At first glance, it seemed like just another ghastly, depraved idea on the part of the Bush administration — set up an Internet gambling parlour where members of the public could place bets on whether Middle Eastern leaders would be assassinated.

In fact, a quick glance was really all we got of this one. So over-the-top was this particular scheme in its ghastliness, depravity — and sheer idiocy — that a burst of criticism from the Democrats forced its quick withdrawal. Still, it provides a fascinating glimpse into the mentality of the small cabal currently running the world.

This latest brainchild from the Bush White House — which also brought us the idea of turning America’s most wanted Iraqis into a deck of playing cards — is based on the idea of using stock market principles to help find “new ways to prevent terrorist attacks.”

Under the scheme, the public could place bets on what they considered the most likely political outcomes in the Middle East powder keg — assassinations, government overthrows, whatever — and this betting would somehow help the US government figure out what’s going on over there.

Like the playing cards, this scheme seems aimed at turning US interventions abroad into a fun, family activity — and a diversion from the daily toll of American soldiers killed in Iraq.

One can imagine stock ticker lines on the bottom of TV screens, making it possible to catch the latest news about the search for terrorists while checking on how that news might be affecting one’s Middle East assassination portfolio.

Stop terrorism, earn extra cash and have fun, too!

It’s hard to imagine, however, how this would help prevent terrorism.

Let’s say a lot of people bet that Jordan’s King Abdullah would be overthrown (one of the sample bets on the Pentagon-backed Web site). What would that tell us? Leaving aside the possibility that those “investing” in Abdullah’s demise might simply be wrong (what if this is the same crowd that sent Nortel’s stock sky-high?), it doesn’t tell us where, when, or by whom — that is, information that would be useful.

What about insider trading — a terrorist betting on the end of Abdullah before offing him? Or what about someone who had over-invested in Abdullah-death futures, realizing that killing the king would be a sure way to cut his losses, balance his portfolio, and cash in on the generous tax treatment of capital gains.

Wouldn’t it be more effective for the White House to simply pay attention to actual information gathered by its own intelligence agency?

The recently released Congressional investigation into 9/11 makes clear that the CIA was aware that Osama bin Laden was contemplating flying airplanes into targets on U.S. soil, possibly a skyscraper and possibly in New York or Washington. One would imagine the CIA would have passed this information on to the White House. But we’ll never know exactly what the White House knew, since the Bush administration, citing executive privilege, has repeatedly refused to hand over key information about its daily CIA briefings (particularly the Aug. 6, 2001, briefing on bin Laden) to the bipartisan Congressional investigators.

One can imagine why the White House is stonewalling. Bush has staked his entire presidency on the notion that, despite skyrocketing debt and a crumbling national infrastructure, he is the best man to protect America. What if people came to believe that, for all his bullying talk and swaggering walk, he failed to take adequate steps at the most crucial moment to protect the American people?

Of course, if Bush really wanted to protect the American people (rather than simply advancing the Republican agenda), he hardly needs to resort to Internet gambling schemes.

A simpler method would be to stop giving people in far-off countries reasons to hate America.

There will always be a few extremists. But the idea of attacking America gains force in places like the Middle East when people feel abused by America — when they feel, for instance, that America always tilts toward Israel against Arab interests, when they resent their country being occupied and their loved ones being killed by American troops, when they feel humiliated by Bush’s taunting cowboy lines, when they see that Americans regard the fate of their nations as little more than hot prospects for Internet bets.

One can imagine the reaction here if we learned of an Internet gambling scheme where people in the Middle East placed bets on the number of American soldiers to be killed in Iraq. No doubt it would be taken as evidence that people in that part of the world are simply callous, uncivilized beings who lack our taste for freedom and democracy.

Linda McQuaig

Journalist and best-selling author Linda McQuaig has developed a reputation for challenging the establishment. As a reporter for The Globe and Mail, she won a National Newspaper Award in 1989...