. . . or the terrorists win.

Earlier this week (Source NYT 09/27/04), William Safire at the end of a long discussion of the terrorist kidnappings buried an interesting version of Krauthammer’s argument against Kerry’s foreign policy credentials. Unlike Krauthammer’s relatively transparent ad hominem fallacy, Safire’s deserves careful evaluation (Mouthpiece for the terrorists? and If it walks like a duck). It is a masterful blend of innuendo and nuanced accusation–far subtler than Krauthammer’s claim that the Kerry campaign is “saying the same thing” as the terrorists. Even more importantly, this argument has surfaced lately in a speech by the Vice President as a piece of the administration’s argument against Kerry’s foreign policy qualification.

Perhaps Safire was reading his Jean Baudrillard last weekend and decided to devote his column to the interesting way in which terrorism implicates the media in its very effects. As Baudrillard (among many others I am sure) argued years ago, terrorism is “spectacular.” Its primary effects occur not within the “real,” but rather within the “imaginary” or “symbolic.” These effects, however, can only stretch as far as the “events” can be communicated. Thus, the media becomes, whether wittingly or unwittingly, complicit in the very strategy of the terrorists. The media, of course, are caught in a double bind since they have an obligation to present the events.

Safire is content with the usual position on this difficult problem:

  • “Nobody should order reporters and editors to ‘downplay’ a gut-wrenching human interest story. . ..”
  • “But responsible journalists should consider the wisdom of allowing media-savvy terrorists to play them like a violin.”
  • “So do we have to become conduits for this grisly, real-death kidnap choreography? We are obliged to report it, but we need not go along with the terrorist propaganda in milking the most horror out of it.”

It’s safe to reject the obviously wrong alternatives: censorship or becoming the media arm of al Qaeda. But things are more complicated when we are not dealing with the media’s obligation to report, but with the political use of these kidnapping in the election.

>John Kerry, who has evidently decided to replace Howard Dean as the antiwar candidate, last weekend helped to magnify the terrorists’ kidnap weapon. In a scheduled commercial Kerry personally approved, just before charging that George Bush had no plan to get us out of Iraq, the Democratic campaign underscored the message Zarqawi has been sending: “Americans,” said Kerry’s announcer, “are being kidnapped, held hostage, even beheaded.”

>Though undoubtedly accurate, that paid evocation of horror by a political candidate is a terrible blunder. That’s the sort of emotional appeal you would expect from President Gloria Arroyo of the Philippines who pulled 51 troops out of Iraq, caving to the demand of kidnappers, emboldening them to grab fresh victims.

While the media may be obligated to present a sanitized and non-sensationalistic account of the kidnappings, the use of the same images in a campaign ad “magnif[ies] the terrorist kidnap weapon.” The accuracy of the ad is not contested, nor does Safire claim that it “sensationalizes” the facts, so instead he suggests that this use of the fact is a “terrible blunder.” (And we might do best to leave aside the slightly repellant taste of sexism lingering in the comparison of this statement of fact to the “emotional appeal” of President Arroyo, which I take to be a suggestion that Kerry is a woman.) What Safire needs here is a clear reason why it is wrong (or a “blunder”) for the Kerry campaign to state this fact but it is right for the media to report this fact.

>It’s bad enough for some thoughtless media outlets to become an echo chamber for scare propaganda; it’s worse when the nominee of a major party approves its use to press his antiwar candidacy.

>We are dealing with the most brutal propaganda weapon yet devised. Strong governments counter it by refusing to pay money or policy ransom to the kidnap-killers. Nonpartisan media’s response should be to report the events conscious of manipulation and not to overlook the reaction of Iraqi and worldwide Muslim disgust.

So Safire might argue that it isn’t the simple reporting of the facts in the ad, but the connection of these facts with the implicit conclusion–“therefore, we should withdraw,” or “therefore Bush has made mistakes.” It is their use as a means to Kerry’s political goal that is troubling for Safire. But, it is not at all clear why Safire thinks Kerry is not obligated or at least entitled to draw from these facts the prudential inference that it may not be in our interest to continue to occupy Iraq.

The only suggestion Safire makes is that this is the same thing as the terrorists want, and so in drawing this inference we are agreeing with the terrorists. Both my colleague and I have analyzed this equivocation in the Krauthammer’s earlier editorial. This argument at least as it stands is silly.

It is, at the same time, perplexingly seductive and disentangling precisely why is difficult. It seems to involve the presupposition: “accepting terrorist demands is in the long term against our interest.” If we negotiate with terrorists or accept their demands then we suggest to others that this tactic can be effective and this will then lead to more terrorism. Terrorists, thus, can only be fought. This further seems to imply, for many, that once a group adopts terrorist tactics their goals, whatever they may be, must be rejected as well. To agree to the goal is to condone the tactic. So even if it is in our interest to withdraw from Iraq, we cannot because this would be “letting the terrorists win.” We do not probably need the horror at Beslan to show us why this argument can lead to perverse results and thus to give us pause in accepting it. Too often it is used as part of a “false dichotomy” that suggests anything but attacking and fighting terrorists is capitulating. Certainly, this is how Safire is using the argument.

Ultimately, this argument is part of the ad hominem argument against Kerry’s fitness for the presidency: Kerry cannot be trusted because either he is so reckless as to put his own election efforts above the safety of the U.S., or because this reveals the willingness to capitulate to or even endorse the terrorist demands. Calling it an ad hominem argument is not to say that it is fallacious. If it were the case, or if Safire could provide reason to believe that Kerry is either complicit in the terrorist strategies against the U.S., or that he cynically uses tragedy (like say the 9/11 attack) to pursue his own political goals, then we would have good reason to question his fitness for the presidency. Ad hominem arguments are only fallacious when the claims about a person are not logically relevant to the conclusion being drawn from them.

I do not want to suggest that there is nothing in Safire’s concerns. There are certainly difficult questions involving the place and use of the media in times of war and especially terrorism. And there are also difficult and important questions about the character traits that each of our candidates possesses. But, in the final analysis it seems to me Safire stretches a legitimate question about terrorism and the media in order to make it serve his ad hominem argument against Kerry.

One thought on “. . . or the terrorists win.”

  1. To what degree are the character traits of our beloved candidates actually relevant? They seem grossly overestimated in their importance, especially since we all know that the president does very little beyond his role as a mouthpiece for unsubstantiated rhetoric. Aside from this point of opinion, I think it is also useful to point out in Safire’s article his use of “strong” in describing a government’s position in not giving in to terrorist demands, no matter what the cost. The weak governments, therefore, will compromise for the lives of their own people out of respect for human life, a seemingly feminine quality. In any case, love you, love your show.

Comments are closed.