Thursday, April 10, 2008

WSJ's Dan Henninger's Wonder Land

Obfuscation is a favourite tactic of politicians of all stripes, as it is of analysts and pundits, of all who wish to divert attention from the key, important facts. An effective way of doing so is to raise emotionally-gripping points, and inflate their importance, deflecting attention away from the crux of the matter.

This column is a perfect example of obfuscation. Two different points are raised, twisted, fogged over, an emotional hook put in place, then yanked, and what emerges is the wrong point. In this case a columnist from the Wall Street Journal, that bastion of right-wing nuts, not only befuddles and beclouds the issue, but uses the specter of 9/11 to further confuse the issue.

Yup, never hurts to pinch yourself hard on entering presidential campaign space right now.

Absolutely, yes. Whomever doesn't know that a political campaign is no place to find the unvarnished truth is a dolt. However, let it not be said this columnist is unimaginative.

Setup: Here's another hypothetical: Would this conversation be different today if in August 2006 seven airliners had taken off from Terminal 3 at Heathrow Airport, bound for the U.S. and Canada and each carrying about 250 passengers, and then blew up over the Atlantic Ocean?

Ouch. Now, that is an emotional hook par excellence. Well done.

The details emerging from that case are quite remarkable and will be summarized shortly. Pause to reflect on the ebb and flow of public debate that has occurred over how free societies should order themselves after two airliners full of passengers knocked down the World Trade Center Towers on Sept. 11 in 2001.

Touché, emotionally-wrenching connection made. This man is good.

One sometimes gets the feeling that our policy debates over national security and the journalism that travels with them float, as it were, at 30,000 feet above the reality of the threat on the ground. A novelist or filmmaker, alert to the personal demons that drive modern terror, would with fiction better clarify what is at stake. Start with the details of the eight defendants now on trial in England.

Apt metaphorical choice: 30,000 feet, as it were. An aeroplane's cruising height. Nicely done. This guy is really good. But his punctuation is a mite sloppy; were I his proofreader I might have had it this way: A novelist or filmmaker, alert to the personal demons that drive modern terror, would, with fiction, better clarify what is at stake. Seems repetitive otherwise; the added commas help.

The private intelligence-analysis agency, Stratfor, concludes from the trial that "al Qaeda remains fixated on aircraft as targets and, in spite of changes in security procedures since 9/11, aircraft remain vulnerable to attack."

Stratfor is a fascinating organization. Mr. Henninger is an expert at connecting the dots.

Here in the U.S., our politics has spent much of the year unable to vote into law the wiretap bill, which is bogged down, incredibly, over giving retrospective legal immunity to telecom companies that helped the government monitor calls originating overseas. Even granting there are Fourth Amendment issues in play here, how is it that Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama cannot at least say that class-action lawsuits against these companies are simply wrong right now?

Unable? Incredibly? Simply wrong? Well, I beg to differ. Perhaps unwilling, rather than unable. Not necessarily bogged down, rather, debating important details. Not simply wrong, but in defense of personal privacy and civil liberties. Of course, out in the fringe where Mr. Henninger resides, catching the bad guys is more important than keeping our society based on the principles that Madison and Jay (and even Jefferson) thought fundamental.

Philip Bobbitt, author of the just released and thought-provoking book, "Terror and Consent," has written that court warrants are "a useful standard for surveillance designed to prove guilt, not to learn the identity of people who may be planning atrocities." Planning atrocities is precisely the point.

Aye, warrants used to surveil are useful tools. And when warrants are issued with the blessing, as it were, of courts, they indeed can be useful tools. Of course, Mr. Henninger glosses over the fact that the Bush-Cheney team disregards courts when seeking court approval do not suit their purposes. Having courts in the loop insures, as James, John, and Thomas explained, that the Executive does not run roughshod over the rights of the citizens of the nation.

Furthermore, blanket spying is an invasion of privacy that undermines democracy. Mr. Henninger went from Senator Obama questioning General Petraeus to 9/11 to atrocities in a smooth line. Whether that line does in fact exist is debatable, and I disagree.

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