March 2004
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Day March 11, 2004

Madrid Bombings and Standards of “Evidence”

Only a day after the Madrid train bombings, we have folks blaming it on al-Qaeda without any hard evidence (at least, any that’s been discussed publicly).  Instead, we have the press repeating past patterns of behavior as reasons why the ETA cannot be responsible and why al-Qaeda is the culprit. 

This is irresponsible, regardless of who ultimately is found to be the guilty party, because we’ve learned that public perceptions are shaped powerfully by what they hear in the first press reports about an event.  Those perceptions can then be used in service of someone’s agenda, regardless of facts.  Part of the justification for our attack on Iraq was (initially) allegations of a connection between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, evidence for which has been non-existent. 

Let’s secure ourselves and our allies from terrorism, but let’s make sure we know who we’re fighting first.  It’s irresponsible and incendiary to claim that one group or another “must” or “cannot” be responsible for the event, based not on hard forensic evidence but instead on “experts” discussing past patterns of behavior.  A sample of the idiocy seen in the UPI article yesterday:  “ETA has never in the past carried out multiple attacks.”  On the other hand, “multiple targeting” is “the standard operating procedure of the fundamentalist Islamist movement,” according to the World Observatory of Terrorism.  Thus, al-Qaeda is the more likely culprit. 

Don’t misread me here – I believe those who perpetrated the train bombing must be identified, caught, and held accountable for their crime.  The train bombings are deplorable – a hideous act of savagery perpetrated to make a point which will never be heard amidst the pain of the victims and the outrage of the “civilized” world.  

But is what we’re reading evidence?  As a hypothetical, let’s say a bank is robbed on a Thursday.  Criminals A and B are both suspected by the police, because each has robbed banks before.  A public statement is issued that the police have two suspects.  Criminal A has robbed banks on Tuesday and Friday, but never Thursday.  Criminal B has robbed banks on Monday and Thursday.  Thus, the press discusses Criminal B as the “likely” bank robber simply because the time of the robbery fits the available history.  

In a pure criminal case, we’d all call this “highly circumstantial” – at best, it’s a lead, not evidence.  Perhaps Criminal A noticed their own pattern and adopted a different one to throw everyone off the track.  Perhaps Criminal B did rob the bank.  Without fingerprints, security camera tapes, and other “hard” evidence, all we have is speculation.

Law enforcement and anti-terrorism experts will undoubtedly start finding real evidence as investigation of the train bombing continues.  Perhaps al-Qaeda is linked to this event, perhaps not.  But let’s see evidence, not speculation.  Speculation just gets us into trouble, since it can be used to push any agenda, without fear of contradiction.

New Bush/Cheney ads…

The newest suite of Bush/Cheney ads is up on their campaign website, and will air nationally within days. 

I would encourage Democrats, progressives, and folks who simply believe that lying is bad to watch both commercials, keeping a bucket close at hand…I was almost physically ill watching the “100 Days” advertisement, in which he accuses Kerry of wanting to raise taxes by $900 billion.  The commercials are a clever mix of truth and deception.

I suppose, by not precisely discussing the time period involved, that you can arrive at the $900 billion figure by taking Kerry’s plan to repeal the Bush tax cuts for the highest income bracket, and extending it through the 2012 lifetime of the current tax cuts….but clearly the ad is meant to be alarmist and scare ordinary citizens that some giant tax increase is coming down the pike all at once.  Yet, if asked pointed questions, the Administration will undoubtedly then tell us the details.  This correction will appear on page 12 of the daily newspaper, after “Kerry” and “$900 billion” appear on Page 1 the day before.

Bush and Rove are masters at this – manipulating data to scare people who don’t have the time, and in some cases, the subject matter background, to understand when they’re being told the truth and when it’s a load of crap.  For example, in the new ad “Forward,” he contrasts his agenda with Kerry’s:  “We can continue to work to create jobs, reform education, and lower the cost of health care.  Together, we’re moving America forward.” 

Huh?  Anybody who actually bothers to look at jobs data will find that job growth has been flat for months (the only real job growth in February was within the Federal government and not even much of that…).  “Reform education” might have some technical meaning I’m not aware of, but otherwise I think it is simply euphemism for “No dollars for No Child Left Behind,” and ask anyone you like about lowering the cost of health care.  For example, talk to anybody who’s been to a hospital and gotten a bill lately.  

The sad thing, in my view, is that it’s not easy to become informed about the issues.  I’ve worked pretty hard at it, but it means reading the news faithfully, NOT relying on TV news since you cannot learn details in 30 second headlines, reading books, and reading the best of Internet-based pundits and web logs.  I’m currently single, and I don’t have kids.  Even with a demanding job, I have spare time to educate myself about this stuff.  But it’s really time-consuming, and most people simply don’t have the time and inclination to dig deeply.

You have to work at it, which precludes many people who have strong demands on their time (for example: raising children, or working two jobs) through no fault of their own.  Democracy works as advertised when the voting public is well-informed and able to make choices based on understanding the issues.  When the voting public isn’t well-informed, or able to understand the details underlying the issues, then the process becomes easy to manipulate.  It’s as simple as that.

And that’s precisely why Bush and Rove can get away with telling outrageous lies.  They fully expect that a small fraction of people will see right through the half-truths, the manipulated data, and the artful exaggeration.  But if 90 or 95% of Americans don’t have time to delve into the issues or read the data for themselves, then “spinning” the headlines will work every time.  

George Orwell is rolling over in his grave, having brilliantly anticipated this precise issue.  To quote one of his best essays, Politics and the English Language (1946): 

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.  Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed by defended, by only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties.  Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging, and sheer cloudy vagueness.  

Sound like anybody we know?  The essay itself contains much else of relevance to our situation today; I will not continue quoting at length but instead recommend that you read it in its entirety.  

Read.  Inform yourself.  To quote a less reputable source:  “the truth is out there.”