Dec 06

Secret prisons

I’m having real trouble understanding the current flap over allegations that
the CIA is running secret overseas prisons for terrorists and enemy combatants.
I would prefer not to believe this is just another outbreak of reflexive
anti-Americanism, but I don’t see any principled case against what is
being alleged. Can anyone explain it to me?

Continue reading

Dec 06

Just desserts

There comes to us from Iraq the news that a terrorist group
calling itself Sword of Truth has kidnapped four people from a group
called Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) and has threatened to kill
them unless some demands for the release of certain terrorists from
Iraqi jails are met. What makes this interesting is that CPT exists
to oppose the U.S. occupation; that is, they are in effect (if not by
intention) allies of the terrorists threatening them.

When I first learned this, my first gut reaction was to think “Ha!
Off with their heads!” My second reaction was to feel ashamed of my first
reaction. How have things come to such a pass that I find myself
rooting for terrorists to kill Westerners?

Continue reading

Nov 28

Riots in France declared over

The Brussels Journal reports that the
French government has officially declared the banlieu riots over. The
article continues:

Police figures are at exactly 98 cars torched on Wednesday
night. This, the police say, is a normal average. Consequently
the 20th consecutive night of violence was declared the last one.

Yes, you read that correctly. 98 car-torchings a night is
“normal” in the glorious Fifth Republic in 2005. Civil order in the
banlieus has collapsed, but instead of addressing the breakdown the
French response is to define it out of existence. (In other breaking
news, war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ol’ George Orwell is
spinning in his grave.)

The American mainstream media, alas, have so much invested in the belief
that Eurosocialism is what we ought to be doing that they’ll
certainly take this as an excuse to drop the story. They’d rather cover
fictional riots in New Orleans than factual ones in Orleans, if only because
they can more easily blame George Bush for the former.

The article also observes:

…the French state was obliged to borrow money last week to pay the
wages of its civil servants. The money has run out. One must
concede: this is no example of a strong state.

My previous prediction
stands. We’ve seen only the beginnings of the reckoning for decades
of folly. I expect to have the last laugh on every single one of the
useless idiots who insisted on the superiority of “humane” European
welfare-statism over American cowboy capitalism. But I don’t expect to
enjoy that laugh very much, because the payback is going to be brutal,
bloody, and horrible.

Nov 17

Why “Commons” language gives me hives

A bit of blogging for the record here. Doc Searls wrote:

“The Commons” and “the public domain” might be legitimate concepts
with deep and relevant histories, but they’re too arcane to most of
us. Eric Raymond has told me more than once that the Commons Thing
kinda rubs him the wrong way. [...] (Maybe he’ll come in here and
correct me or enlarge on his point.)

This is what I emailed him in response:

Continue reading

Nov 13

Peak Oil — A Wish-Fulfillment Fantasy for Secular Idiots

Secularists and leftists enjoy sneering at conservative Christians who believe in the Rapture and other flavors of millenarianism. Reasonably so: it takes either a drooling idiot or somebody who has deliberately shut off most of his brain, reducing himself to an idiotically low level of critical thinking, to believe such things. The draw, of couse, is that each individual fundamentalist implicitly believes he will be among the saved — privileged to honk a great big I TOLD YOU SO! at all those sinners writhing in the lake of fire.

It is therefore more than a little amusing to notice how prone these ‘sophisticated’ critics are to their own forms of idiotic millenarianism.

Continue reading

Sep 13


The most important weapons of al-Qaeda and the rest of the Islamist
terror network are the suicide bomber and the suicide thinker. The
suicide bomber is typically a Muslim fanatic whose mission it is to
spread terror; the suicide thinker is typically a Western academic or
journalist or politician whose mission it is to destroy the West’s
will to resist not just terrorism but any ideological challenge at all.

But al-Qaeda didn’t create the ugly streak of nihilism and
self-loathing that afflicts too many Western intellectuals. Nor, I
believe, is it a natural development. It was brought to us by
Department V of the KGB, which was charged during the Cold War with
conducting memetic warfare that would destroy the will of the West’s
intelligentsia to resist a Communist takeover. This they did with
such magnificent effect that the infection outlasted the Soviet Union
itself and remains a pervasive disease of contemporary Western
intellectual life.

Continue reading

Sep 08

Impotent radicals

A minor SF writer of radical Marxist political convictions recently uttered a rather incoherent rant in which, among other things, she accused me of “simple-minded right-wing” views. I’m not going to name her because I don’t dislike the woman enough to want to add to her troubles. But I’ve heard this song before from other Marxists, and I can’t resist commenting on why I find such accusations darkly amusing.

Continue reading

Aug 29

Getting Orwell Wrong

The interpretation of George Orwell could be a paradigm for how dead literary figures get knocked from pillar to post by the winds of political interpretation. During his lifetime, the author of 1984 and Animal Farm went from darling of the left to exile for having been willing to write the truth about Communist totalitarianism in allegories too pointed to ignore.

With the end of the Cold War, forty-two years after Orwell’s death, the poisonous fog breathed on Western intellectual life by Soviet agents of influence slowly began to lift. It became possible to say that Communist totalitarianism was evil and had always been evil, without being dismissed as a McCarthyite or reactionary not merely by those agents but by a lot of “no enemy to the left” liberal patsies who should have known better. In this climate, Orwell’s uncompromising truth-telling shone even more brightly than before. For some on the left, belated shame at their own complicity with evil transmuted itself into more adulation for Orwell, and more attempted identification with Orwell’s positions, than at any time in the previous fifty years.

Then came 9/11. Orwell’s sturdy common sense about the war against the fascisms of his day made him a model for a few thinkers of the left who realized they had arrived at another of Marx’s “world-historical moments”, another pivot point at which everything changed. Foremost among these was Christopher Hitchens, who would use Orwell to good effect in taking an eloquent and forceful line in favor of the liberation of Afghanistan and Iraq. For this, he was rewarded with the same vituperation and shunning by the Left that had greeted the publication of Orwell’s anti-totalitarian allegories fifty years before.

Hitchens, who coined the term “Islamofascist” for the ideology of Al-Qaeda and its allies, is in particular responsible for having given renewed currency to the following Orwell quote addressing the war against the Nazis:

Pacifism is objectively pro-fascist. This is elementary common sense. If you hamper the war effort of one side, you automatically
help out that of the other. Nor is there any real way of remaining outside such a war as the present one. In practice, he that is not with me is against me.

Reading it in its original full form, in a 1941 essay Pacifism and the War published in Partisan Review, only makes it clearer how directly the quote applies to the War on Terror.

Stung by this, various creatures of the pro-Islamofascist Left (and, alas, some liberal and libertarian patsies who should have known better) responded by asserting that Orwell repudiated this position in his 1944 essay As I Please. But a careful reading of this essay shows that there is less here than meets the eye.

What Orwell actually warns against in this essay is not the concept of “objective pro-fascism”, it is any unwarranted leap from noticing that someone is objectively pro-fascist to assuming that the person is intentionally pro-fascist. Orwell explains that confusing these categories is dangerous because it can cause you to mis-predict peoples’ behavior.

There is nothing exceptionable here, and nothing that repudiates the substance of the earlier quote. Yes, Orwell does observe “I have been guilty of saying this myself more than once”, but his “guilty” is a rhetorical flourish, a setup for his real point about confusing effects with intentions.

Both essays are examples of the determined stab, straight through cant to the heart of the matter, that Orwell did so well and so consistently. It was perfectly consistent with the rest of his work for him to observe that there is such a thing as objective pro-fascism, then insist that we not confuse that condition with intentional treason.

As for those who would like to use this “retraction” to take Orwell out of the fight…your behavior is objectively pro-fascist in precisely the sense he intended. At the very least, it is evidence of careless reading and sloppy thinking.

Aug 28

Katrina and the Kos

About twelve hours ago I toyed with the idea of writing a satire in
which the Bush-haters blame W. for the magnitude of the disaster
bearing down on New Orleans. I discarded the idea on the grounds that
it’s (a) not funny, and (b) not believable enough. I mean, who could
really imagine that theory even from a barking moonbat?

Shows you what I know. One of the contributors at Daily Kos has already
flung those feces,
before Katrina lands, yet. And — here’s the funny part —
the charge is already falsified by the facts on the ground.

I’m not a fan of George W. Bush. But when his opponents are
this transcendently foaming-at-the-mouth idiotic, it’s hard not to
wind up supporting him.

Aug 02

Libertarian realism

I hate war. Even when the results of defeat would be worse than
the results of war, I hate war. It kills people and makes government
stronger. But when the results of defeat would be worse, I face
reality and support war.

Our Islamist enemies want to kill us all — starting with Jews and
gays, but continuing to anyone who doesn’t convert to Islam and accept
shari’a and the whole nine yards. That’s not melodrama, it’s
reporting of the plain and simple statements Al-Qaeda uses in their
recruiting videos. They want to kill us all. They demonstrated
the deadly seriousness of this aim on 9/11.

The choice between “support the war” and “allow the pressure off of
enemies who want to kill us all” is not a difficult one. As a libertarian,
I’m deeply sorry we live in a world where governments are doing the fighting
for us, and I fear the consequences of the power they will amass while
doing so. But I don’t see an alternative.

If I had a magic wand that could instantly materialize a world of
private security agencies, insurance pools, and mercenaries capable of
fighting the war on terror, I would have waved it long before 9/11.
But I am not capable of changing the objective conditions of the war
any more than I am of changing the murderous intentions of our

Though I’ve been accused of abandoning my libertarianism for a
conservative position, I still believe in the non-initiation of force
as strongly as I ever have. I saw one damn huge freaking initiation
of force on 9/11 — not just an attack on one city or one country
but an assault on Western civilization. Everything al-Qaeda’s
propaganda organs have said since confirms that is what they intend.

George Orwell, writing during World War II, wrote:

Pacifism is objectively pro-fascist. This is elementary common
sense. If you hamper the war effort of one side, you automatically
help out that of the other. Nor is there any real way of remaining
outside such a war as the present one. In practice, ‘he that is not
with me is against me.'”

If Orwell were alive today, I have no doubt he would view this war
as equally pressing, nor which side of it he would choose. And all
libertarians should heed his words. We’ve shown far too much of a
tendency to slide into denial about the war on terror and the
consequences of refusing to fight it.

Sliding off into denial and fantasyland is not noble, it’s an
abdication of our responsibility as human beings and members of a
civilization. If that denial becomes “the” libertarian position, our
statist opponents will damn us as for deserting our neighbors and our
civilization in its hour of need — and they will be right to
damn us.

Other libertarians may fail this test. I will not.

Aug 02

The “Bush Lied” lie

Today’s entry in the Belgravia Dispatch
does an excellent job of demolishing the “Bush lied, people died!”
canard so popular among the anti-war left — Greg Djerejian
echoes my own conclusions when he writes: “But if you dig into the
weeds of the investigations that have taken place — one must
judiciously conclude that he didn’t.”

But let’s suppose that George W. Bush had in fact lied about Iraqi
WMD during that State of the Union address. I long ago concluded that
I would not care if he had lied. To see why, let’s try looking at this from
George Bush’s (simulated) point of view…

Continue reading

Jul 26

Kurds in the Coal Mine

How will we know if the attempt to reconstruct Iraq is failing?

This is a serious question. With as much hysterical anti-Iraq-war,
anti-Bush-Administration fabrication going in the media as there has
been, it’s tempting for a rational person to dismiss every negative
report as just another load of Michael Mooronism and dismiss it. That
would be a mistake. Things could still go very bad there. How would
we tell?

Continue reading

Jul 24

Sowing Dragon’s Teeth

David Lucas’s op-ed
in the Knoxville News-Sentinel combines with this story about active-duty military personnel criticizing Edward
Kennedy and Dick Durbin’s “gulag” rhetoric about Guantanamo Bay to suggest something interesting about the long-term political impact of the Iraq War.

Historically, one of the major byproducts of American wars is politicians. While it’s rare for a career military man to carve out a successful political career as Dwight Eisenhower did, there’s a strong pattern of non-career junior officers serving in combat returning to civilian life to become successful politicians. John Kerry, though he failed to win the presidency, has had a successful enough political career to count as one of the most recent examples.

I expect the Iraq war will produce a bumper crop of future politicians from its junior officer corps — men like David Lucas who are already making public names for themselves. So it’s worth asking what these people believe, and how the lessons they’re learning in Iraq will affect the attitude they bring to careers in civilian politics.

Recent surveys showing that 80% of the serving military officer corps voted Republican in 2004 combine with exceptionally high in-theater re-enlistment rates and op-eds like Lucas’s to paint a picture of a military that believes very strongly in the rightness of the Iraq war — a belief which appears to be strong not just among careerists but among short-timers who expect to return to civilian life as well. A related piece of evidence is negative but almost equally strong; the anti-war wing of U.S. politics has failed to discover or produce any returning veterans of Iraq who are both able to denounce the war effectively in public and willing to do so.

We already know, because they’re telling us themselves in mil-blogs, that the military serving in Iraq has developed a bitter contempt for the mainstream media. Biased, shoddy, and selective reporting with a heavy sensationalist and anti-war slant has had consequences; it has played well among bicoastal liberals in the U.S. but angered and alienated the troops on the ground. They know that reality there is greatly different from what’s being reported, and increasingly they’re willing to say so.

The Washington Times story shows that anti-war posturing by leading Democrats is angering and alienating the serving military as well. An increasing number seem to think they are seeing what is in effect a conspiracy between the mainstream media and the Democrats to make a just war unwinnable in order to score domestic political points. In the longer run, this is a disaster in the making for Democrats. It means that this war’s crop of successful politicians and influence leaders probably going to trend Republican and conservative to an unprecedented degree.

This is not a prospect that fills me with glee. Given their military background, the political children of the Iraq war seem more
likely to reinforce the authoritarian/cultural-conservative side of the Republican split personality than the small-government/libertarian one. In the worst case, military resentment of the Democrats could fracture the strong unwritten tradition that keeps the serving military out of civilian politics. That could be very bad.

I think that worst case is still quite unlikely. But if it happens, the Democrats and the mainstream media will have nobody but themselves to blame. Their irresponsible and destructive political games have sown dragon’s teeth; let’s hope we don’t all come to regret the harvest.

Jul 22

American Empire Redux

A respondent to my previous post on American Empire said “For non-Americans, the concern is not necessarily “does America behave like an empire?”, but “can we trust it not to act like one when the chips are down?” (e.g. if oil supplies dwindle to the point where the US economy is at real risk).

The answer is “of course not!”. You can never trust any nation-state not to go imperialist in a crisis of that kind, if it has the power to do so. But the United States is demonstrably exceptional in one important respect; it doesn’t hold on to its gains when the survival crisis is over.

Ask the Japanese or Germans, defeated in World War II and ruled by American proconsuls for years afterwards. Both became independent and prosperous nations. Or ask the Iraqis — defeated twice by the U.S., but now drafting their own constitution.

Contrast this with the great 19th-century and early 20th-century imperia. The British pattern was to shellack the hell out of the natives when they got uppity, then rule them lightly and (with only sporadic exceptions) quite benevolently. This was a small improvement on the French and German empires (almost as civilized, rather more nakedly exploitative) and a large one on the extremely brutal Belgian, Japanese, and Russian empires. But the Americans go the Brits one better; they civilize the natives and then get the hell out.

And why is this? I was travelling in Europe a few years back, and some Euroleftie began blathering in my presence about America’s desire to rule the world. “Nonsense,” I told him. “You’ve misunderstood the American character. We’re instinctive isolationists at bottom. We don’t want to rule the world — we want to be able to ignore it.”

The play of expressions on his face as he rethought his history was hilarious to watch. The other Europeans laughed at him, as well they might. Because it’s true. Whatever Americans may get up to abroad when some Hitler or Hussein needs squashing, at the end of the day they invariably do the one thing no previous global hegemon’s soldiers ever have. They go home.

Jul 21

American Empire

The American Left, and some of the Buchananite/isolationist elements of the American Right, have spent a lot of time and rhetorical energy fretting about the “American Empire”, and/or the “global system of American hegemony”. Lee Harris has written a very informative essay on Hegemony vs. Empire in which he points out that these two words mean different things, and delves into the history of “hegemony” as a form of voluntary organization of groups of states against external threats.

Harris’s implicit point is that in the post-9/11 world, confusion between “hegemony” and “empire” serves the ideological purposes of the enemies of our civilization — the head-hackers, the suicide-bombers, and the rogue states behind them. But even if the word “hegemony” had not been misappropriated and trashed by the anti-American left, the phrase “American Empire” would still have a sting. The implication, quite intentional, is that the U.S. aims to rule the known world after the manner of the Romans or the British.

Does the United States have an empire? There are at least two ways to address this question. One is extensional: ask to what extent the U.S. behaves as imperial powers have historically behaved. The other is intensional; ask what purpose empire serves for the people who control it, and then ask if the U.S. has created a structure of control that achieves the purpose. (The second question is useful partly because it may enable us to discern imperialism that dare not speak its name.)

Let’s take the second question first. What is the purpose of empire? In fact, this turns out to be an easy one. The one consistent feature of all empires, everywhere, is that commerce between subject regions and the imperial center is controlled so that the imperial center imports goods at below-market rates and exports them to the subject regions at above-market rates. The mailed fist, the satrap, and the gunboat are just enforcement mechanisms for imperial market-rigging.

This economic criterion may sound dry and abstract, but it is the one thing that relatively benign imperia like the British Empire have in common with out-and-out despotisms like the Russian or Persian empires. Thus, for example, the Roman grain ships feeding the population of Rome with wheat harvested by slaves in conquered Egypt; the British destruction of the Indian textile industry so its customers would be effectively forced to buy shoddy cloth made in the English Midlands; and, more crudely, the tribute wagons rolling to Persepolis.

Over time, imperial means of squeezing their subject nations’ economies have become more subtle. Early empires looted; later ones used discriminatory taxation; still later used preferential tariffs (all, and this is the point, enforced by the imperial military). Does the U.S. have an empire by this criterion?

Some would argue that it does, and cite U.S. attempts to force an American-style patent regime and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act on its trading partners. The trouble with this theory is that the U.S.’s negotiating leverage comes from the size of its economy, not fear of its military. Not even the most tinfoil-hatted of paranoids imagines that U.S. troops will ever land in (say) Brazil to enforce the DMCA; rather, it’s the prospect of being locked out of the world’s biggest export market that alarms Brazilian politicians. Reasonable people may reject the U.S. patent regime and the DMCA, or differ about the fairness of the Brazilo-American relationship, but “empire” is not a good word for it.

(Arguably the U.S. in fact did have an empire by this criterion until the 1950s, in parts of Central and South America and the Pacific. However, that is the past. I am addressing the question of whether “American Empire” is a true or useful description of the present.)

To reduce the market-rigging claim to absurdity, consider oil. If the U.S. truly were an empire, Venezuela (which supplies 25% of U.S. oil needs) would have been subjugated and annexed long since rather than left to the tender mercies of an unstable anti-American dictator like Hugo Chavez. The corrupt and despotic House of Saud (supplying a much higher percentage I don’t have at my fingertips) would likewise have been replaced by American puppets, not left unmolested to dole out billions of back-channel petrobucks to any anti-American terrorist who can pronounce the word “Wahhabi”.

In both cases, these would have been distinct improvements and among the best arguments one could muster for imperialism in the 21th century. But the U.S. has neither done them nor sought the power to do them. It fails the intensional test of empire.

To perform the extensional test, let’s look at some things that previous empires normally did and ask if the U.S. does them. To make the anti-American case as easy as possible, I won’t pick straw-man brutalities like crucifying, impaling, or machine-gunning entire populations in order to suppress revolts, the sorts of things the Soviets or Mongols or Japanese routinely got up to; instead, I’ll confine myself to the subset of common imperial practices engaged in by the Victorian Britons. If the U.S. fails even to replicate the behaviors of that least oppressive empire in human history to date, it’s hard to see how the term “empire” can sensibly be applied to the U.S.’s situation at all.

  • Does the U.S. impose U.S. law by force on conquered peoples without giving them citizenship or representation in the national government?

  • Are there any places outside the U.S. where treaties with subject nations stipulate that an American citizen will be subject only to U.S and not local law?

  • Does the U.S. routinely conscript large portions of its armies from subject peoples who lack U.S. citizenship?

The answer to all these questions is, of course, “no”. The U.S. fails the extensional test of empire as well.

Nevertheless, I am certain the charge will continue to be flung. The most forgivable reason for flinging it is gross ignorance of history and what actual empires are like. Far too often, however, people raising the cry of “American Empire” would not actually care about the facts if they had them; it is the emotion of anti-Americanism that drives their convictions, rather than the reverse.

Jul 18

The Hollywood Left is from Venus?

David Koepp, the screenwriter behind the current blockbuster movie
War of the Worlds has said:
“the Martians in our movie represent American military forces invading
the Iraqis.”

As InstaPundit observed, you just can’t make this stuff up. It’s
hard to lampoon the Hollywood left any more, because they keep
uttering inanities that venture beyond far, far beyond parody —
yea and verily, into the Land of the Barking Moonbats. Nevertheless,
here at Armed and Dangerous we’re not afraid to

OK, Mr, Koepp, let’s see if I have this straight. The Americans in
the movie aren’t Americans. they’re Iraqis. The Martians aren’t
Martians, they’re Americans. Fine, I follow you so far. Is there a
scene where the Martians collect toys from the Red Planet to give to
American children? Do they build schools and powerplants for the
Earthlings who are blowing them up with IEDs? Is there a scene where
the Martians depose the brutal American dicator George Bush —
you know, the one who fought a pointless war with Mexico and
nerve-gassed the population of the upper Midwest? Do we get to see his
twin daughters amusing themselves by feeding dissidents feet-first
into industrial shredders?

Koepp would have it that War of the Worlds is a fable
about the perils of military adventurism. As an anarchist who
believes that war is the health of the State and an overly healthy
State is a damnably bad thing, I daresay I’m more dead set against
“military adventurism” than he is; I’ll bet he thought it wasn’t so
bad when, say, Soviet tanks were rolling into Prague in 1968, if he
was alive then.

But “adventurism” is a peculiar word to use in this context. Not
the movie, but what he claims it refers to. Um. Just checking,
now…four years before the movie began, did the two tallest buildings
on Mars get flying saucers crashed into them by terrorists operating
from Guatemala? Did every intelligence service on Mars believe, and
tell their leaders, that the terrorists had been getting training and
logistical support from the CIA? Did the Martian press repeatedly
publish investigative stories about the terrorist/American connection
and urging Mars to do something about it — stories that were
believed clean across the political spectrum before a campaign for
Supreme Xyglfrntz made it convenient for one faction of Martians to
forget that?

Probably not. But that’s the movie I want to see. You know,
the one where John Kerry does a cameo as a failed candidate for Supreme
Xyglfrntz who voted for the invasion before he voted against it.

Jul 05

Punishment, Coercion, and Revenge

Because I’m both both a libertarian and famous for conducting a
successful propaganda campaign, libertarian activists sometimes come
to me for tactical advice. During a recent email exchange, one of these
criticized me for wishing (as he thought) to “punish” the Islamist
enemies of the U.S. and Western civilization.

I explained that I have no desire to punish the perpetrators of
9/11; what I want is vengeance and death. Vengeance for us, death for
them. Whether they experience ‘punishment’ during the process is of
little or no interest to me.

My correspondent was reflecting a common confusion about the
distinctions among coercion, revenge, and punishment. Coercion is
intended to make another do your will instead of their own; vengeance
is intended to discharge your own anger and fear. Punishment is
neither of these things.

Punishment is a form of respect you pay to someone who is at least
potentially a member of the web of trust that defines your ethical
community. We punish ordinary criminals to deter them from repeating
criminal behavior, because we believe they know what ethical behavior
is and that by deterring them from crime we help them re-integrate
with an ethical community they have never in any fundamental sense

By contrast, we do not punish the criminally insane. We confine
them and sometimes kill them for our own safety, but we do not make
them suffer in an effort to deter them from insanity. Just to state
the aim is to make obvious how absurd it is. Hannibal Lecter, and his
all-too-real prototypes, lack the capacity to respond to punishment
by re-integrating with an ethical community.

In fact, criminal psychopaths are not even potentially members of
an ethical community to begin with. There is something broken or
missing in them that makes participation in the web of trust
impossible; perhaps the capacity to emotionally identify with other
human beings, perhaps conscience, perhaps something larger and harder
to name. They have other behavioral deficits, including poor impulse
control, associated with subtle neurological damage. By existing,
they demonstrate something most of us would rather not know; which is
that there are creatures who — though they speak, and reason,
and feign humanity — have nothing but evil in them.

On the behavioral evidence, Saddam Hussein and his now-deceased
serial-rapist son Uday fit the DSM-IV criteria for psychopaths
exactly; by contrast Qusay, the other deceased son, appears to have
been a merely ordinary thug. But it would be a dangerous mistake to
dismiss Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and their ilk as merely
psychopathic — they don’t have the deficits in impulse control
and other areas that would imply. I fear they are examples of a
phenomenon even more troubling — neurologically normal
non-psychopaths who speak, and reason, and feign humanity, and
have nothing but evil in them.

Osama bin Laden is a religious fanatic, not a psychopath. He
suffers not from lack of conscience but from a particular kind of
conscience, principles that drive him to plan and execute mass
murder. Like a psychopath, he apparently lacks any capacity to
identify with his victims; but rather than being neurological, his
disorder is possession by a killer idea. He is a memebot.

Fanatics of bin Laden’s intensity are like psychopaths in that
reason cannot reach them and punishment only fuels their rage. We
have seen bin Laden’s like before in Hitler, Savanarola, and a
thousand pettier examples. Their belief systems are closed, circular,
self-justifying, bordering on if not becoming actually delusional.
You can confine them or kill them, but they cannot be re-integrated
into the ethical web of trust by the measures we use on mere

The attempt to fit the treatment of fanatical terrorists into
a “criminal” frame, as though they were shoplifters or second-story
men or even ordinary murderers, is symptomatic of a deep blindness
in all too many Westerners — often a willful blindness. It
is as though, by denying that these people are irredeemably evil,
the tender-minded think they can edit evil out of the world. The
rest of us, if we ever had that illusion, lost it on 9/11.

Feb 12

Lies and Consequences

Eason Jordan has resigned as CNN’s chief news executive following
rumors that he said at a conference in Davos that the U.S. military
had deliberately targeted journalists for death. Jordan denied making
this allegation, but two U.S. legislators who were present agree that
he did, and the Davos organizers have denied repeated requests to
release the session video.

But I am not writing to argue about what Eason did or didn’t do. I
want to address the way some people have reasoned about the worst-case
interpretation of his remarks. The blogosphere pressure for release
of the video from Davos has been described
this way: “…tire-necklaced by a bloodthirsty group of utopian,
bible-thumping knuckledraggers” to “benefit the torturing,
gulag-building blood-cult known Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld’s Republican
Party.” Even leaving aside the bloody-minded partisanship, this
seems, shall we say, a little over the top?

Nobody should want journalists ever to fear attacking the behavior
of the U.S. military when they have actual evidence that it is wrong.
Militaries are dangerous and terrible things, and a free press is a
vital means of keeping them in check. It is right and proper that
we make heroes of those who speak damning truths to power.

But it makes all the difference in the world when a journalist does
not have actual evidence of wrongdoing. Especially when
the journalist is a U.S. citizen and the claim gives aid and comfort
to the declared enemies of the U.S. in wartime. Under those
circumstances, such an attack is not heroic but traitorous.

I hope this is a teachable moment. Oliver Wendell Holmes observed
that shouting “fire” in a crowded theater is not protected speech; if
the speaker has no evidence of actual fire, the consequences to that
speaker should be as dire as the risk of death by trampling he created
for others. The Holmes test should be applied in politics as well.

And yes, I agree that test should be applied to the Bush
administration — but, unlike the “Bush Lied, People Died”
crowd, I haven’t forgotten that the warnings about Iraqi WMD were not
only backed by British and French intelligence reports, but echoed
assessments made by the Clinton administration and endorsed to this
day by Clinton himself. Whatever errors Bush & Co. may have made
on this score, they believed they had evidence to back them.

Assuming Eason Jordan said what the witnesses say he did, his
behavior was far worse — because his own account of his remarks
makes clear that does not believe he has evidence for any claim of
deliberate targeting. It is good that he has been forced out over
this. It will be better if his disgrace frightens other journalists
into paying more attention to details like having some evidence up
front. The best outcome, though probably too much to hope for, would
be the end of reflexive oppositionalism in American media.

After Vietnam and Watergate, a lot of journalists (and other
people) lost the distinction between speaking truth to power and
simply attacking whoever is in charge (especially any Republican in
charge) on any grounds, no matter how factually baseless. Mere
oppositionalism was increasingly confused with heroism even as the
cultural climate made it ever less risky. Eventually we arrived at the
ludicrous spectacle of multimillionaire media personalities posing as
persecuted victims and wailing about the supposed crushing of dissent
on national news and talk shows.

But now, for the first time in decades, irresponsible
oppositionalism just cost a major media figure his career. Better yet,
the campaign that forced him out was a grass-roots effort by people
who take seriously their responsibility to hold the media to account
for its truthfulness. These are both grounds for celebration, and for
hope that the horribly dysfunctional culture of American newsrooms
will improve in the future.