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.

1 Comments:

Blogger Los Stompers said...

Row as judges back Blair in key terror case

Human rights groups called naive for objecting to deportation of Algerian

Alan Travis, home affairs editor
Friday August 25, 2006
The Guardian

Special immigration judges yesterday delivered a major, and rare, legal victory for Tony Blair's anti-terror campaign when they cleared the way for foreign terror suspects to be sent back to Algeria despite fears that they could be tortured.

Human rights groups, including Amnesty International, last night condemned as "an affront to justice" the decision involving an Algerian who has already been acquitted in an Old Bailey trial of involvement in the so-called "ricin poison plot". In a highly unusual move three of the jurors involved in that trial issued a statement last night saying they were shocked by such an "unfair and unjust sequence of events".

But Lord Carlile, the independent watchdog on the anti-terror laws, accused Amnesty of being "thoroughly naive". He argued that acquittal in a criminal trial did not mean it was in the national interest for that person to remain in Britain.

The ruling by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, chaired by Mr Justice Ouseley, means that the "no torture, no ill-treatment" assurances given by the Algerian government to Mr Blair in December have unexpectedly passed their first major legal test.

It clears the way for the removal of a further 15 Algerian terror suspects - the bulk of them among those originally detained in Belmarsh prison in the wake of 9/11 - and follows Mr Blair's warning 12 months ago that he was prepared to change the law if the judges put legal obstacles in the way of such deportations.

Mr Justice Ouseley said the SIAC was convinced that the changing political situation in Algeria and the high-profile nature of the case meant it was inconceivable that assurances given to Mr Blair would prove to be unreliable or given in bad faith.

"The level of allegations of torture has declined significantly recently and that is not to be seen as a temporary or happenstance state of affairs. That decline reflects the changing and stabilising political situation in Algeria," said the judges.

The home secretary, John Reid, welcomed the ruling saying it had confirmed that the man, who can only be identified as Y, was a danger to national security and could be deported.

"The court also recognised that Algeria has changed - so as to allow us to deport this individual without jeopardising his human rights thanks to the Algerian Charter on Peace and National Reconciliation and the assurances we have received from the Algerian government," said Mr Reid. An amnesty means that a death sentence and two life sentences passed on Y for terrorist activity will now be extinguished on his return.

The decision is a major step forward for the government's attempts to deport foreign terror suspects back to countries where they fear there is a risk of torture or ill-treatment.

More than a year of intensive diplomatic activity have only produced three "memorandums of understanding" - formal legal documents - with Jordan, Libya and Lebanon. An agreement with Algeria has proved impossible to secure.

The Algerians were reluctant to formally admit that torture had been practised in the past and the British government has had to fall back on assurances given in December 2005 based on an unpublished exchange of letters between prime ministers.

Y's solicitor, Gareth Peirce, said that she was profoundly disturbed by yesterday's ruling. "A year ago Tony Blair said the rules of the game had changed and they would deport refugees to countries that they knew used torture, but they would not do it unless we have a memorandum of understanding and an independent monitoring group," she said.

"Now one year later, there is no memorandum of understanding and no monitoring group in place. The government are saying they are not necessary and today the court has endorsed that."

7:15 PM  

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