Saturday, September 29, 2001

The Occidental Tourist - Dangerous Burba-lings from

One rarely has to wait long to enjoy those moments when blue chip publications print the worst sort of hogwash. Such was the case last week when the Wall Street Journal’s Opinion Journal Web site published a commentary by one Elisabetta Burba, an Italian lady who, we were warned, is a journalist.

Under the title "Whooping it Up: In Beirut, even Christians celebrated the atrocity," Burba wrote of her experiences in Lebanon, where she was visiting during the homicidal September 11 attacks against New York and Washington. Her argument, as the title suggests and as she wrote, was that "the offspring of [the] great [Phoenician] civilization were celebrating a terrorist outrage. And I am not talking about destitute people. Those who were cheering belonged to the elite of the Paris of the Middle East."

One can instantly spot the usual affliction of tourists visiting Lebanon, namely a fondness for obsolete clichés. Perhaps Burba hadn’t heard, but a 15-year war and over 100,000 deaths pretty much did in Beirut’s "Paris of the Middle East" reputation. But there is much more in her essay: In addition to the clichés, there is flimsy evidence, reliance on hearsay, and awe-inspiring laziness.

First, flimsy evidence. Our journalist has just heard news of the U.S. attacks: "[We] went into an America-style café in the Hamra district…rated as one of the most expensive shopping streets in the world…The café’s sophisticated clientele was celebrating, laughing, cheering and making jokes, as waiters served hamburgers and Diet Pepsi. Nobody looked shocked or moved. They were excited, very excited."

Forget for the moment that Burba’s guidebook prose merely recycles the pre-civil war description of a no-longer-opulent Hamra. It is her insistence that people were rejoicing at the attacks that is especially unconvincing. Couldn’t it be that they were laughing for some other reason? Burba doesn’t speak Arabic, so she wouldn’t know. Did failing to silently grieve for the U.S. victims mean the café’s patrons endorsed their collective murder? Alas, people, as Burba’s subsequent sightseeing in Lebanon showed, do go on functioning as before.

Then there is hearsay. Burba has a tendency to believe whatever she’s told, particularly when it squares with her preconceptions. Still reeling from her traumatic encounter with the happy throngs in Hamra, she asks "some moderate Arabs" if those approving of the attacks are a minority. The person answering spoke for many, Burba supinely explains, when he remarked: "Ninety percent of the Arab world believes that Americans got what they deserved."

But the high point of Burba’s laziness comes one evening when she is "in the Christian northern part of Beirut [and hears] some loud noises." Ever the intrepid reporter, Burba asks what the sounds are. Someone responds: "Probably they are celebrating the attacks." Burba is dumbfounded: "You mean the Maronite Christians are also celebrating?" "Yes," comes the answer, "they also feel betrayed by the Americans." Burba, naturally, swallows this hook, line, and sinker.

How both passages got by Opinion Journal's editors is astonishing. This isn’t news. It’s not even propaganda. What we have here is the chambermaid exchanging gossip with the milkman. One need not even bother picking the passages apart, they are so poor, their assumptions so shaky, the author’s gullibility, or bad faith, so pervasive. But then Burba’s article is a veritable forest of such commentary. One can devote an evening listing her errors, and invite friends in to participate.

At this stage, two warnings are in order. The point here is not to target a dreadful piece of writing, nor even chastise Opinion Journal for publishing something so simplistic, but to engage in self-defense. There is a sincere belief in the U.S. that the Lebanese were fully behind the air attacks. When the attitude in Washington is "You are against us if you are not with us," irresponsible pieces like Burba’s are downright dangerous.

There is also the matter of distributing collective responsibility. Undoubtedly, there were people in Lebanon happy with the mass murders in Washington and New York. There were even a few in the U.S. who applauded them -- and that's not even including such serial cretins as Jerry Falwell, who interpreted the attacks as divine intervention to punish the extravagances of sinful Americans. However, extending such alleged approval to Lebanese society as a whole is not only a no-no in serious journalism, it is factually wrong.

Many Lebanese watched with horror what took place on September 11, and they did so because many of them knew, or feared they knew, people in and around the World Trade Center. There were ceremonies in Beirut to honor the victims, and the U.S. embassy welcomed many people presenting their condolences. There are countless Lebanese living in the U.S., and countless others here who await -- and who will now have to wait for much longer -- a chance to follow them.

I assume that Burba knew she wouldn’t have much of a story if she described the nuances in Lebanese reaction to the attacks. She knew Opinion Journal would likely not run a piece that banally argued how divided an Arab society could be over the horrendous loss of life in the U.S.

Good for you Signora Burba. Though you used fraudulent means, you sold your piece. Bravissima!

Thursday, September 20, 2001

Glory Days for Government

As Operation Infinite Justice gets underway, the war drums are beating across the land and a battle will surely come, although we know neither when nor what particular form it will take. Only this much is certain: Though our government didn't bring on last week's terrorist attacks and everyone in Washington would certainly give plenty for them not to have occurred, war is a great friend of the state. In such troubled times, people look to the federal government for action and assurance. To get predictions about what we might expect to happen this time around, I checked in with economic historian Robert Higgs, whose book Crisis And Leviathan (1987) insightfully chronicled how national crises in the 20th century consistently helped grow the size and scope of our federal government. Higgs is a senior fellow in political economy at the Independent Institute and editor of the institute's quarterly journal, The Independent Review.

Robert Higgs: In a nutshell, it's that when a crisis of major significance occurs--something as large-scale and pervasive as the Great Depression or the World Wars--there's an overwhelming public demand for government to act. In the 20th century, every national emergency has seen federal government take unprecedented action to somehow allay the perceived threat to our security. These actions have taken a great many forms, but the common denominator is that they all entail the increased exercise of power by government over society and the economy. When the crisis ends, many of the emergency actions cease. But not all of them. Each emergency ratchets up the size and scope of the federal government. In some cases, agencies that had a very strict relation to the emergency transform to take on new missions.

REASON: What's an example of an agency that transformed itself?

Higgs: The War Finance Corporation in World War I was created to provide funds for various munitions enterprises. When the war ended, the War Finance Corporation turned to financing agricultural cooperatives and the export of agricultural products to Europe. It lived on until 1925. In 1932, it was revived to bail out railroads and other big companies that were going bankrupt during the Great Depression. During World War II, it was used for a multitude of new missions, including building new defense plants and stockpiling defense materials. When it was finally abolished in the 1950s because of scandals, it was immediately recreated in part as the Small Business Administration, which itself has taken on a variety of tasks over time.

REASON: Are the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon a large enough crisis to feed Leviathan?

Higgs: It's a big enough perceived emergency to cause the government to extend into areas it may not have moved into so quickly, particularly surveillance of ordinary citizens and ordinary locations where people might congregate for business or recreational purposes.

REASON: Is it appropriate for individuals to worry about government expanding at this time?

Higgs: It's extremely appropriate because historically, a large proportion of all government expansion has taken place as an emergency or crisis action. It's precisely under conditions such as those that exist at present that we ought to worry the most about the expansion of government.

REASON: What ought we to look for this time?

Higgs: We can expect thousands of reservists to be called to active duty and taken away from their ordinary jobs. We can expect the assignment of military forces to some unprecedented duties. It appears that some military units are going to be used for domestic police activities. It is clearly going to be the case that the FBI will become far more active in surveillance activities. The government will mount a variety of overseas actions requiring the armed forces, and perhaps a number of civilian employees, to attempt to kill, to disable, or to damage what are taken to be terrorist camps, facilities, or cadres. It is also fairly clear that the government is going to have to bail out the airline industry and maybe the insurance industry. When the government takes large-scale, unprecedented actions of this sort, unanticipated consequences always occur. Then the government has to expand even further to deal with those consequences.

REASON: Civil liberties always take a beating in war. Do the restrictions recede after wars are over?

Higgs: The civil liberties violations during the World Wars were, for the most part, abandoned after the wars, but not entirely. But they left institutional residues and changes in public attitudes and outlooks that could be exploited afterward. For example, it's pretty clear that World War I hysteria directed at the Germans was later directed at individuals caught up in the so-called Red Scare. People were already in a high state of excitement about "un-Americanism." That was instrumental in the ability of the government to persecute, deport, and otherwise harm a number of foreigners who were in the country at that time. The FBI expanded during World War II. After the war, FBI activities were often directed at dissident political factions, especially in the 1960s. Wars have increased state power both directly and indirectly. I've been talking about fairly direct ways in which the government changed opinions and institutions to enable it to do new things after a crisis ended. But a very important way in which both World Wars enlarged the power of government was through the effect on government budgets. We can see that same effect operating now. Governments at war spend much more money than they otherwise would. In doing so, normal constraints on government spending are broken--particularly people's attitudes about the importance of balancing the budget or belief that no more than x dollars ought to be spent for a certain purpose. Both World Wars caused the size of government relative to Gross Domestic Product to take a jump up and there was never retrenchment to the relative levels before the wars. We see something similar in the current episode. Until recently, there was a great deal of political struggle over not spending the supposed Social Security surplus. As soon as the crisis burst forth, that concern evaporated. Congress gave the president twice as much money as he asked for when he went in for an emergency appropriation. That is pretty much in character with past crises. Fiscal constraints break down very quickly in the face of perceived emergency conditions.

REASON: What's the nature of the coming crisis?

Higgs: The whole concept of wiping out terrorism is completely misguided. It simply can't be done. Terrorism is a simple act for any determined adult to perpetrate no matter what kind of security measures are taken. I suspect that after the government finishes making its show [of force] in the next few weeks, it will only inspire new acts of terrorism--if not immediately, then eventually. If the government was really serious about diminishing the amount of effective terrorist acts, it would set about creating a global corps of truly unsavory informants on the ground. But it's never shown in the past that it's had the wit to do that. I don't expect it to have the wit to do it this time. I expect to see a lot of huffing and puffing, calling up troops, dropping bombs and missiles, and maybe this time even sending in special forces for attacks on one group or another. But this is all politics. It's not going to make a dent in the genuine threat of terrorism.

REASON: What do you expect in terms of Leviathan at the end of the day?

Higgs: The ultimate result will be an enlargement of the Big Brother state. We were moving that way already. This will accelerate it.

Wednesday, September 12, 2001

What's the Message? - Deciphering terrorist actions that have no clear political objectives

Beirut -- The first images from the Middle East following the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks showed Palestinian refugees exulting. However, assuming a Middle East angle to the attacks, there was a more compelling story from the region than what was, for all its crudeness, celebration by a defeated people for a perceived victory against an uncaring foe. The story was that the perpetrators of the attacks offered the U.S. no obvious message as regards its activities in the Middle East.

Particularly since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has had to face frequent and contradictory accusations that it meddles excessively in international affairs, and that it doesn't meddle enough. This paradoxical reaction has been at the heart of Arab displeasure with the Bush administration in recent months. Many Arabs have openly criticized what they deemed overbearing U.S. behavior in the region, particularly towards Iraq, while also demanding a new administration initiative to resolve the ongoing war between Palestinians and Israelis.

This paradox can be easily explained away by the Arabs' desire to see what they consider a more balanced U.S. attitude towards the Palestinians. However, it leads to an absurdity in the case of the airline attacks -- particularly regarding the explanation that they were designed to protest U.S. policy in the Middle East. Arab states may be appalled at U.S. unconcern, but the attackers were in no way demanding greater U.S. involvement in the region. Indeed, exactly the opposite was the case. That was why the U.S. was left deciphering actions that had no clear political objectives.

This alone differentiated Tuesday's hijackings from those organized by Palestinian organizations in the late 1960s and '70s, or militant Islamic movements in the 1980s. The earlier operations were carried out to secure the release of prisoners, earn ransoms, or enhance the political influence of the perpetrators. Their architects not only sought well-defined ends, but also usually were more than eager to identify themselves.

The airline attacks are far more difficult to read. They seem to have no explicit aim, though that did not mean they had no aim whatsoever: The U.S. was humiliated, the president was, for several hours, barred from his own capital and compelled to flee to the security of a Nebraska bunker. The World Trade Center's twin towers and the Pentagon -- bywords for U.S. economic and military might -- were literally demolished. And nightmares of U.S. vulnerability, reminiscent of the science fiction films of the 1950s (themselves representations of the Communist threat), became real.

Still, what this meant for the Middle East was ambiguous. The Bush administration must not only retaliate against an enemy it does not really know, it must interpret actions that make little political sense -- beyond a desire to maximize death and destruction. That's because the likely U.S. responses can only further anger those behind the attacks. The U.S. will, initially at least, reinforce its relationship with Israel; and might, ultimately, be encouraged to return in force to the region to help solve a Palestinian-Israeli conflict dangerously augmenting Arab antipathy towards the U.S.

The ultimate crime is the one committed for no reason. When an act cannot be explained it is infinitely more menacing. What then of a crime sending contradictory messages? The Bush administration finds itself in a quandary in the Middle East, but doesn't know which policy to adopt in order to reduce its risk. More involvement or less? Which should it be? The attackers wouldn't say.