Saturday, October 15, 2005

Pushing our buttons, redux

It's becoming evident that the terrorists with designs on destroying America don't need to actually carry out any attacks to undermine our national security. The Republicans now in power are doing it for them.

Remember that one of the primary goals of any terrorist organization is to get its target population to live in fear. The Republican right has been doing a fine job of doing just that.

Besides raising the prospect of suicide bombings by Islamist radicals where no such threat appears to actually exist, Republicans have also been raising alarms about actual terrorist attacks on the New York subway system.

Last weekend's foofarah in the Big Apple was another incremental episode in the gradual erosion of public confidence in authorities' ability to adequately sniff out and prevent terrorist attacks. After loud public warnings of an imminent attack, the episode failed to catch any terrorists, but it did produce a panic induced by a soda can and headlines in the right-wing tabloids warning of bombs in baby strollers. (One can only imagine what might have happened there had NYC police engaged in the shoot-first-ask-questions-later policy employed by London cops: "three in the melon" indeed.)

Now, according to some reports, it turns out that it was all a hoax anyway. However, subsequent reports have cast doubt on this charge as well -- though it should be clear from the outcome that the warning was indeed groundless.

Another mitigating factor was the fact that both Homeland Security and the FBI cast doubt on the accuracy of the information that led to the warning. However, New York City Mayor Bloomberg -- facing an election in the near future -- decided to make the threat public and to heighten security ... as well as the ambient fear levels.

Nice result, mayor.

Hoax or not, the episode further erodes public confidence in warnings issued by public officials, just as Homeland Security's earlier color-coded warning system did.

This most recent scare followed a trend established during the reign of the color codes: It just happened to coincide with a downturn in political fortunes for President Bush.

And how, well, serendipitous it was, don't you think, that the New York alert just happened to follow on the heels of President Bush's rather lame attempt to rebound in the polls by delivering a national address about the Iraq war and the "war on terror" -- as if his manifest incompetence there hadn't already been thrown into stark relief by Katrina.

Fortunately, Keith Olbermann at MSNBC has been paying attention too:
Last Thursday on Countdown, I referred to the latest terror threat - the reported bomb plot against the New York City subway system - in terms of its timing. President Bush’s speech about the war on terror had come earlier the same day, as had the breaking news of the possible indictment of Karl Rove in the CIA leak investigation.

I suggested that in the last three years there had been about 13 similar coincidences -- a political downturn for the administration, followed by a "terror event" -- a change in alert status, an arrest, a warning.

We figured we'd better put that list of coincidences on the public record. We did so this evening on the television program, with ten of these examples. The other three are listed at the end of the main list, out of chronological order. The contraction was made purely for the sake of television timing considerations, and permitted us to get the live reaction of the former Undersecretary of Homeland Security, Asa Hutchinson.

We bring you these coincidences, reminding you, and ourselves here, that perhaps the simplest piece of wisdom in the world is called "the logical fallacy." Just because Event "A" occurs, and then Event "B" occurs, that does not automatically mean that Event "A" caused Event "B."

But one set of comments from an informed observer seems particularly relevant as we examine these coincidences.

On May 10th of this year, after his resignation, former Secretary of Homeland Security Ridge looked back on the terror alert level changes, issued on his watch.

Mr. Ridge said: "More often than not we were the least inclined to raise it. Sometimes we disagreed with the intelligence assessment. Sometimes we thought even if the intelligence was good, you don’t necessarily put the country on (alert) ... there were times when some people were really aggressive about raising it, and we said 'for that?' "

In the ensuing rundown, Olbermann points out one especially noteworthy coincidence: the dramatic appearance of that videotaped message from Osama bin Laden one week before the November 2004 election.

I'm reminded of a piece I wrote for back in early November 2001 (no longer available online) that discussed John Ashcroft's then-recent warnings of imminent terror threats, titled "Pushing Our Buttons."

These warnings, you may recall, were amazingly vague and seemed aimed largely at raising the national paranoia levels. But what I wrote at the time holds true as well for the New York warnings, which reportedly were more specific, but no better grounded in reality:
The problem with such a warning is that there is only a marginal chance of its actually preventing an attack, and a considerably higher likelihood that it will backfire and actually harm the nation's chances of responding to terrorist threats successfully. Consider the lessons of history.

In the days and weeks immediately following the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, a wave of fear swept up and down America’s West Coast. Public officials began trumpeting unfounded rumors that the disaster had been a direct result of "fifth column" activity by Japanese-American spies in Hawaii (a report that later proved to be completely groundless). Soon the papers began hawking stories predicated on fears of an imminent invasion. The Los Angeles Times ran headlines like "Jap Boat Flashes Message Ashore" and "Caps on Japanese Tomato Plants Point to Air Base" -- and the public quickly jumped aboard. Reports of "signals" being sent out from shore to unknown, mysterious Japanese boats offshore began flowing in.

The end result of all this hysteria was one of the great black marks on American history: internment of some 110,000 people of Japanese descent (70,000 of them American citizens) from 1942 to 1945 in barbed-wire camps. That spring of 1942, the populace and politicians demanded the removal of the "spies" from the Pacific Coast, citing the "imminent threat" their presence posed. Today, few historians doubt that it would have taken place without the active encouragement of groundless fears by public officials.

The lesson in all this for the Bush administration should be obvious: The American public is at its worst when it is egged into a state of fearfulness by its own government, and may even be induced into committing travesties of justice for its own "self-protection."

The administration also needs to consider the nature of the public's typical reaction to such dire warnings, which inspired in 1941 a deluge of red herrings and misinformation that wound up impeding law enforcement from performing its regular important work. Ashcroft's warning is more likely than not to inspire precisely the same kind of overload, swamping officers and switchboards with reports of impending terrorist acts, while diluting the ability of those personnel to respond to genuine threats.

If the warning is a success, and a terrorist threat is actually prevented, then Ashcroft’s decision to raise the fear level among the general public will have proven correct. But the likelihood of that happening is relatively slim -- and that is the only scenario under which raising these kinds of alarms makes sense.

If, for instance, terrorists pull off a successful attack in spite of the warning, then the federal powers in charge of preventing this will look even more impotent. And then the fear level of Americans will skyrocket, because it will be clear to them that even intense scrutiny will not make them safe.

On the other hand, if an act of terrorism is prevented silently — that is, its would-be perpetrators are forced to retrench and wait — then the only thing gained is time. The likelihood of its eventual enactment will remain the same; those terrorists are still free to act, perhaps at a time when Americans’ guards are let down, especially if nothing happens during the week ahead.

Indeed, that is the most likely scenario, and the most problematic. If the week in fact goes by and no terrorist acts occur, then the credibility of the government will take a terrific hit on the domestic front. If the administration attempts to claim the fact that no terrorism occurred actually justifies its warning, it will risk looking like those apocalyptic cults who have at various times announced the impending end of the world and then, when such doom fails to materialize, credited the prayers of its followers for saving mankind.

At the same time, a non-event will only perpetuate a rising perception among the public that Ashcroft and other top officials may lack the competence to do this job properly. Like the villagers who heard the shepherd boy cry "Wolf!" once too often, there is a grave danger that Americans will be lulled by these warnings into a refusal to respond when the threat is real.

Like most analyses, it rather missed the predictive mark in some key areas; I underestimated, I think, the American public's capacity to see "strong leadership" in a figure like Bush -- rather than the incompetence he embodied -- at a time of crisis because of its need to. So the silly color codes and the multiple conveniently timed warnings that turned up empty didn't destroy the public's confidence in Homeland Officials, as I feared.

What they have done, instead, is gradually erode that confidence. And now, with Bush's misfeasance of the presidency coming into full technicolor view, the whole house of cards looks ready to crumble.

Most of all, it's becoming apparent that the Bush administration indeed learned well the lessons of history, both present and past: It knows all too well that "the American public is at its worst when it is egged into a state of fearfulness by its own government."

It knows now that, when the fear level goes up, Americans are prone to support those already in office, particularly when they wrap themselves simultaneously in patriotism and point accusatory fingers at their political opposition. And it is using that knowledge in the most cynical fashion.

This is true of the conservative movement at large, and can be readily found in the recent behavior of its mouthpieces like the New York Daily News. Typical of the right-wing response to the New York reports were Roger L. Simon's exercises in hysteria, in which he went on to attack anyone in sight who dared suggest the warnings might not be well grounded. Afterward, of course, Simon was utterly unrepentant; as Tristam Shandy points out, he lacked even the grace to apologize to the people he attacked so viciously.

But really, Simon was just symptomatic of what we heard throughout from the right-wing Wurlitzer, both the radio gasbags and the right-wing bloggers. If you go back and check over the latter's work for the past week, it's all about terror. Terra, terra, terra. Boogadah boogadah boogadah.

And it's all just transparent bullshit. Which really is a problem.

If there's anything America needs right now, it is leaders, and thinkers, and media figures who will not play games with our national security -- who will forsake the temptation to parlay the real war on terror into a political marketing campaign.

It's a temptation this administration has fully indulged, with the adamant support of its cheering section in the Republican Party. Indeed, it is now apparently even being refined by lesser Republican lights in their local races.

And someday, we're all going to pay for it.

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