Press and pundits have gotten tangled up with `spider hole'

December 26, 2003|By Emily Nunn | Emily Nunn,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Suddenly it's spider hole this, spider hole that - in conversations around the water cooler, at the hairdresser's, in the corridors of power. And especially in the press.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we got him," Paul Bremer famously told reporters in Baghdad on Dec. 14, soon after Saddam Hussein's capture. He then told us, over and over, where exactly "we got him": a "spider hole," thus reintroducing a term born during WWII and retired since the Vietnam War.

From there, the media reassimilated the word as instructed. We co-opted it, redefined it, repeated it thousands of times, and, finally, ridiculed it.

Right off the bat, on Monday, Dec. 15, Joseph Lieberman employed the term for his own purposes: "Howard Dean has climbed into his own spider hole of denial if he believes that the capture of Saddam Hussein has not made America safer."

The same day, The Washington Post raised important spider hole questions: "In a sense it's already an election year, and the second question people had to ask Sunday morning - after "What's a spider hole?" - was "What does this mean for the November election?"

Slate.com's Andy Bowers answered that first question right away. "Although the origin of the term spider hole is fuzzy, it may have something to do with an arachnid commonly known as the trap-door spider," which "makes a burrow and then builds a tight fitting removable lid of silk and earth, which it covers with soil or gravel to disguise the entrance. ... In Vietnam, where the Viet Cong had an extensive network of tunnels, American GIs learned to dread the specter of enemy snipers popping up out of small spider holes, which were covered with camouflaged lids at ground level."

The Houston Chronicle was meanwhile more worried about whether spiders do indeed live in holes rather than webs: "The only spiders that live in webs are orb weavers," said Judith Bryja, a zookeeper and arachnid expert at the Houston Zoo. "But there are tons of ground-dwelling spiders that burrow and make little retreats."

Initially, at least in the early days, most of the references were serious ones. We just wanted the facts about the humiliating last moments of the fugitive dictator's freedom. (The spider hole was dank, it was like a coffin, he could barely sit up, he was disoriented but defiant when found, he looked like a lunatic.)

But soon the term had made it to The Late Show With David Letterman: "Top 10 Questions Asked by Saddam Hussein When He Was Captured: No. 10. Be honest ... have you ever seen a nicer spider hole than this?" And again the next night: "Top 10 Secrets Learned From Saddam Hussein's Papers ... No. 1. He wrote letters to Penthouse under name `Sexy in Spider Hole.' "

Jon Stewart on The Daily Show offered "Spider Hole 101," in which he ridiculed the press' obsession with demonstrations, computer graphics and re-enactments meant to "boil down the concept of a guy in a hole so that even the layman can understand."

He showed clips of the MSNBC anchor Contessa Brewer crawling into, and lying down in, a wooden reconstruction of Hussein's spider hole while chatting with military expert Ken Allard and dressed in a bright red pantsuit. "So apparently Saddam got his spider hole from Ikea," Stewart said, before Brewer climbed in and began her supine report.

And way too soon, it seemed, everyone began to feel comfortable tossing the term around casually, in ways that had little to do with the actual demise of one of the 20th century's most loathsome figures.

"Sometimes I feel as if I should crawl into a spider hole with my Mars bars, my AK-47 and my extra packs of clean underwear until it's safe to come out," the Chicago Tribune's Mike Downey wrote in a piece about the boring NFL. Lenore Skenazy, of the New York Daily News, noted "the joy on most New Yorkers' faces as they hurry to their humble homes," pointing out "Happy is he who is happy with his spider hole. Particularly if it's rent controlled."

And speaking of overused assimilated terms, by the afternoon of Dec. 21, if you had "Googled" the term spider hole, you'd have turned up 414,000 references in 0.08 seconds.

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