Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Out of the Sewer and into the Mainstream

I have a strong aversion to fashionable cynicism, and I have little tolerance for the types who get all hopped-up every time they smell a conspiracy.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan of inquiry. I believe in asking things like “Why am I hearing this now? and “Who benefits from my hearing it?” And I like connecting the dots—synthesizing a new piece of information out of many old ones.

But I find it hard to believe in “The Great Whatsits,” as the film noir Kiss Me Deadly called it—it feels too much like those on another side and of another era who saw everything as a “Communist plot”—and I think that productive political discourse is ill-served by wild and baseless conspiracy mongering. I believe the world has enough real devils without inventing a brand new hell.

So, you’ll forgive me my sloth-inducing trepidation when I confess that I was going to say this last week, but I didn’t want to traffic in rumor—no less be the start of one.

One of my first thoughts upon hearing that the UK had foiled a plot to blow up US-bound passenger flights was “how convenient.” Not that I didn’t believe that the good old-fashioned police work of British security agents had uncovered a group of criminals intent on executing such a plan, just that I wondered seriously how the timing of these arrests managed to come so close to the defeat of Bush-lover Joe in the Connecticut primary (by Ned Lamont, a man very good at articulating the failures of the Lieberman-supported Bush “war on terror” and the broad domestic costs of spending $250 million a day in Iraq).

Had Blair co-opted the whole operation to serve his soul mate in Washington? No, I didn’t quite think that. More likely, I thought, after Bush/Cheney et al. had been briefed at some earlier point about the on-going investigation, they saw an opportunity to spin the national dialogue away from Lamont’s success, and made some noise to the Brits about how the safety of Americans was paramount and they felt it absolutely necessary to inform the citizenry (they couldn’t be asked to keep the truth from the American people, after all)—right now—and that if the Brits didn’t come out with the whole shebang, they would.

And so, British authorities had to act when they did.

I felt more sure of my feelings as the day progressed. As I observed, all of the “details” of the case seemed to be leaking out of the mouths of US officials—some on the record, some off. But, still, I didn’t want to post anything. Sure the blogs were full of wide-eyed conspiracy theories (or so they always seem at the time), but I wanted something more to back me up.

Well, imagine my surprise (or lack thereof) to read this in Paul Krugman’s Monday column (behind the greed wall, but “reprinted” on the blog Quasi-Coherent Ruminations):

NBC reports that there was a dispute between the British and the Americans over when to make arrests in the latest plot. Since the alleged plotters weren’t ready to go — they hadn’t purchased airline tickets, and some didn’t even have passports yet — British officials wanted to watch and wait, hoping to gather more evidence. But according to NBC, the Americans insisted on early arrests.

Googling around directed me to the NBC piece, which also says that the US hastened the arrest of the plot’s supposed ringleader in Pakistan by threatening that if the Brits didn’t take him in, the US would “render” him.

That was enough to force some action on the part of British authorities, who, as James Galbraith points out (in a very interesting and amusing piece) in the Guardian, are trying first, to build a credible criminal case against those arrested, and second, are trying to understand (yes actually “understand”—novel approach, don’t you think?) their sudden bumper crop of homegrown suicide bombers.

But, as is now wildly obvious (OK, it was wildly obvious last Thursday, but it is now mainstream wildly obvious), the White House has no time for understanding, civil courts, or even solid police work. As William Greider asks in The Nation (OK, The Nation's blog, The Notion):

The early claim that a massive takedown of a dozen airliners was set for August 16 is "rubbish," according to London authorities. So who decided this case was ripe for its public rollout? Blair consulted Cheney: What did they decide?

What did they? Whether Blair, in the end, got much say in the matter, can be debated, but what was decided seems clear from Cheney’s pre-Thursday conference call and Bush’s post-Thursday politicking.

The thing is, I—indeed, we all—should have seen it coming (OK, I saw it, but I should have shared my insight). It’s not like it hasn’t all happened before. Krugman and Greider both allude to previous incidents, most specifically, the elevated terror alert of the week of the Democratic National Convention, almost exactly two years ago. I could try to summarize, but I’d rather direct you to Juan Cole’s detailed report of the time.

It’s all there: real criminal investigations undercut by cynical political motivations. While Bush and friends have done almost nothing on their own initiative to make the world more safe from any terrorist threat, they will even go so far as to derail other’s efforts at practically every turn.

And why shouldn’t they? It’s clearly seen as in their self-interest (Greider, again):

Bush desperately needs the terrorists. They are his last frail hope for political survival. They divert public attention, at least momentarily, from his disastrous war in Iraq and his shameful abuses of the Constitution. The "news" of terror--whether real or fantasized--reduces American politics to its most primitive impulses, the realm of fear-and-smear where George Bush is at his best.

Which is why we (myself included) should stop playing along every time Michael Chertoff sees red. It is why we should insist—as some in the press and in the Democratic leadership are finally starting to do—that Cheney and Bush stop using the possibility of human suffering for political gain. It is why we should realize that, as William Greider put it two years ago:

Bush's ‘war on terrorism' is a political slogan--not a coherent strategy for national defense--and it succeeds brilliantly only as politics. For everything else, it is quite illogical.

And it is why we should allow our skepticism the pride of place it has earned after five hard years in the Bush.

(Hat tip to Paul Rosenberg’s diary on the timing of the UK arrests—and to the comments below the post, which contain much more grist for the mill.)


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