Spectacularly Stupid Commentaries on September 11, 2001

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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There have been innumerable articles written about the events of September 11, 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 the result 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 let states secede from the Union by force. Pearl Harbor was the result of U.S. policies - we refused to sell materiel to the Japanese to support their war in China. World War II was the result of U.S. policies - we refused to let Hitler dominate Europe. And the attacks of September 11 were the result of U.S. policies - we refuse to abandon Israel and stop creating change in the world. The fallacy in this 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 a reason." 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 reason valid.

We Had to Destroy Free Speech to Save It

Norah Vincent, in a special to the Los Angeles Times on November 13, 2001 called Consequences of Politically Incorrect Opinions, argued that opponents of the war in Afghanistan have the right to speak out without consequence. 

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 exercise your right to protest as long as you restrict it to innocuous methods that the target is free to ignore. Would she extend this principle to, say, economic boycotts, like the one blacks mounted to remove the Confederate flag from southern state capitols? Or how about the way gays terminated Anita Bryant's career after she opposed gay-rights legislation? I suspect not. I suspect, if we could tiptoe through the tulips in her mind, we’d find Vincent professing a patchwork of ad hoc rules all designed to allow her favorite 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 printing press. Even in the worst case, had Maher’s show been taken off the air, he could make use of written statements (why not? - they were supposed to have been sufficient for his advertisers), cable TV, the Internet. Sure, he’d have taken a big hit in income and fame, but the First Amendment guarantees neither of those.

Or here’s a radical idea. Norah Vincent can mobilize support and raise the money to keep Maher’s show on the air 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 most mind-boggling statement of 2001. We preserve the First Amendment by depriving people of the right to use their resources to protest speech they don’t endorse. This is the typical approach of the civil libertarian - protect the rights 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 the advertisers decide to bail out at the end of the contract period, do we forcibly prevent them? If they all bail out and nobody fills the gap, do we send a press gang armed with a burlap bag and baseball bats to Madison Avenue and coerce someone to sponsor the show? (I favor sending gangs armed with baseball bats to Madison Avenue in any case. They can especially whack anyone connected with the current trend of showing gross eating habits in commercials.) Suppose a new show comes along but can't attract advertisers? 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 this straight. Coercing the writers and performers of a show by threatening to withdraw advertising is censorship. Coercing an advertiser to go on financing a show whose content or ideas the advertiser rejects is not censorship. And what about the  tactic of shouting down a speaker (a hate crime if the term has any meaning at all)? 

Free expression has been held to include actions as well as words. Burning a flag is free speech. So is contributing to a political campaign. So, however, is refusing to contribute economically to causes you reject. I have a feeling Vincent and others like her would have no problem with economic clout as a form of free speech if it was used mostly for causes she endorses.

Dropouts to the Rescue!

John Balzar, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, wrote a column on January 15, 2002 titled Blaming Baggage Checkers is Missing the Point. He defended a proposal to allow airline security checkers to demonstrate work experience 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 hijackers would 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 the blade to his badge and said it passed - it was three inches long. It was felt that a lone hijacker with a Swiss Army knife would not pose an insuperable threat. Even at the time I had my doubts - I can think of lots of ways to do serious damage with a Swiss Army knife. But a box cutter, with a blade only an inch or so long, would certainly have passed. Nobody anticipated an assault by multiple hijackers who started out by deliberately inflicting injuries for shock value, and nobody anticipated the use of airplanes as missiles.

What really killed thousands on September 11 was the rule that hijackers were not to be resisted. Undoubtedly, the passengers on the planes that hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon assumed, until it was too late, they were in merely for a detour and a tedious wait while negotiations dragged on. The passengers on Flight 93, who knew the plane was likely to crash anyway, acted differently.

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

Probably it wouldn't do much harm to hire former dropouts who had established a good work record. But what really elevates Balzar's column from the mundane to the 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 someone living in a high tech society that provides twelve years of free education, but drops out because of lack of interest or motivation or because of peer pressure, or makes a lifestyle choice like getting arrested, addicted or pregnant that prevents the student from completing an education. What part of stupid doesn't apply here? What reason is there to suspect any such person is capable of responsibility? Incompetent speaks for itself. Even someone who does complete high school is marginally qualified to function in society; someone who drops out simply lacks the competence to do anything useful. 

In a complex society like ours, nobody at all needs unskilled, unmotivated workers. Some dropouts may prove themselves later on. But until then, we have every 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 who lacked the opportunity to attend school through no fault of their own versus those who had it but turned it down 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. With different parents I'd have been in line for the British throne or had a billion dollars. So what? We have to 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 a high school diploma. It might help provide relevance to those who find education "irrelevant."

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

More apples and oranges. Comparing the situation of people who were of school age decades ago and longer with that of present-day dropouts is flat-out historical illiteracy. It's preposterous to compare people who dropped out of school because of economic necessity years ago with those who drop out for the frivolous 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 to follow up on observations that might have led to inventions that were later made by others.

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

What unites both these columns is the notion that true freedom entails freedom from consequences, and that society has an obligation to remove adverse consequences 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 war forbids the exposing of captives ''to public curiosity.''

The Convention forbids practices like those during the U.S. Civil War, when some entrepreneurs built viewing platforms so curiosity seekers could look over stockade walls at Confederate prisoners. It also forbids putting prisoners on display.

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

In a January 18, 2002 editorial Quit bellyaching about prisoners, the Chicago Sun-Times contributed a welcome breath of fresh air with this comment:

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-Qaida prisoners consider themselves still to be combatants. By the way, soldiers have a right to try to escape, but they have no right at all to break the law in the process. If an escaping prisoner kills a guard, he will be tried for murder; if he steals a car, he will be tried for auto theft. It happened to German escapees in the U.S. during World War II. I can hardly wait to see the commentary when an Al-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, Charles Levendosky of the Casper, Wyoming Star-Tribune wrote this on December 11, 2002:

Apparently, once a person is labeled an enemy combatant that person has no constitutional rights and can be killed without warning or justification or even without any pretense of preventing an attack.

I often suspected that people who called for a "war" on drugs or crime 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 be killed without warning. That's the definition of a combatant. You do not have to wait for an enemy soldier to shoot at you before shooting at him. Once a combatant is taken prisoner, he remains a prisoner until the conflict is over or an exchange is arranged. There is no habeas corpus here. If you don't want 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's armed forces. Merchant vessels supplying an army are legitimate targets even if they are crewed by civilians. A cook, a supply clerk, and a staff officer are all 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 to kill 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 be leader of an al-Qaida cell in the U.S. President Bush later authorized the CIA to 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 have been at least a few Americans who have gone over to the other side. They immediately 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 out the car on a desert road is vastly preferable to destroying al-Harethi's home along with his family and innocent neighbors. Maybe Derwish was a hitchhiker in the wrong place at the wrong time, but get real. He was in the car because he was planning an al-Qaida operation.

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

Combatants are entitled to protection under the laws of war if they are helpless and not actively engaged in combat: pilots in parachutes, sailors in lifeboats, wounded and prisoners. "Not engaged in combat" is critical: a wounded soldier who is still fighting, or a prisoner attempting to escape or lead an uprising is fair game. Enemy paratroopers engaged in an assault are fair game while in the air. If you're encumbered or immobilized by attacking through deep water, mud or snow, you are still fair game. And if you're in a car because you 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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Created 17 January 2002, Last Update 02 June 2010

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