Monday, May 02, 2005

Beyond the Minutemen

The drumbeat of official support for the Minuteman Project keeps on thumping.

First it was media figures like Lou Dobbs and Sean Hannity (taking a cue from Michelle Malkin) trumpeting the notion that these were just average citizens voicing their concern through a kind of "neighborhood watch". Then Sen. Wayne Allard suggested the federal government actually deputize the Minutemen.

Now California's Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, has endorsed them:
In an interview on Los Angeles radio station KFI, Schwarzenegger said of the armed volunteers, "They've done a terrific job." According to the Governator, who drew criticism last week when he suggested it was time for the U.S. to "close the borders," the federal government isn't taking border security seriously enough. "Our federal government is not doing their job," Schwarzenegger said. "It's a shame that the private citizen has to go in there and start patrolling our borders."

Schwarzenegger pegged his concerns to the time he watched Fox News footage showing "hundreds and hundreds of illegal immigrants" coming across the border. "I mean, what's that?" he asked.

Not a great deal better was a piece in the Christian Science Monitor that largely gave a warm and fuzzy review of the Minutemen's "accomplishments":
Retired pilot Joe McCutchen spent three weeks, $6,000, and put 4,600 miles on his car driving round trip from Fort Smith, Ark., to the Arizona border. In between, he spent 14 days in a folding chair, buffeted by wind storms, face- cutting sand, freezing cold, and scorching sun.

He says he'll be back to do it again in October.

"The terrain and weather were utterly brutal," says Mr. McCutchen, who spent eight hours a day manning lookout posts. "I have a new sense of compassion for the illegals who are being exploited by both countries ... and the Border Patrol that is not being given what it needs to do the job properly."

Of course, we've discussed Mr. McCutchen's background previously, particularly his rather clear-cut anti-Semitism, but for some reason that goes unmentioned here.

The piece also neglects to note that the Project actually shut down early for a lack of volunteers. And in the end, the Project seems to be lauded more for not having had any tragedies occur during its tenure than anything else:
Still, to those on both sides of the issue, the Minuteman Project's initiative in Arizona came off largely without incident. Both the US Border Patrol, which was concerned that volunteer citizens would create problems for agents, and the ACLU, which worried that conflicts would ensue in encounters with illegals, now say the activists weren't overly intrusive.

"The month came and went and we are grateful that there were no major incidents to report, no one got hurt or killed," says Salvador Zamora, spokesman for the US Border Patrol. Early reports in US media and continued coverage by Mexican media created the wide impression that gun-toting vigilantes would be using physical force.

The Border Patrol does not encourage such actions by citizens, and says the minuteman volunteers and media presence "tripped off ground sensors and created distractions ... but nothing we were not able to overcome," says Mr. Zamora.

Thankfully, a far more realistic assessment of the Minuteman Project was provided by Marc Cooper at the Los Angeles Times:
For two solid weeks, thousands of news stories cascaded from the hardscrabble border zone, focusing on what was, in reality, a group of True Believers whose real numbers were tiny.

Though the Minuteman organizers vowed that 1,600 or more mad-as-hell volunteers had signed up for duty and that "potentially several thousands" would participate in the kickoff rallies during April Fools' weekend, turnout was an unmitigated flop — less than a tenth of the promised throngs showed up at the rallies. The entire Minuteman spectacle, indeed, easily qualified for that journalistic catchall phrase, "a fizzle," but virtually none of the news media reported it as such.

On its opening day, I could count no more than 135 participants, even at the two kickoff public rallies along the Arizona border. At one near the border town of Douglas, two dozen reporters and a handful of TV cameras swarmed over no more than 10 Minutemen -- most of them sitting in lawn chairs or in pickup truck beds. During the entire kickoff weekend, the media troops clearly outnumbered the Minutemen. And in the days that followed, piecing together the various reports and reading between the lines, it's obvious that the Minuteman numbers dwindled to no more than a few dozen at a time. If that many people marched down Hollywood Boulevard for any cause, who'd report it?

Indeed, only 18 days into the monthlong project, the effort collapsed. Predictably, a few hundred illegal immigrants had chosen not to cross in that area during the media ruckus. Minuteman organizers preposterously declared victory, claiming they had shut down the border to illegal immigration and packed off home. Even then, most news reports failed to acknowledge the project's obvious failure -- which may explain why on Thursday Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger offered sappy praise for the fiasco.

Most of Cooper's ire is directed, for good reason, at the media:
"They came by the hundreds," is how the Los Angeles Times breathlessly led its first-day report out of Tombstone, only to tell us deeper in the story that the actual number of Minutemen who showed up were "200 or so." A Times follow-up three days later got us closer to the truth when Minuteman organizer Jim Gilchrist admitted: "This thing was a dog-and-pony show designed to bring in the media and get the message out, and it worked."

It worked so well that less than a week later another Times reporter filed a 1,200-word of profile of Gilchrist, an obscure, retired Orange County accountant. Even though, by then, the Minuteman Project was into its 11th day, the reporter made no mention of the actual status of his collapsing border event.

The situation along the U.S.-Mexican border continues to sink into chaos, and Congress and the White House do little more than aggravate things. In spite of billions of dollars spent to bolster the line, every year hundreds of thousands (or perhaps millions) of desperate migrants manage to evade the human, physical and environmental barriers and make the crossing to wind up as our maids, nannies and gardeners.

More than 3,000 died trying to make the crossing in the last decade — 10 times more than all those who perished trying to jump the Berlin Wall.

It's a complex and vexing issue that is getting hotter by the day. Now more than ever the public needs news media that are serious, thoughtful and analytical, not compliant suckers for the wound-up partisans and pandering politicians who are increasingly likely to inflame or obfuscate the issue with goofball dog-and-pony shows.

Cooper is right: Our officials -- as well as the mavens of the media -- are being grotesquely irresponsible by endorsing these kinds of demagogic displays. But it runs deeper than that.

My greatest concern is that this is, in effect, the first official embrace of right-wing extremist vigilantism by supposedly mainstream authorities on record. That is a benchmark with deeply disturbing ramifications.

This is, after all, an organization that has indicated it intends to expand its purview. And the concept of the Minutemen as a right-wing citizen vigilante force has uses well beyond even border patrols. These endorsements may wind up giving the Minutemen more than their 15 seconds of fame -- and that could be a problem for many years to come.

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