. In the present US-Iran crisis, they supposedly provide official “proof” of nefarious intent. They can be seen to justify escalatory US actions that might previously have appeared unreasonable and provocative. They place pressure on reluctant allies to fall in behind the advancing American columns. Most of all, since democratic consent apparently still counts for something, they are intended to rally public support.

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