Significance for the Long Run: Developments Last Week

I'm continually bemused by the naiveté of journalism and its fatuous language. When the supposedly educated men and women who pump out this drivel speak to one another in private do they not acknowledge the corrupted phrases which are their stock in trade? How can they not? But if they do, how can they continue? My thoughts were driven once again to this topic by noting on the cover of a leading political journal a lead about innocent people killed in war. Is that supposed to suggest that there are also non-innocent , and therefore guilty, people killed by warfare? Is the young American marine, his head packed with propaganda and his body eviscerated by a roadside bomb, a non-innocent victim of war? Why is he any less innocent than an Iraqi woman who happened to live in a house next door to a suspected insurgent hangout and was therefore dismembered by a five hundred pound American bomb? In war, it's hard to say that anybody who gets killed is guilty. It's the people who don't get killed that may deserve the charge. Why don't our journalists tell us that?

In Detroit yesterday a government lawyer told a judge that the telephone snooping by the NSA is legal but that he can't prove it's legal because that would require the release of secrets. Therefore, the charges against the NSA should be dismissed. This is perfectly symbolic of the Bush administration's relation to the American people. They're for us, so the argument goes, but they can't tell us how they're for us, except in the most abstract and sentimental terms, because if they did, the enemy -- who ever he is -- would learn about it. This, presumably, is why they had to send an army to attack Iraq without letting us know, really, why they did it. It's hard to imagine a judge accepting this argument. It undermines the purpose of the judiciary. For a judge to go along with it would be to commit professional suicide -- assuming, of course, that his profession involves something other than a bunch of people looking out for themselves.

We can all be outraged, of course, by "an act of asymmetric warfare committed against us." That's what happened when some guys at Guantanamo killed themselves, according to Harry Harris, the commander there. My own indignation was waxing to heights heretofore unimagined when suddenly the thought came to me that I don't know what asymmetric warfare is. I thought about getting on the phone and calling up Harry to ask him but, then, I figured he would be too busy to talk to me, no doubt putting most of his efforts into guarding against future acts of warfare asymmetrical. One thing I guess we can take comfort in -- that we have such towers of intellect conducting our military business all round the world.

David Brooks in the New York Times says that if we understood our political differences rightly we would see that the struggle is between populist nationalism and progressive globalism. "Conservatism" and "liberalism" would be dismissed as labels with no coherent philosophies behind them. He's certainly right about the latter. There is no conservative/liberal split in America. He may not be perfectly correct about where the division lies nowadays, but if we accepted his definitions our debates would become more intelligible than they have been over the past decade. And they might preclude the evolution of a party like the Republicans who have nothing to offer the American people. I am not usually one of Brooks's fans. But when he makes a suggestion that could advance the intelligence of our public conversation, I have to give him credit.

The Bush administration is coming close to arguing that any lawsuit which raises questions about the legality of government acts is likely to reveal state secrets and, therefore, has to be dismissed for that reason alone. In other words, the courts are closed to citizens who seek redress from the government, regardless of what the government has done to them. The most recent instance of this argument occurs in a case where the attorney general of New Jersey asked several telephone companies to explain whether they had released information about the calls of New Jersey citizens to the government. And almost immediately, the U.S. Justice Department went into court and tried to squash the state effort to protect its citizens. This may be one of those developments in which when the public finally wakes up to what's going on, it will be too late to do anything about it. The government will have moved beyond the ability of a citizen to question it in a legal way. That used to be described by words I guess we dare not use any longer.

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