Wednesday, December 27, 2006

History Forgives

By Maura Reynolds', staff writer at the L.A. Times, reckoning—and her remuneration is not doubted here—“History forgives pardon that overshadowed Ford.” She immediately improves upon this pompous nonsense by correcting that

Gerald R. Ford left office a defeated incumbent vilified for his pardon of President Nixon. But in hindsight, his short, tough presidency has been viewed kindly by historians.

Emphasis supplied. Which historians, is all too clear, given the present climate of Scholarly Apology that has sunk its teeth into academe following the ascent of the likewise dutifully hagiographied Ronald Reagan. Presumably, “History” also forgives the fact that this tenacious tendency never let go.

“[H]igh marks from presidential scholars” our Ford had earned,

And the pardon is now seen by many as a wise decision that helped the nation move beyond Watergate.

Either that or it was a deal.

Yet how lucky the people enjoying such “wise decision making” beyond the boundaries of its ill-considered consent!

Nixon, his time come, was positively demonized for his (relatively trivial) outrage; he had lied to the American People. He had lied, moreover, on TV; the American People were informed that they, by miscarriage of democracy, had been governed and represented by—yes, I’m afraid so, Virginia...


Yet the whole prissy affair was, it seems, quickly cleared up, once the foul-mouthed liar had been extricated from power. In other words, Gerald Ford’s “pardon”—a roundly anti-democratic move under the circumstances—was tantamount, or at least comparable to, Monty Python’s immortal phrase

“And now for something completely different....”

It is regrettable that Reynolds’ “historians” failed to formulate the question in the manner of the present commentator:

Who was Gerald R. Ford, an unelected official, someone who literally had had greatness thrust upon them on account of an “untested constitutional amendment,” to “pardon” any crime, however petty, within the domain of electoral politics?

And lo, the people were not stupid. They fully understood at the time that they had been Monty Pythoned, yet

In the end, historians say, the pardon helped the country recover from Watergate, but it cost Ford the presidency.

Emphasis supplied. I am reminded of my solicitations to my Congressional representative for impeachment of our present democratically elected leader on the grounds of lying on TV. He/she said: “I’ve already seen this country torn apart once by impeachment proceedings...,” at which point he/she appeared to swoon and faint, as if the sheer gore of Clinton’s indiscretion had been too much for him/her.

The message is clear:

Get over it, Freak-Nation! It’s over; he’s gone. Now, about that Suharto fellow....

Monday, October 23, 2006

Understanding Death Tolls from the Anglo-tripartite Perspective

If by nothing else, the unmatched prestige of the Lancet among medical journals is measurable by the almost obedient promptness with which the heads of state of the US/UK/Australian Anglo-tripartite scuttled for their press agents upon release of the findings of the most recent Burnham survey on Iraqi deaths resulting from their latest Iraq war:

“Our best estimate is that 654,965 persons have died as a consequence of the conflict. Of these, 601,027 have died from violence.”

Being based on statistical inference, the paper asserts a 95% chance that the number of Iraqi deaths by war-related violence lay somewhere between 426,369 and 793,663 as of July 31st, 2006. Put another way, the odds of the true number of deaths lying outside this range (i.e. being less than 426,369 or—no less unlikely—more than 793,663) are 1 to 20 against. Furthermore, we non-statisticians are given to understand that “the true [violent] death toll is much more likely to be close to the 601,027 than to the lower and upper bounds of this range. “It isn't a dartboard.”

However, we don’t have access to any bookies knowledgeable of the real death toll (which is not to say that none are taking down bets), and, tempting though it may be to try to buttress the anti-war case by all means, we should be cautious of turning figure into factoid by failing to concede that the true death toll is still hidden from view. While the reputation of the journal attests to an impeccable methodology, we cannot genuinely know the underlying data to be free of bias. Who was it that said “War is epistemological hell; science its first casualty”?

More than this stunningly high figure, what we do know to be true regarding the Lancet controversy is that, once again, the medium is the message. To my mind, the crucial fact to be extracted here is that the strong possibility of a fatality count as horrifying as 655,000 has passed peer review in the most respected scientific circles in the world.

The publication of the Burnham study in conjunction with many, many other items of late tells us not the actual death toll in Iraq—but much of changing attitudes where it counts towards the sociopathic devastation of Iraqi society and destabilization of the global energy economy. It would appear that public hostility towards the Iraq project is being mobilized as never before.

Participants’ Responses

Though the standfirst to an assessment of official US, UK, and Australian responses at Reuters AlertNet speaks of “the lambasting a new report on Iraq deaths has got from hostile governments,” the expert testimony of Dr. Francesco Checchi in the actual article points more to a shaky glibness in those governments' dismissals. The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine epidemiologist complains of “a worryingly unscientific trend in reporting and discussion of the effects of modern conflict on human health.” And worriedly one must concur, given Australian Prime Minister John Howard’s “rejection” of the study:

“It's not plausible, it's not based on anything other than a house to house survey—I think that's absolutely precarious.”

Still more precarious than “absolutely,” however, is Howard’s grasp on the origins of many of his own government’s official figures: Thousands of “findings” bandied about by Western governments each year are accredited by the very fact that they are based on house-to-house surveys. The Oz PM might be unadvisedly wobbling a precarious support pillar of contemporary pseudo-democracy, if he wishes to call the validity of standard statistical procedure into question.

Be that as it may, no matter how low George W’s latest house-to-house approval ratings may limbo, this commentator remains skeptical: Who, for example, could possibly show even 34% approval of Bush’s latest worryingly unscientific discussion of the effects of modern conflict on human health?

I applaud the Iraqis for their courage in the face of violence. I am, you know, amazed that this is a society which so wants to be free that they're willing to -- you know, that there's a level of violence that they tolerate.”

The allusion to Iraqi courage in the face of a H-O-L-O-C-A-U-S-T unleashed by Neocon warmongering under false pretexts is stunning. But the concept of an Iraq which so wants to be free, that there's a level of violence that they tolerate warrants some sort of government mental health warning to those who would make sense out of it. I’ll give it ago, anyway:

By means unspecified Iraqis could refuse the unceasing, ubiquitous violence that engulfs them; instead they bravely opt for the freedoms afforded by unceasing, ubiquitous armed conflict.

I digress. Concerning the new Burnham study the following exchange occurred on the White House Lawn:

Bush: Suzanne, the second -- the first best-dressed person here. Sorry.

Question: [A] group of American and Iraqi health officials today released a report saying that 655,000 Iraqis have died since the Iraq war. That figure is 20 times the figure that you cited in December at 30,000. Do you care to amend or update your figure? And do you consider this a credible report?

Bush: No, I don't consider it a credible report. Neither does General Casey and neither do Iraqi officials.

Of note here is the precise context of the 30,000 figure cited at the December 12th, 2005 speech:

Question: Since the inception of the Iraqi war, I'd like to know the approximate total of Iraqis who have been killed. And by Iraqis I include civilians, military, police, insurgents, translators. [Emphasis supplied]

The President: How many Iraqi citizens have died in this war? I would say 30,000, more or less, have died as a result of the initial incursion and the ongoing violence against Iraqis.

Revealingly a recent BBC article informs us that “His spokesman later [i.e. pursuant to the December 12th speech] said the figure was not an official one and was based on ‘public estimates cited by media reports’ - a method similar to that used by Iraq Body Count.”

Now back to the White House, October 11th. Sharp-dressed Suzanne persists in her inquiry:

Question: So the figure's 30,000, Mr. President? Do you stand by your figure, 30,000?

Bush: I, you know, I stand by the figure a lot of innocent people have lost their life. 600,000 or whatever they guessed at is just, it's not credible. Thank you.

Next question, please: Why didn’t Bush underscore the asininity of the suggestion that the figure he cited in December 2005 would—after ten months of “violence against Iraqis” in extremis—still be the same now in October 2006?

So what do we know?

Having read the Burnham study alongside the garbage above even we, the epidemiologistically incompetent and epistemologically struggling, can still stand upon the sturdy conclusion that Burnham’s peer-reviewed estimate of 655,000 excess deaths is refuted only laboriously and by cunning experts, if at all, whereas the impossibility of Bush’s December 2005 “30,000” is the non-brainer’s no-brainer. The approximate total of Iraqis killed, including civilians, military, police, insurgents, translators, and Michael Jackson T-shirt vendors cannot have been merely 30,000, when the Iraq Body Count (IBC) figure at the time was also approximately 30,000. This is because the IBC figure

  • Refers only to civilian deaths. The total number of deaths would have to at least add to that number all the combatants, insurgents, Iraqi armed forces and military police killed. IBC claims “There are no reliable accounts of Iraqi military or combatant deaths, either official or unofficial.”, but we can safely assume significant numbers of combatant casualties resulted from the initial invasion and are told on a daily basis of insurgent attacks against Iraqi armed forces and police. (As an aside, what is the rationale/excuse behind ignoring combatant casualties? What exactly is the purpose and relevance of IBC’s civilian death count if it fails to take Iraqi society as a whole into consideration? Without wanting to come across as dismissive of the efforts of IBC, this crucial aspect of the project’s design makes me wonder whether official pro-war sources might not be better-advised to drop the tally of US troops killed altogether; speaking only of the US civilian death toll in Iraq and claiming all-round success.)
  • “Refers to reported deaths - which can only be a sample of true deaths unless one assumes that every civilian death has been reported. It is likely that many if not most civilian casualties will go unreported by the media. That is the sad nature of war.” (Quoted from IBC’s Quick-FAQ; emphasis in original) There is neither historical precedent nor rational basis for assuming that the greater part of casualties will be reported in the English-language media. On the one hand the latter’s mobility is severely restricted; on the other, there simply is not enough English-speaking public appetite to consume individual news items covering all Iraqi fatalities. A ratio of IBC reported deaths to overall deaths would be useful here: Are half the deaths reported (this would bring the total up to roughly 90,000-100,000, plus considerable combatant deaths). Are one in three, five deaths reported. One in 11/12 would bring us up to the Burnham extrapolations.
  • Records only deaths that meet a string of criteria set forth in A Dossier of Civilian Casualties 2003-2005 (such as casualties having been reported twice in English-speaking internet media). The dossier also submits the following (to my mind) embarrassing admission: “We have not made use of Arabic or other non English language sources, except where these have been published in English. The reasons are pragmatic. We consider fluency in the language of the published report to be a key requirement for accurate analysis, and English is the only language in which all team members are fluent. It is possible that our count has excluded some victims as a result.” This begs the question: does not this “pragmatism” preclude the project’s academic credibility? A study of Iraqi civilian casualties reported in the “media” that largely excludes reports in Arabic is quite simply not a study of the conflict itself at all; it is merely another US media study.
  • “Relies on the professional rigour of the approved reporting agencies” (again, quoting the dossier above). While it is conceded that reliance on any old internet source would produce different figures, this commentator fails to see why the more eminent “approved reporting agencies” such as Associated Press and FOX News are deemed trustworthy, given the “professional rigor” witnessed thus far in the saga. Not that anyone has forgotten, but the major “reporting agencies” aggressively disseminated all the fabrications used to garner what little popular support the war could count on. Moreover, granting exceptional articles, there can be no doubt that mainstream English-language internet media have, up until now, conformed to a rigid political agenda very much in the service of perpetrating Neocon aggressors. Of priority on this agenda is the gross understatement of the human costs of an unnecessary conflict motivated by greed and global despotism. The assumption that the mainstream media provide overall non-partisan documentation in this regard, and hence can be relied on for war statistics, merits at best a spluttering sound made with the salient tongue and lower lip. The important thing is to make sure it’s a vicious one that can be heard.

Similar and even more troubling points were put across in two commendable January 2006 articles on, “Paved With Good Intentions - Iraq Body Count - Part 1” and Part 2.

Et Tu, Body Count?

The particular informative intentions behind, are, for the moment, not clear and not to be assumed. Nor do they matter.

What matters in this context is that

  • Transparent and democratically flexible macro-political processes do not usually emerge from the strangulations of wartime history.
  • Au contraire, governments as we know them perceive a strategic need to integrate misleading death tolls into the overall war effort (i.e. depending on what “leaders” consider expedient and/or prudent, they will exaggerate, blow out of all proportion, understate, or suppress the information they have, as they have always done).
  • Any wartime government with “open-society” pretensions needs to and will unfailingly monitor news media, particularly its own and kindred. This will include a systematic effort to keep track of media-reported deaths.
  • Mass communication institutions in the Western World (and beyond), rather than being “subservient” (to government) or “complacent” as is oft naively claimed, are integral organs in the state apparatus. (Who would speak of the liver as being subservient to the brain?) Content will therefore exaggerate, understate, or omit death tolls along tightly coordinated lines of “national security” policy.
  • The present aggressor governments, by keeping score of media-reported deaths, are automatically watching the lowest false figure they can “claim” without having to dictate “professional standards” to the press outright (which they can and will also do should a perceived motive arise). If some independent agency happens to be doing this for them, so much the better.

So many words! And all to express the bleeding obvious:

The US/UK/AUS governments are interested in citing the lowest casualty figures they can get away with; these happen to be published by Iraq Body Count (43,937 - 48,783 at the time of writing). They are undoubtedly false.

I leave you with the only sapient official response to the Burnham study coming from the Anglo-tripartite:

British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett “No-one disputes that there have been many deaths in Iraq and all of those deaths are regrettable and tragically many have been deaths of civilians, that doesn't mean one has to accept every figure that someone comes up with.”

[Emphasis supplied]

Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Pentagon Paupers

In the Public Relations State it is axiomatic that any radical departure from the status quo in the past is swiftly absorbed and reprocessed by the system into a new form, which, though by association reminiscent of the celebrated act of rebellion, is essentially a re-entrenchment of the status quo. Witness, for example, how the politically charged Rock ‘n’ Roll environment of the 1960s morphed into the domesticated, stabilizing influence of rock star Bono, or how a virile US civil rights movement wilted into the political impasse of rap culture. Witness the type of “social justice” under promotion in both cases.

In exactly the same way, anyone waiting on the Iraq-War equivalent of the Pentagon Papers will be as disappointed as I was to discover that all we get is the equivalent of a lousy T-shirt:

The New York Times newspaper has published what it says are the findings of a classified US intelligence paper on the effects of the Iraq war.

The document reportedly blames the three-year-old conflict for increasing the threat of terrorism and helping fuel Islamic radicalism worldwide.

Not that one would wish to exaggerate the merits of the New York Times (NYT) for having dropped the PR bombshell of the Pentagon Papers in early 1971—for the most part the paper had stolidly and slavishly supported the entire Indochinese atrocity from the very start; it only permitted the publication of Ellsberg’s heroic treason after significant elements of America’s power elite had decided that the nation’s resources could be directed towards less discrediting and more productive ends. Still, the publication of the Pentagon Papers represented a signpost for tourists as to the future course of the war; it signaled the inevitable US withdrawal and failure in the eyes of the reactionary world.

But this latest “US intelligence paper,” why is it there? Why has the decision been made to “leak” this “classified” intelligence via the NYT? Doubtless this manufactured non-event seeks to exploit, ape and hijack the charismatic mystique of the Pentagon Papers as per tired advertising formula, but it is in fact merely another pro-war jingle. In the new absorbed and reprocessed Pentagon Papers wannabe the verdict echoes that of the original model in that it speaks of an Iraq War that has been a failure, which our democratic leaders have hidden from us for the sake of its perpetuation. The grotesque mimicry ends there, however, and the sick added twist lies in the fact that this is used as a further justification for an expanded War on Terror. The Iraq War, rather than making the world safe for plutocracy, has spawned new generations of terrorists geometrically. Now, more than ever before, we have to be on our guard and act decisively, if not democratically.

The whole pitiful charade is presented as an honest mistake, but the only “intelligence failure” at work is our own, if we fail to entertain the suspicion that the Clash of Civilizations was conceived of as a self-fulfilling and perpetuating prophecy to replace the Cold War. Obviously, as we bomb and torture more and more Muslims in more and more international outrages, the number of militants in opposition will grow geometrically.

Friends, this is not a miscalculation. I will concede that certain pig-ignorant members of certain intelligence communities may have been wrong about popular sentiment in Viet Nam and Cuba around the time of the Bay of Pigs Invasion (though many knew damn well which way the wind was blowing and decided to proceed with their ham-fisted counter-revolutions anyway), but at the onset of the twenty-first century no one seriously expected Muslims around the world to rejoice at the prospect of first the Taliban, then Saddam Hussein being blamed for 9/11 and their unfortunate subjects being bombed accordingly. Be that as it may,

The report ends by saying the radical Islamic movement has expanded from a core of al Qaeda operatives and related groups and now includes a class of "self-generating" cells inspired by al Qaeda’s leadership, yet has no direct connection with Osama bin Laden or his top officers, The New York Times reported.

In other words, “al Qaeda,” now unhinged from the restraints of any type of official affiliation, continues to be what it always has been, namely, an umbrella term for undefined enemies of state and a public relations master password. What else is an honest report to recommend but the mobilization of more resources towards brutal Third World intervention and domestic repression?

In a standard wartime pseudo-democracy play reminiscent of Henry Ford’s “any color they like; so long as it’s black,” either we are “doves” who feel that society must further militarize on account of being under attack as the result of a misguided war, or we are “hawks” who advocated such militarization from the onset. It also has something of the schoolyard bully about it: rather than straightforward blackmail where an actual choice is being presented, we are witnessing what looks like the unconditional coercion of Western society into a purely military mode of existence. Those looking for reliable Orwellian signs of collapsing democratic institutions, may observe with horror the fact that, regardless of the outcome of military conflicts, the answer coming from the media is always greater militarization. The war machine simply keeps gaining more and more ground, until brute force and the subjugation of every last soul on Earth becomes the irrefutable raison d’être of every last human twitch.

I leave you with Nietzsche’s observation that “He who makes his living by fighting an enemy has an ongoing stake in his survival.”

Friday, September 15, 2006

Safety First

For years I had assumed that the furthermost limits of humanly conceivable gibberish had been mapped out definitively by the musician’s pay scale sketch in the Marx brothers’ Animal Crackers:

Spaulding: What do you fellas get an hour?
Ravelli: For playing, we get-a ten dollars an hour.
Spaulding: I see. What do you get for not playing?
Ravelli: Twelve dollars an hour.
Spaulding: Well, clip me off a piece of that.
Ravelli: Now for rehearsing, we make special rate. That's-a fifteen dollars an hour...That's-a for rehearsing.
Spaulding: And what do you get for not rehearsing?
Ravelli: You couldn't afford it. You see, if we don't rehearse, we a-don't play, and if we don't play (he snaps his finger)—that runs into money.

Yet to my table-thumping, tear-mopping hilarity I discovered today a rival sketch where I least expected it: It was prominent among today’s corporate news offerings. Under the thoroughly witless Associated Press (AP) headline “Air Force chief: Test weapons on testy U.S. mobs” we learn that

Nonlethal weapons such as high-power microwave devices should be used on American citizens in crowd-control situations before being used on the battlefield, the Air Force secretary said Tuesday.

Quoth the Air Force chief further down:

"If we're not willing to use it here against our fellow citizens, then we should not be willing to use it in a wartime situation..., [because] ...if I hit somebody with a nonlethal weapon and they claim that it injured them in a way that was not intended, I think that I would be vilified in the world press."

Fans of competitive international absurdism will appreciate the achievement of our corporate media’s authoritarian liberal bias. Instead of the spluttering ridicule that would issue from any liberal worthy of the name, we are given AP’s savvy insider take, plus an uncritical re-espousal of the Air Force chief’s opinion:

The object is basically public relations. Domestic use would make it easier to avoid questions from others about possible safety considerations, said Secretary Michael Wynne.

Now, when AP speaks on public relations, it does so with considerable expertise, and being one of several de facto official organs of the US military establishment, the thought lies near that its military pronouncements generally serve some form of public relations purpose (outright war propaganda being but a more ham-fisted form of PR). But the precise objects of military public relations messages are rarely explicitly given, and the above nonsense is no exception.

With the avuncular calm of the professional propagandist anonymous AP makes the preposterous insinuation that the sanitary concerns of unspecified “others” would be put at ease, if they only had some certainty that the methods used on the battlefields against our enemies in foreign lands are the very same safe US army and police force methods used against domestic rioters, criminals and victims of state brutality. By the same token we should not be alarmed at the contemporary use of Depleted Uranium in Iraq, since military authorities considered it safe enough for their own minions in 1991.

Are We Feeling Safe Yet?

Although the Air Force secretary’s statements are obviously taken out of context in this insubstantial offering, and the lack of exegesis makes them appear a lot more absurd than the spirit in which they were doubtless offered, that article is nonetheless to be faulted for both the general fallacy of what it asserts and the confusing manner in which this “news” is presented. For one thing “such as high-power microwave devices” does not constitute any definitional basis for understanding the press release. The AP and the Military are perfectly capable of specifics, but the brevity and vagueness of the item in conjunction with the reader’s imagination serve to communicate a broad spectrum of ideas, rather than a narrow issue. Further down I discuss the ideas I believe to define this spectrum. For now, since “such as high-power microwave devices” is all we are given, we must understand the “such as” as meaning that other non-lethal weapons are to be employed in this manner. If only microwave emitters were meant, the AP would have had no trouble in formulating the phrase “nonlethal weapons involving high-power microwaves.” Therefore in seeking to understand the above-cited communication we could do worse than to turn to the Department of Defense’s own definition of these weapons:

Weapons that are explicitly designed and primarily employed so as to incapacitate personnel or materiel, while minimizing fatalities, permanent injury to personnel, and undesired damage to property and the environment. Unlike conventional lethal weapons that destroy their targets principally through blast, penetration and fragmentation, non- lethal weapons employ means other than gross physical destruction to prevent the target from functioning. Non-lethal weapons are intended to have one, or both, of the following characteristics: a. they have relatively reversible effects on personnel or materiel, b. they affect objects differently within their area of influence.

The last link is to a paper that provides a comprehensive list of weapons falling under that definition (some of them definitive, others, "mere suggestions"). It includes hundreds upon hundreds of different inventions and techniques from every imaginable branch of the sciences, in every medium, and applied to every membrane and muscle in the human body. So exhaustive (and exhausting) is this directory that, rather than attempt a half baked summary, I urge the reader to click on the link and sample the true extent of the non-lethal martial arts.

With this in mind, then, fundamentally speaking,

· Domestic use of non-lethal weapons will not “make it easier to avoid questions from others about possible safety considerations.” If anything it will make it harder to avoid whatever the fuck these questions might be.

· There is neither any logical basis nor military precedent for the assertion that "If we're not willing to use it here against our fellow citizens, then we should not be willing to use it in a wartime situation.” The lack of context here is bewildering: we don’t know which non-lethal weapon is being referred to, yet it is impossible to presume that Wynne is making a sweeping generalization about warfare in general.

· The "[because]" inserted by AP into Wynne's World sets up neither a valid causal relationship, nor a justification, though, presumably the latter is intended.

· It does not follow that “safety” will have justly been “considered,” merely because the instrument or substance used on the battlefield is the same as that used, say, at a Republican Convention protest. The question of degree, level, extent and dosage has been completely omitted, rendering the comparison meaningless.

· (Since tear gas is generally included under non-lethal weapons, their use is not necessarily in compliance with the Geneva Protocol even, since the latter states “Whereas the use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of all analogous liquids, materials or devices, has been justly condemned by the general opinion of the civilised world.” In 1969, eighty countries voted to include tear gas agents among chemical weapons banned under the Geneva Protocol. In any event, every now and then the use of non-lethal weapons in war is advocated as a means of compliance with the treaty. As for high-power microwave devices, it is too soon to tell whether these are internationally considered proscribed by the treaty, but given the equivalence of poisonous photons and gas particles, the phrasing “all analogous liquids, materials or devices” certainly seems to suggest so.)

· The enemy’s supposed safety has something of the token about it, since many other things will continue to be used on battlefields besides the officially sanctioned non-lethal weapons used domestically. Like lethal weapons, for example. (Unless AP and Wynne are in all seriousness proposing that the wars of the future will be fought” exclusively with rubber bullets, stun guns and the suchlike. I doubt it, somehow.)

· Regular steel-and-bullets firearms are sometimes used domestically to disperse unruly crowds by means of non-lethal shots to demonstrators’ posteriors.

· The proposition “If I hit somebody with a nonlethal weapon and they claim that it injured them in a way that was not intended, [. . .] that would be vilified in the world press.” is not only false, but displays a willful ignorance of the realities of, say, Afro America: My victim’s complaint need not make it to the “free” press at all.

· The same proposition is not only willfully ignorant, but twice false: How would my victim know or be able to claim what my intentions were? Non-lethal weapons are generally understood to be ones not intended for killing people with, but beyond that, depending on degree, level, and extent, any intent or outcome is possible. As illustrated above, Rodney King’s beaters seem to have acknowledged in court their intent was more or less to injure him in the precise way they did—by beating the feces out of him with non-lethal weapons—thus depriving him of the claim of being injured “in a way that was not intended.” In which way is this absurdity relevant?

· The same proposition is really on a roll now: Not merely twice false and willfully ignorant, it is grotesquely deficient in its sense of proportion and entirely irrelevant to the subject under discussion. The US military establishment at this precise moment in history is so awash in bile from the four corners of the Earth, as to call for the creation of some kind of special award. (How about the Napalme d’Or?) I am puzzled as to what pains me more here: pointing this out or the fact that a top-level military commander can carry on like that. In any event the vilification question has no bearing whatsoever on whether non-lethal weapons such as high-power microwave devices should or will be used domestically before they are used in warfare. Here Wynne comes across like an official who, tarred and feathered by angry mobs on a daily basis, tells us in a moment of confidence that he is considering purchasing a humidifier, because the dust in his living room might be what’s irritating his sinuses.

* * * * *

The reader in his astucity will have long recognized the common vein running through the leaves of this blog, One Hundred Years of Servitude: My general concern at this web address is something which, were I a historian or were the blog to carry a subtitle, I would call “The Rise of the Public Relations State” (and its daily impact on our beetle-like existence here at the bottom of the information forest bed.) That said, rather than proceeding to pull the chain on this sorry little pail of AP hogwash, and at the risk of committing an originality, I think the specific point of this post could be better pressed by instead tearing Ken Gourd’s ten-bullet critique above to shreds.

More botched drive-by assassination attempt than anything resembling a serious critique, Gourd, as usual, willfully misses the point of this perfectly reasonable AP press release, which is perfectly understandable to anyone who doesn’t have a chip on his shoulder and takes the two minutes needed to actually read what it says. If Gourd had done even some elementary homework for the twenty-first century, he would know that the present day nonlethal weapons debate revolves around high-power microwave devices.

Now listen up, Ken, no one is talking about fighting wars against al Qaeda with rubber bullets or any such drivel. By “nonlethal weapons such as high-power microwave devices” Wynne is referring to microwave devices and similar items, not poisonous gases. Yes, if you want to split hairs, the “such as” could be taken to mean they are talking about other types of nonlethal weapons, but, come on Ken, like the US Government is going to use mustard gas on L.A. rioters. Give me a break!

It is not “the brevity and vagueness of the item in conjunction with the reader’s imagination,” but Gourd’s alarmist fantasy alone that gets off on invoking the Geneva Protocol like some kind of Nazi atrocity is afoot. The government is thinking about using these weapons in war and, apparently, in law enforcement, too. Now some people, not knowing much about them, because they are so new, are concerned that they might be more harmful than they actually are. And because our government is not like Saddam Hussein, who we did not depose before he had managed to gas thousands of his own people, it too is concerned that the world might think we’re using weapons of mass destruction or something. So Michael Wynne is simply pointing out in plain language that if by using these new law enforcement tools against people who think it’s all right to create a public disturbance, just because they can’t accept that they didn’t get their way in our democracy, we can show people that nothing evil is going on, and the new weapons cause no permanent damage to people. That way people can get over their misconceptions about nonlethal weapons. Now what is so hard to understand here?

Nothing, it’s just that Gourd doesn’t have the time for making the effort to understand people when they’re speaking in public; he’s too busy sniggering at his keyboard, splitting hairs, and superciliously pointing at tiny inconsistencies, more grammatical than semantic, in their words. Gourd can jump through all sorts of colorful hoops with his garbled rhetorical exercises, but he can’t stop to consider that this news item is too short and de-contextualized to be subjected to a word by word dissection. He can’t admit to himself that, unlike himself, it is unpretentious in character and only meant as a news brief, and that as such it does a perfectly adequate job of informing us on the current state of the nonlethal weapons debate. If he faced this fact, that any fool can understand what Wynne was trying to say, he wouldn’t be able to masquerade as a sophisticate before the weaker intellects out there that mistake his demented nitpicking for time well spent. Most of all he would have no one to hate from the safety of his keyboard for expressing themselves imperfectly in speech. For Gourd to go in there with his sophist’s toolbox and come out with a great trumpeting “Aha!” as he asks “How would my victim know or be able to claim what my intentions were?” is just a sad confirmation of a deluded prankster at work. I’d prefer a foolish wit.

Before I get carried away (and bested by fantasies of a career in contemporary journalism after all), let me say for the record that I couldn’t have written anything more stupid myself, even if I were willfully trying not to understand the rise of the public relations state and its intellectual implications.

The reason I felt the need to have the reader suffer through that painful exercise in neo-fascist discourse, is because a) on account of my humorous compulsions, there is a very real danger that my analysis will be mistaken for mere nitpicking, wiffeling and clowning around of a random nature, and b) the exercise also illustrates a few easily mastered techniques used by minions of the modern public relations state in its defense.

The point is this: The central concept put across by the anonymously cobbled “Air Force chief: Test weapons on testy U.S. mobs” is of course all too easy to grasp, but it is false. It is, moreover, in all likelihood cynically false. That is to say its creators do not believe what they are declaring. Nobody at the policy level believes that if non-lethal weapons are to be used in warfare they should be used domestically as well. The people who implement these weapons into the defense system do not have any qualms about hurting the enemy with them.

The reason I went to such ridiculous lengths disassembling the components of the article was to show its fundamental non-sense, non-coherence, and non-truth. In this AP missive not one phoneme sits coherently with another. More than a press release in the traditional sense we are looking at a few asinine sound bites scribbled on the back of a napkin.

So, then, why is it there? Here lies the centermost point of this post: The posing and answering of this Why is it there? is fundamental to our intellectual survival in the information age. The piece is there because, like Ronald Reagan before it, it is such a great communicator. We do, however, need to qualify by adding that the greatness of these communicators lies in the fact that they communicate concepts other than what they purport to communicate. Barring all-out end-of-war unconditional final victory, military PR rarely communicates what it purports to communicate.

What “Air Force chief: Test weapons on testy U.S. mobs” purports to communicate is, of course, summarized in the italicized diatribe against Ken Gourd above. What it was actually designed to communicate is something beyond the definitive ken of a Gourd, or anyone else not privy to its inception, but we can cite a number of immediate concepts that are very effectively transmitted here:

  • The “right of the people peaceably to assemble” is not something to be taken literally. In fact, where war and the US government are concerned, it is a custom more observed in the breach than in the observance. The non-lethal-weapons-against-domestic-citizens issue also came up in the context of Vietnam War protests. (Before then, i.e. before the technological refinements of rubber bullets and tear gas arrived, crowds were simply dispersed with guns, bayonets, and if they were lucky, truncheons.) In American Power and the New Mandarins (p.312, Pelican Books, 1969) Noam Chomsky quotes a New York Times article from March 22nd, 1968, the title of which bears no small kinship with the object presently under scrutiny: “Army Helps Police ‘Get Hip’ On Riots.” Titles are important: The word testy is generally taken to mean irascible and impatient. Its use in the title of “Air Force chief: Test weapons on testy U.S. mobs” suggests that the firing line is no longer being drawn at riotous behavior, but at crowds’ stubborn refusal to disperse. In other words, the people have no right peaceably or otherwise to assemble.
  • Military authorities expect enough civil disturbances in the near future to use them to try out new techniques.
  • Military authorities expect plenty of armed conflict with or in foreign nations where non-lethal weapons might afford them advantage. The point is that the wars are now taken for granted, something that was not the case in the pre 9/11 world. This is being very strongly communicated all the time on the AP wire.
  • Military authorities are at all times deeply concerned with human rights issues. A standard doublethink projection in which the vast proliferation of US foreign torture resources and their official sanction is debated in the same breath that voices “concern” that “others” might not consider the way we treat our combatant enemies “safe.”
  • Human rights issues and public opinion shape the broad strokes of military policy. War being what it is, this is generally not true in the least, but on some rare occasions, for whatever reason including coincidence, human rights issues might actually sway policy onto a more merciful course. It is extremely important, however, to get this type of communication in there often, since the risks of public resistance are much more manageable, if the public believes in the fair-mindedness of the war being fought with its money.
  • More government funds are being directed to towards furnishing peace-keeping authorities with the latest technologies. I.e. whether they like it or not, the public has already made greater economic contributions towards weapons that will be used against it. Conspicuously absent in the organs of the public relations state is any debate over the ethics of this arrangement. This is because the public relations state as we know it is by nature and necessity also a police state.
  • Military authorities wish to warn demonstrators and activists that they will be treated to the same techniques of restraint as enemies on the battlefield. A good place to start looking for the central point being communicated in a message of this type is the exact opposite of what is being said.

Perhaps my Orwellian apprehension cannot be entirely justified as regards this last sinister point. A standard advertising technique, at any rate, is to simply make the nasty things about your product into its virtues (e.g. “contains 0.0g fat” being a good way to advertise sugar). Such an approach to political communication has the incalculable advantage of making things perfectly clear without engendering the kind of criticism saying them outright would entail. It was used to great effect in the “debate” (actually a fait accompli) on the official institutionalization of torture, which saw its apotheosis in the spectacular Abu Ghraib promotion. Who was not scared by the implications of those rather professionally crafted photos? (Nothing to get alarmed about, though: Shock electrodes are non-lethal weapons.)

Lest I be accused of misusing valuable server space to promote my favorite comedy sketches under the guise of haphazard connections to current events, the reader is alerted to the EXACT parallel between the Marx brothers sketch above and the words of Michael Wynne above. The Animal Crackers item essentially revolves around the witty absurdity of the old “heads I win—tails, you lose.” The musicians get paid to work, but they get paid more to do what they really want to do, which is goof off. And the goofier they get, the more they get paid. The joke is on the guy who hires them. The parallel lies in the fact that the military planners behind this latest non-lethal weapons proposal grow more powerful as society is further militarized and the industrial output and cultural life of the nation is geared towards wars of foreign conquest. But they really do what they want to do when they grow even more powerful by holding central positions in a police state:

“War on Terror? You couldn’t afford it. You see, if we don’t fight our own citizens, we don’t fight al Qaeda. And if we don’t fight al Qaeda, we’re gonna need a hellava lot more microwave guns.”

Since the military is supposed to be fighting al Qaeda on the people’s behalf, the joke is on us. After all folks, if it's safe for democracy, it’s safe enough for the world. Permit me to conclude in the Marxian spirit by pointing to my favorite flaw in a press statement not sparing of defects:

If there isn't any domestic civil unrest soon, the US won't be properly prepared for the next war. And then what?

Monday, September 11, 2006

Concerning Reid's Plead

We can well appreciate the difficult position of John Reid, who in recent commentary

. . .complained that as home secretary he was “in a very difficult position”, unable to always prosecute individuals due to the difficulty of obtaining “sufficiently cogent admissible evidence for a criminal trial”, while facing legal bars against deporting or detaining them.

What I personally find far more upsetting than the hackneyed Liquid Explosives plot is the lack of qualifiers for the individuals to be prosecuted above. Though doubtful, it is as if the Guardian article from which the unsettling excerpt was copied were sounding the alarm of a Home Secretary who openly bemoans the inconvenience and bureaucratic drain of having to present sufficient evidence when imprisoning “individuals”—any individuals. Even granted that, presumably, we are to infer that the individuals in question are terrorist individuals—though nothing contextual in the article implies this distinction—, such exhortations to tighten the belt of liberty at a time of media-induced crisis are anything but coincidental. The red flag of Stalinism here is that Reid would waste no time whatsoever in redressing the balance between state and individual:

“As we face the threat of mass murder, we have to accept that the rights of the individual that we enjoy must and will be balanced with the collective right of security and the protection of life and limb.”

Must and will! How would he know? Chilling, but true: Cold War analysis of Stalinism often provides a not merely apt, but perfect framework for understanding contemporary political practice in the West:

But there is ample evidence that the stress laid in Moscow [Washington, London] on the menace confronting Soviet society [the “free” world, democracy in Iraq ] from the world outside its borders is founded not in the realities of foreign antagonism but in the necessity of explaining away the maintenance of dictatorial authority at home.

The internet is also to be brought under control. While the concrete proposal to “start blocking Web sites that disseminate bomb-making information” is debatable in terms of the limitations of free speech, Reid’s vagueness implies outright state censorship of dissent when he says Europe must “make the Internet a hostile environment for the terrorists.”' As usual nowadays, everything, particularly state power, hinges on who goes into that expansive database labeled “the terrorists.” For example, would the present commentator, in confidently asserting that Israel’s recent invasion of the Lebanon was unjustified and despotic, be filed as a Hezbollah sympathizer? Reid’s dictum clarifies neither the nature nor the object of the hostility, which is just how the game is played in these secretive times.

Please observe with equal horror the clamor with which the appropriate sections of the media pie, both US and UK, have taken their cue to tout Reid’s manly shepherding in Blair’s leisurely stead, thus revealing one aspect of the Liquid Explosives Affair to be a dramatic public promotion of the Home Secretary’s bid for leadership of the Labour Party.

I cannot help but shudder at the creepy notion that the emphasis on the alleged plotters of the projected Liquid Explosives atrocity being “homegrown,” in conjunction with the alleged scale of the atrocity, is quite possibly a major step forward in dismantling the elementary legal protections bestowed upon all British citizens, regardless of their “horticultural” specifics.

I for one would pray for Her Majesty’s authority in this regard to continue to exceed that of the latest rumor-peddling shyster to come along, for we have no credible reason to believe that international terrorism is necessarily about Muslims.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Liquid Explosives and Chomsky’s Conspiracy Theorem

In “It's The Foreign Policy, Stupid” Oscar Reyes opens up with the following nonsense:

When the news came in that Britain's security services had foiled a terrorist outrage on the scale of 9/11, I should have felt relief at mass murder averted, shock at the audacity of the plot, and fear that Britain was once again under attack.

I blog to differ: He should have felt no such thing. To react in such a hysterical manner would, in my opinion, cast doubt on his stability as a political commentator—and he is an able political commentator. Given the tendencies of governments and corporate media, the veracity of the reports— like their mendacity—is simply not to be assumed a priori. Luckily though, he finds “those instincts clouded by thoughts of a more troubled kind” and then proceeds to submit some fairly troubled and clouded thinking:

To be caught in a game of truth about the plausibility or otherwise of a failed terror plot - or, worse, to fantasise about conspiracies - is to risk losing sight of the key issues in the debate on terrorism.

This trite little sermon might be suitable fodder for the more provincial parishes of the Church of Moderate Dissidence, but as the third paragraph in a relatively sophisticated political analysis of the Liquid Explosives Affair, it needs to be exposed for what it is: a cheap and wholly inappropriate regurgitation of doctrinal Chomsky. Here, there are several objectionable aspects packed into one glib sentence:

1. It encourages mindless submission to official sources.

2. It is an argument not only to the benefit of John Reid, but in his style, the “key issues” being the citizen’s excessive freedom vis-à-vis the state, the Internet as terrorist resource, etc.

3. The plausibility or otherwise of a failed terror plot is as much a key issue as its ultimate veracity. I am well aware of the epistemological limitations of analyzing official claims regarding national security, but they validate rather than nullify the importance of attempting to identify possible flimsy underpinnings of some of the most consequential policies of state.

4. The central weakness of the government’s position is somewhat obfuscated by the metaphor that has it that contemplating “the plausibility or otherwise of a failed terror plot” is a (silly) “game of truth.”

5. Something more than a tired sophism is called for in asserting the supremacy of one’s views. The pretentious insinuation that the points taken up in this article are the “key issues” will not suffice—though they are good points.

6. Worse, the gratuitous discrediting of anyone imagining alternative scenarios as “fantasizing about conspiracies” is almost an assault on freedom of speech.

7. Worse still, only in the previous sentence the article had itself just submitted two speculative items—two fantasies, if you will:

· “It is likely that several of the 24 suspects detained in raids on 10 August played no part in any terror plot.” There is, furthermore, something slightly phony about this speculation, since by August 12th it was already known that two suspects had been released and, presumably, were considered entirely innocent.

· “But the signs are that, this time around, the police did disrupt a plan to blow up trans-Atlantic flights.” There is something entirely fraudulent about this speculation, given that the “signs” are not subsequently discussed. An ipse dixit bluff is being passed off as a judicious opinion.

To merely write “the signs are” and be done with it! The very idea almost smacks of some religious fundamentalist cult: Because so much is being made of this by the media, there must be some truth to it. And because there must be some truth to it, the government must be telling the truth. I am reminded of the argument of a Hollywood street evangelist I once conversed with: “Do you think,” he asked sternly, “that a God as good and merciful as this one would allow things that didn’t actually happen to go in the Bible?”

And indeed, the phobia of even considering the possibility of an official hoax (a “conspiracy” in the slavish print lexicon of today) is a leaf straight out of Ye Lefty Bible over there at ZNet. It would appear that because Noam Chomsky feels the way he does about the Kennedy assassination, and because he might be the closest thing our age has to a historically outstanding thinker-personality, elevated levels of skepticism regarding official reports are being checked by an intellectual taboo. There is a mordant indemocracy entailed in this axiomatic rejection of so-called “conspiracy,” i.e. of the idea that—heaven forbid—an official account might be not merely deceptive, but an outright deception. Why cannot the Liquid Explosives Affair, which I may be excused for calling a conspiracy theory, be approached with as much skepticism as all that is habitually rubbished under that abusive term? Do you think a gov as good and merciful as this one would allow things that didn’t actually happen to go into the public record?

Why does the naiveté of precisely the skeptics have to be assumed by our friends on the Left?

Nor am I comforted by the possibility, somehow implied in the opening of the aforementioned piece, that the story might have been exaggerated, but that at least a real bomb plot was disrupted. I grant the possibility, but the troubled thought arising from that hypothetical scenario one of authorities and official sources who think nothing of defaming Britain’s 1.5 million Muslims in the name of national security. Such a policy would be anything but nationally secure, to say nothing of its Hitlerian kinship.

The unfortunate fact to be confronted is that we live more and more in an age where, to our officials and masters, pure image, that is to say unblinking hype and pretense, often count for more than actual fact. Witness the North-American “liberal bias in the media” proposition: A couple of mindless New York Times bestsellers to that effect, and suddenly the question is being seriously debated by all and sundry in the mass communication industry—in spite of the very palpable fact that no such thing exists in the US. If an example closer to the present crisis is needed, witness the weapons of mass destruction conspiracy. Though he does concede that this and other terrorism-related travesties provide “ample reasons to be cynical,” Reyes, like so many others, seems unprepared to dwell on them to the point of abandoning his lingering traces of faith in “Pakistani intelligence” and “officials who wish to remain anonymous.”

In the early 1920s, Walter Lippmann predicted with amazing prescience that the “self-conscious art of persuasion” would eventually come to preface every “political calculation” and “modify every political premise,” but, judging by recent events, it threatens to replace them entirely.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Pies in the Sky

The breathtakingly virtuoso script of the media study How to Get Ahead in Advertising contains a priceless scene in which the disturbed advertising professional Dennis Dimbleby Bagley is sharing a train carriage with an Irish priest and two respectable-looking Englishmen, one of whom makes the mistake of commenting aloud on the newspaper article he is reading:

Englishman: I see the police have made another lightning raid... Paddington drug orgy.
Priest: I suppose young girls was involved?
Englishman [reading aloud from newspaper]: One discovered naked in the kitchen...breasts smeared with peanut butter. The police took away a bag containing 15 grams of cannabis resin... it may also contain a quantity of heroin.
Bagley: Or a pork pie.
Englishman: I beg your pardon.
Bagley: I said the bag may also have contained a pork pie.
Englishman: I hardly see a pork pie's got anything to do with it.
Bagley: Alright then, what about a large turnip. It might also have contained a big turnip.
Priest: The bag was full of drugs.
Bagley: Nonsense.
Priest: The bag was full of drugs, it says so.
Bagley: The bag could've been full of anything. Pork pies, turnips, oven parts... it's the oldest trick in the book.
Priest: What book?
Bagley: The distortion of truth by association book. The word is "may." You all believe heroin was in the bag because cannabis resin was in the bag. The bag may have contained heroin, but the chances are 100 to 1 certain that it didn't.

Englishman: A lot more likely than what you say.
Bagley: About as likely as the tits spread with peanut butter.

Yesterday, such gentlemen might have been moved to comment on the Independent’s front-pager entitled Red alert after police 'foil air terror plot'.” Readers with shorter train journeys could have taken in the following bullet points by way of summary:

  • 'Liquid chemical devices in passenger bags' suspected
  • US flights from UK were targeted, say Washington sources
  • 21 arrests: main players 'accounted for' says Reid
  • MI5 raises the threat level to critical - attack imminent [emphasis supplied].

Similarly, readers of The Scotsman would have read “Airline terrorists were days away from massacre at 30,000 feet” summarized as

  • Airports across the UK on alert as terror strike looks to have been foiled
  • Nine aircraft may have been targeted for destruction
  • Twenty-four arrested in raids, including recent convert to Islam [emphasis supplied].

Though in a situation like the present one, synchronization and coordination among the different corporate media are impressive, each outlet retains its own little flourishes and logical turns.

For example, note in the Scotsman article the elegance of slipping the phrase “recent convert to Islam” into the bulletin summary: At first glance it appears out of context, but it is in fact a deft and politically correct way of instantly communicating that all the detainees have to have been Muslims. As a bonus, the storyline insinuated by the recent corruption of a teenager empowers the article with room for gossip and fantasy, all at no extra production cost.

A reader of the BBC News accountPolice probe flights terror plot” would emerge well-informed on what enigmatic “US intelligence officials” halfway around the world “believe,” while those dispatched by the Associated Press in British: Thwarted plot involved 10 jetswere treated to more emotive language, exaggeration, and associative hanky panky, but supplied with a tad more firmness to their convictions. In this typical article, despite a stray “possibly,” the British police show themselves both more assertive and clairvoyant:

British police said Thursday they thwarted a terrorist plot, possibly just days away, to blow up U.S.-bound jetliners over the Atlantic and kill thousands. Chilling accounts leaked by investigators described a plan on the scale of Sept. 11 that would use liquid explosives concealed as everyday carry-on items and common electronic devices to bring down 10 planes in a nearly simultaneous strike.

While it is perhaps theoretically possible for ten brimming economy class-only Boeing 767s to yield a maximum passenger/victim crop of 2550 people, the actual number of passengers on that terrible day would almost certainly be lower and, if truth be told, probably not in the “thousands.” Chilling leaks granted, just how bringing down ten such airliners over the ocean could possibly match in scale the destruction of 9/11 in which the entire World Trade Center of Manhattan was virtually turned into fine powder is left to the reader’s fantasy. Lest I be accused of petty haggling over potential damage bills, it is well to bear in mind that these slight exaggerations are entirely unnecessary and not the product of sloppy reasoning but rather deliberate appeals to the irrational; in a word, we are looking at the delicate art of fear-mongering without lying too starkly. The specter of the 2001 tragedy is likewise being invoked solely for the purpose of heightening the reader’s sense of urgency.

Of further epistemological note is that a different AP article, “U.S. posts code-red alert; bans liquids" has “other officials” asserting that the plan involved “the use of a peroxide-based solution,” but they “spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitive nature of the subject.”

All in all, it can safely be said that, in addition to the italicized pork-pie conditionals above, international accounts of whatever the Dickens happened on the 10th of August, 2006, were conspicuously peppered with the all the usual Kleenex caveats such as alleged, said to be, suspected, possible, etc. Staring the reader in the face was “the hallmark” not of “al-Qaida” but of dodgy official sources. The result was a classic constellation of known and unknown variables amounting to a parody of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle: The observer can either know which officials made a statement of possibility, or else which statements of fact were made by possible officials, but she can never know both leak and liquid, both information and source simultaneously. An exception is the information provided by concrete source Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, namely the undisputable fact that the whole affair was "In some respects suggestive of an al-Qaida plot.” Only this is not very useful information, since it is the Department of Homeland Security itself, who, owing its existence to “al-Qaida,” is suggesting in terms none too subtle that the US has once again come under red-alert attack by you-know-whodunnit.

My critique of this media campaign revolves precisely around the fact that the pork pies that are not merely suggested in the above articles are ipse dixit, and that hence, as Bagley contended at the onset, very little of what has actually transpired is known.

Specifically, besides the fact that the Department of Homeland Security is crying “al-Qaida!” as it is wont to do, we know that:

  • Some twenty-odd Muslims have been arrested in the UK for terrorist activity.
  • An inordinate number of UK flights have been cancelled.
  • New airport security measures have been swiftly introduced so as to prohibit the “liquid explosive plus common electronic devices” technique of bringing down a passenger plane.
  • MI5 has raised its “threat level” indicator to the maximum status available,
  • American authorities have done something similar, but only in regard to inbound flights from the UK.
  • Most importantly, at least to my way of understanding media, while this drama unfolds in the Anglo-Saxon world, the State of Israel persists in its unwarranted and wanton destruction of both the Lebanon and the sovereign rights of nations; the UN and US affect a blind eye, while scanning the Middle East with hawkish intensity.
  • UK police found several common electronic devices and no liquid explosives of any kind.

How can we make this last assertion? How does Bagley know the bag contained neither pork pie nor heroin? Well you see, Watson, it would not have been necessary to couch things quite so snugly in conditional terms had the suicide conspirators been caught in flagrante delicto or at least with some dope on them. By most accounts it would have made for better, stronger copy, if the authorities had waited, since most of the articles above, like the Scotsman, make special mention that

“The decision to arrest the group came as they were apparently just two days away from a "dry run", to see if they would be able to smuggle the needed materials aboard the planes [emphasis supplied].”

The consistently defensive editorial mode gives the game away. If no one in the information chain of journalists, editors and “official” sources wishes to commit to a concrete version of events beyond the world of “appearances” and ipse dictum, it probably bespeaks a story that, while well stimulating of the public imagination, springs from a single source of damaged or dubious credibility, such as, say, the dossier-faking Blair government. (Not that an eagerness on the part of official sources to commit to the party line signifies the opposite.)

By way of general principle in these frequent cases of media-induced panic, I submit that the glue holding all the unsubstantiated claims above together and affording them both the minimum degree of presentability for institutional publication (to say nothing of their disproportionate power over the public imagination) is official secrecy. Premature conclusions and hearsay seem more acceptable when we are advised that little concrete information can be given at the present time, given that these matters of top secret national security entail all manner of strategic and juridical implications and subtleties. Generally speaking, in the contradictory world of open societies, the (inevitable) secrecy of the state comes part and parcel with all manner of manipulation, conjecture, and hysterics that get “leaked” to the fore of non-secret mass media. For example, we are told that “MI5 has raised the threat level to ‘critical,’” and furthermore that “This means that an attack is expected imminently and indicates an extremely high level of threat to the UK." What is not clear, and certainly not elucidated upon in the above articles, is how a “foiled” attack can sustain an ongoing maximum security level, particularly if henceforth hand luggage is checked for liquid explosives as standard procedure. Are there other red-hot security issues the Security Service is keeping from us hesitant flyers?

Be that as it may, we are relieved to discover on MI5’s website that:

Threat levels in themselves do not require specific responses from the public. They are a tool for security practitioners working across different sectors of what we call the Critical National Infrastructure (CNI) and the police to use in determining what protective security response may be required.

In other words, threat levels have little to do with the public at large, but are noteworthy to specific professionals who deal with security issues in different enterprises. But while threat levels, particularly those of the screaming-red variety, may not require specific responses from the public, they certainly elicit them when trumpeted by mass media in the context of bomb threats. One is only to presume that the distractive potential of presenting the public with a maximum alert is by no means lost on those involved in the business of mass communication. Does MI5 really think more attacks are imminent, or is the sustained alert level “just” a formality, namely that of keep ‘em guessing?

My guess would be that the intention behind the present media campaign is to overwhelm a majority of the public with a scoop of pure, old-fashioned, bombast and nothing more. One shouldn’t be entirely surprised if, when excitement and memory die down and out respectively, the “present time” of yore, during which little concrete information could be supplied for technical reasons, will simply vanish, leaving even less concrete information in its wake; one of those stories that incipiently promise the earth in intrigue, but that, for some unstated reason or other, are not written with a sequel in mind.

I am not, however, saying that no such diabolical plot could have existed; at a minimum, it exists in that someone conceived it. The epistemological problem is that we have no way of knowing whether that someone was a terrorist mastermind or a hack.

Nor am I saying that I am not fearful of an attack of the magnitude and political consequence of September Eleventh. On the contrary, if I could sleep at night I would not devote so many hours to these diatribes.

To conclude: In terms of the public welfare this story is irrelevant. Of dubious authenticity, it was likely published and promoted for its capacity to capture and intimidate an already fearful public imagination, and will doubtless be followed by an onslaught of arm-waving oratory such as “Britain facing 'most sustained threat since WWII'.” In the present government, admittedly, she is.