December 20, 2010
High-tech terrorism or low-tech fear mongering?
To paraphrase H.L Mencken, no one ever went broke underestimating how low a politician will go to gain an advantage. Exhibit A: Vice President Joseph Biden, who likens Wikileaks honcho Julian Assange to a "high-tech terrorist." What a nice marriage of images. Especially for those of us old enough to recall poor Clarence Thomas who, when charged with sexual harassment in his Supreme Court confirmation hearing, so deftly turned defense into offense by calling the accusations a "high-tech lynching for uppity blacks." Now that terrorism is the new communism, why shouldn't everyone the government wants to vilify be labeled a terrorist? Here's a reason. Doing it with communism, which is an idea but not a crime, was bad enough. It trashed constitutional rights, ruined lives and fueled national divisions that clouded our ability to distinguish, and act rationally about, perceived and real threats. It was also Sen. Joe McCarthy’s vehicle to get an “ism” named after him for using baseless fear-mongering as a resume builder. Doing it with terrorism gives you all the above, but wait, there's more! Human Rights First has already noted its concerns, here and here, about the damage to freedom of expression that comes with the territory of piling on against Wikileaks. Terrorism is not just an idea or a theory. It is conduct designed to terrorize by scattering significant numbers of unsuspecting and innocent civilians' body parts over a large area. We may already have gone beyond a point of no return by irrationally equating all terrorism with war and describing all terrorists as enemy combatants - a clearly foolish thing to do since terrorists crave nothing more than to be seen as warriors rather than war criminals, or what is more typically the case, just plain old mass murderers. Congress’s decision this week to prevent federal criminal prosecution of Guantanamo detainees is a piece of this package - a bold contribution to fear-mongering at the expense of national security and accountability. By calling a guy who publishes classified documents a terrorist Biden dilutes the meaning of the term. By the same token, absent evidence that Assange somehow participated in the initial leak of classified documents, every news organization, web site and dinner conversationalist who publishes or cites these materials is also now a terrorist. What's worse, this dilution diverts our attention from the task of fighting the true phenomenon that is terrorism. On this point, I'd say you're either with us or against us, Mr. Vice-President. You could ask the boss to send a predator drone after Julian Assange (kinda like he jokingly threatened to do to any young whippersnapper who looks at his daughter the wrong way - ha, ha, ha). Or you could retract if you truly respect the seriousness of what terrorism is, what its victims suffer, and that the way to fight it is through appeals to reason, not bluster.