Spectacularly Stupid Commentaries on September 11, 2001

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, Universityof Wisconsin - Green Bay
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There have been innumerable articles written about the events of September11, 2001 and our response to it. Some, like those below, are so dazzlingly,breathtakingly stupid they deserve to be preserved for posterity.

"A Result of U.S. Policy"

Quite a few commentators have noted that the attacks of September 11 were theresult of U.S. policies. No kidding, Sherlock. Figured that out all by yourself,did you? Thank you for that elaboration of the trivially obvious.

Of course the attacks of September 11 were the result of U.S.policies. The Civil War was the result of U.S. policies - we refused to letstates secede from the Union by force. Pearl Harbor was the result of U.S. policies - werefused to sell materiel to the Japanese to support their war in China. WorldWar II was the result of U.S. policies - we refused to let Hitler dominateEurope. And the attacks of September 11 were the result of U.S. policies - werefuse to abandon Israel and stop creating change in the world. The fallacy inthis argument is the implication that because something is the result of U.S.policies, we are wrong for having those policies.

Closely related is the comment that the attacks happened "for areason." Duh. Rape happens for a reason. Child abuse happens for a reason.Genocide happens for a reason. Merely having a reason doesn't make the reasonvalid.

We Had to Destroy Free Speech to SaveIt

Norah Vincent, in a special to the Los Angeles Times on November13, 2001 called Consequences of Politically Incorrect Opinions, arguedthat opponents of the war in Afghanistan have the right to speak out withoutconsequence. 

Yanking advertisements from network television shows should also be unconstitutional. This happened recently to Bill Maher, host of the late-night talk show “Politically Incorrect,” after he said a few politically incorrect things about the September 11 World Trade Center attack.

Because Maher’s show depends on advertising money for its survival, the advertisers were not just registering their discontent (they could have done that with a written statement), they were knowingly jeopardizing the show and thereby attempting to silence the speaker by forcing him off the air.

According to Vincent, you can exerciseyour right to protest as long as you restrict it to innocuous methods that thetarget is free to ignore. Would she extend this principle to, say, economicboycotts, like the one blacks mounted to remove the Confederate flag fromsouthern state capitols? Or how about the way gays terminated Anita Bryant'scareer after she opposed gay-rights legislation? I suspect not. I suspect, if wecould tiptoe through the tulips in her mind, we’dfind Vincent professing a patchwork of ad hoc rules all designed to allow herfavorite groups to flex economic muscle, but blocking groups she opposes.

In addition, as has long been noted,the right to freedom of the press guarantees you only a soapbox, not a printingpress. Even in the worst case, had Maher’s show been taken off the air, hecould make use of written statements (why not? - they were supposed to have been sufficientfor his advertisers), cable TV, the Internet. Sure, he’d have taken a big hitin income and fame, but the First Amendment guarantees neither of those.

Or here’s a radical idea. NorahVincent can mobilize support and raise the money to keep Maher’s show on theair herself.

Of course, there is no law that prevents advertisers from revoking their support for shows. But if we are going to remain true to the spirit of the First Amendment, we should pass one.

A strong candidate for mostmind-boggling statement of 2001. We preserve the First Amendment by deprivingpeople of the right to use their resources to protest speech they don’tendorse. This is the typical approach of the civil libertarian - protect therights of one group they favor by massive assaults on the rights of everyone else.

Advertisers should be forced, by contract, to commit their advertisements for a specified amount of time, regardless of what happens on a show.

What happens after that? If theadvertisers decide to bail out at the end of the contract period, do we forciblyprevent them? If they all bail out and nobody fills the gap, do we send a pressgang armed with a burlap bag and baseball bats to Madison Avenue and coercesomeone to sponsor the show? (I favor sending gangs armed with baseball bats toMadison Avenue in any case. They can especially whack anyone connected with thecurrent trend of showing gross eating habits in commercials.) Suppose a new show comes along but can't attractadvertisers? Do we compel someone to support it? 

Denouncing someone for his views is kosher. But intimidation and coercion - including the kind of economic coercion that threatens jobs and livelihoods - are censorship, however you spin it.

O-kay. Let’s see if I have thisstraight. Coercing the writers and performers of a show by threatening towithdraw advertising is censorship. Coercing an advertiser to go on financing ashow whose content or ideas the advertiser rejects is not censorship. And whatabout the  tactic of shouting down a speaker (a hate crime if the termhas any meaning at all)? 

Free expression has been held toinclude actions as well as words. Burning a flag is free speech. So iscontributing to a political campaign. So, however, is refusing to contributeeconomically to causes you reject. I have a feeling Vincent and others like herwould have no problem with economic clout as a form of free speech if it wasused mostly for causes she endorses.

Dropouts to the Rescue!

John Balzar, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, wrote a column onJanuary 15, 2002 titled Blaming Baggage Checkers is Missing the Point. Hedefended a proposal to allow airline security checkers to demonstrate workexperience in lieu of a high school diploma:

Once again, blame rolls downhill. Who's at fault for September 11? Well, we've got to look beyond the airlines, which fought security upgrades tooth and nail. Beyond the government, which ignored its own warnings about the porous system. Beyond the low-bid contractors, whose orders were to keep the lines moving. Beyond ourselves, always in a hurry and looking for the cheapest fare.

Nope, the real villains, it appears, were the people who wear those ill-fitting company blazers at the checkpoints. The ones who didn't have high school diplomas. They let the box cutters slip through because, well, you know. They were dropouts.

First of all, under the rules in place on September 11, none of the hijackerswould have been stopped at all. I used to carry a Swiss Army knife all the time,even on airliners. I once asked a security checker about it. He held up theblade to his badge and said it passed - it was three inches long. It was feltthat a lone hijacker with a Swiss Army knife would not pose an insuperablethreat. Even at the time I had my doubts - I can think of lots of ways to doserious damage with a Swiss Army knife. But a box cutter, with a blade only aninch or so long, would certainly have passed. Nobody anticipated an assault bymultiple hijackers who started out by deliberately inflicting injuries for shockvalue, and nobody anticipated the use of airplanes as missiles.

What really killed thousands on September 11 was the rule that hijackers werenot to be resisted. Undoubtedly, the passengers on the planes that hit theWorld Trade Center and the Pentagon assumed, until it was too late, they were inmerely for a detour and a tedious wait while negotiations dragged on. Thepassengers on Flight 93, who knew the plane was likely to crash anyway, acteddifferently.

The security checkers catch the blame because guess what - they're the peopledirectly responsible for catching violators. Congressmen don't do it, airlineexecutives don't do it, contractors and customers don't do it.

Probably it wouldn't do much harm to hire former dropouts who had establisheda good work record. But what really elevates Balzar's column from the mundane tothe sublimely stupid is this passage:

About one-quarter of our young people drop out of high school, according to the National Center for Education ... Are they all incompetents? All incapable of responsibility? Are they all stone stupid?

This one is easy. Yes to all the above. Start with stupid. Consider someoneliving in a high tech society that provides twelve years of free education, butdrops out because of lack of interest or motivation or because of peer pressure,or makes a lifestyle choice like getting arrested, addicted or pregnant thatprevents the student from completing an education. What part of stupid doesn'tapply here? What reason is there to suspect any such person is capable ofresponsibility? Incompetent speaks for itself. Even someone who does completehigh school is marginally qualified to function in society; someone who dropsout simply lacks the competence to do anything useful. 

In a complex society like ours, nobody at all needs unskilled, unmotivatedworkers. Some dropouts may prove themselves later on. But until then, we haveevery reason to consider them stupid, irresponsible, and incompetent.

And what about our immigrants, those people with the gumption to get here but maybe not the pedigree it took to get into high school back home?

Balzar deliberately muddles the discussion by lumping together people wholacked the opportunity to attend school through no fault of their own versus those who had it but turned itdown through their own selfishness and arrogance.

Different parents, different luck, some dropouts would have gone on to college.

Note the complete lack of reference to personal responsibility. Withdifferent parents I'd have been in line for the British throne or had a billiondollars. So what? We haveto play the hand we're dealt.

We can't trust these people? Then how come we give them driver's licenses?

Good question. I personally believe you shouldn't get one until you have ahigh school diploma. It might help provide relevance to those who find education"irrelevant."

Thomas Edison never even started high school. Dave Thomas, the celebratedWendy's hamburger entrepreneur who died Tuesday, never finished.

More apples and oranges. Comparing the situation of people who were of schoolage decades ago and longer with that of present-day dropouts is flat-outhistorical illiteracy. It's preposterous to compare people who dropped out ofschool because of economic necessity years ago with those who drop out for thefrivolous reasons of today's dropouts (yes, I define high-school sex, drugs,peer pressure, lack of motivation or interest, and crime as frivolous reasons).Besides, Edison's lack of education showed more than once in his failure tofollow up on observations that might have led to inventions that were latermade by others.

What's with the Los Angeles Times? Are they trying to see if they canget a Pulitzer for Really Stupid Editorials? One dumb column is a mistake, twosuggests an emerging pattern.

What unites both these columns is the notion that true freedom entailsfreedom from consequences, and that society has an obligation to remove adverseconsequences for dumb decisions.

"Torture" at Guantanamo

The latest September 11 goofiness has to do with this picture taken at Guantanamo showing Al-Qaida prisoners in a holding area. A number of human rights activists were quick to cite the picture as evidence the captives are being abused.

Note that neither of the U.S. guards is in contact with the captives and neither is armed. That is probably a security precaution in case the captives attempt to overpower the guards.

So what exactly is the evidence of abuse? The captives are restrained because they're dangerous. Are they being forced to kneel in an uncomfortable position? Most are resting back on their heels. The captive at right front is clearly sitting.

Darcy Christen, spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross,came up with this truly appalling example of misinformation:"I would consider this  incompatible with the Geneva Convention.'' The Third Geneva Convention on prisoners of warforbids the exposing of captives ''to public curiosity.''

The Convention forbids practices like those during the U.S. Civil War, whensome entrepreneurs built viewing platforms so curiosity seekers could look overstockade walls at Confederate prisoners. It also forbids putting prisoners ondisplay.

If these photographs violate the Geneva Convention, so do every photo essayon prisoner of war camps for the last fifty years.

In a January 18, 2002 editorial Quit bellyaching about prisoners, theChicago Sun-Times contributed a welcome breath of fresh air with thiscomment:

But your own soldiers are not going to turn around and kill you. The Geneva
convention was designed for the humane treatment of soldiers who surrender--who stop fighting--not impassioned fanatics with a track record of savaging captors.

The prison riots staged by Al-Qaida in Afghanistan show clearly that Al-Qaidaprisoners consider themselves still to be combatants. By the way, soldiers havea right to try to escape, but they have no right at all to break the law in theprocess. If an escaping prisoner kills a guard, he will be tried for murder; ifhe steals a car, he will be tried for auto theft. It happened to German escapeesin the U.S. during World War II. I can hardly wait to see the commentary when anAl-Qaida prisoner is put on trial for a crime committed at Guantanamo.

Rights of Combatants?

Just to show that Los Angeles has no monopoly on fuzzy thinking, CharlesLevendosky of the Casper, Wyoming Star-Tribune wrote this on December 11,2002:

Apparently, once a person is labeled an enemy combatant that person has noconstitutional rights and can be killed without warning or justification or evenwithout any pretense of preventing an attack.

I often suspected that people who called for a "war" on drugs orcrime didn't have a clue what they were asking. This proves it.

Duuhhh, yes. Once a person is labeled an enemy combatant that person can bekilled without warning. That's the definition of a combatant. You do not have towait for an enemy soldier to shoot at you before shooting at him. Once acombatant is taken prisoner, he remains a prisoner until the conflict is over oran exchange is arranged. There is no habeas corpus here. If you don'twant to take those risks, don't be a combatant. Surrender, run away, or desert.

You are a combatant if you are engaged in directly supporting an enemy'sarmed forces. Merchant vessels supplying an army are legitimate targets even ifthey are crewed by civilians. A cook, a supply clerk, and a staff officer areall fair targets even if they're not actively carrying weapons.

And that brings us to the subject of this story. The CIA used a missile tokill the top al-Qaida operative in Yemen, Qaed al-Harethi. An American citizen,Kamal Derwish, was in the car and was also killed. He was later alleged to beleader of an al-Qaida cell in the U.S. President Bush later authorized the CIAto attack other American citizens who are believed to be working with al-Qaida.

An American who is identified as an enemy combatant can be tried for treason.That, specifically, is in the constitution. In all conflicts there havebeen at least a few Americans who have gone over to the other side. Theyimmediately become legitimate military targets when they do. There was a mini-hysteria a few years ago over allegations that the U.S. Armed Forces in Vietnam specifically hunted American deserters who were now fighting for the other side. Well, of course. We had every right to.

The rules of war require efforts to minimize innocent casualties. Taking outthe car on a desert road is vastly preferable to destroying al-Harethi's homealong with his family and innocent neighbors. Maybe Derwish was a hitchhiker inthe wrong place at the wrong time, but get real. He was in the car because hewas planning an al-Qaida operation.

The mere presence of non-combatants doesn't preclude an attack for a verysimple reason: armed forces could insulate themselves from attack by hidingbehind civilians. Even if Tom Brokaw had been in the car interviewing al-Harethi,it would still have been a legitimate military target. Wartime journalism isdangerous.

Combatants are entitled to protection under the laws of war if they arehelpless and not actively engaged in combat: pilots in parachutes, sailors inlifeboats, wounded and prisoners. "Not engaged in combat" is critical:a wounded soldier who is still fighting, or a prisoner attempting to escape orlead an uprising is fair game. Enemy paratroopers engaged in an assault are fairgame while in the air. If you're encumbered or immobilized by attacking throughdeep water, mud or snow, you are still fair game. And if you're in a car becauseyou are planning an al-Qaida operation, you are fair game.

Habeas Corpus

Habeas corpus is a truly weird Latin construction that literally means "you shall have the body." It originally meant that rulers had to produce detainees alive and well.

Article I, section 9 of the Constitution states:

The privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.

Habeas Corpus has been suspended in previous wars, though the courts have limited the suspension only to places where the civilian courts are not functioning, or where Congress has specified it. The important point is that the Constitution specifically allows for the suspension of Habeas Corpus. And it is not called a right, but a privilege.

The Framers of the Constitution planned ahead for a lot of things, but they didn't see the possibility of terrorism. "Rebellion or Invasion" pretty much covered the range of active military threats they could envision on home soil. They didn't picture a world where people on the other side of the planet could plan and execute attacks on the territory of the United States. There cannot be the slightest doubt they'd have enumerated terrorism if they'd known of it.

And as for combatants captured in military actions, there has never been Habeas Corpus for them. They stay behind the wire until hostilities are over or until they are released.

You Can't Make This Stuff Up

Take Holland, a country that gave the world the microscope and telescope in the 17th century and the needle park in the 20th, a nation full of apologists seemingly bent on undoing the Western civilization their ancestors worked so prodigiously to build.

Mix in the Catholic Church, an organization flailing aimlessly between liberal and conservative positions in a desperate effort to find somebody on its side ....

Two rudderless ships.

And voila, you get Tiny Muskens, the bishop of Breda, who urged in August 2007 that Catholic churches in the Netherlands should use the name Allah for God to ease tensions between Muslims and Christians. This is so silly on so many counts one hardly knows where to begin. Linguistics is a good place. Arabic speaking Christians also call God Allah, and broadly speaking, Judaism, Christianity and Islam share important ideas in common about God. So Allah is the word for God in Arabic. If you're a Catholic describing your beliefs in Arabic, using Allah for God is perfectly accurate and proper. Using it in some other country when there are perfectly good words in that country's language is about like American bishops deciding that, in order to make Hispanics feel welcome, American Catholics should start calling God Dios.

Using the present Arabic word Allah, however, is just plain silly. Using the Hebrew names El-Shaddai or Yahweh is far more historically correct since they predate the origins of both Christianity and Islam, except the ancient Jews held that the name Yahweh should never be spoken. More correct still would be to find the word for God in Proto-Semitic or even Nostratic. The Proto-Semitic word is something like "ilah," close to "Allah."

And here's where the divisions start. Moderate Muslims are no more bothered by English speakers saying "God" than sane Christians are bothered by them using "Allah." But militant Muslims insist that the Arabic of the Koran is the definitive form of Arabic, and Allah is the only correct name of God. And their definition of God includes him giving the Koran to Mohammed as the only correct word of God. So moderate Muslims won't be offended at others using their own language's word for God, and militant Muslims won't be placated by anything lass than conversion.

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