Friday, June 09, 2006

Nice idea. Now throw it out.

Every now and then one of your originating desks gets .... well, original, and tries to "add" "value" to something it isn't set up to add value to. That's the problem with this enterprising centerpiece. Steering away from the who-what-where approach on a story that's been in play since 3 the previous morning is the right idea. But not all such efforts are equal, and this one should have been thrown back. It subtracts more from the sum of human knowledge than it adds.

The problem is the "Five to Fear" package down the gut. Put as politely as possible, it's simply silly. The assemblers of the package are assuming (and offering you advice on how to order your thinking about the world on that basis) that any and all forms of international mayhem are interchangeable. How scared you should be of any set of "people suspected of terror and murder on international most-wanted lists," then, can be sort of represented by this equation: f = Σtm/n

where f is your fear, t and m are the amounts of terror and murder suspected, and n is the number of suspected terrorists and murderers. All mayhem is equal, therefore all fear is proportionate.

Which has the misfortune of ignoring many if not most known characteristics of international mayhem and political violence. How much do you -- reaching for your second cup of coffee in beautiful Columbia, S.C. -- have to fear from Ratko Mladic? Roughly the square root of zero! If not less! Why would he come after you -- even assuming he could get across any of the intervening borders without winning a free ticket to The Hague? His bit of murderous business had its specific goals, and dragging South Carolinians into it wasn't any of them. If anything, it would only have risked getting the administration off the dime -- bad idea if you're a mediocre army that wants to kill civilians in peace and quiet.

Joseph Kony? Once again, he has his interests, and you're unlikely to be among them. Basayev? As long as you have your atlas out, look up Chechnya. The threat of insurgent violence tends to be specific and local. It is not normally distributed. And in the case of the Abu Sayyaf, there seems to be some ongoing debate about whether the loyalists are in it for the cause or the money.

Now. Obviously, there are folks out there who would like to trash Columbia and environs before moving up the road and getting Charlotte in the bargain. I'd be happy to assume the Khobar plotter shown here is of that sort and to agree that he and his kind are an unusual -- if not unique -- threat that needs to be dealt with accordingly. But the place to start is not by assuming that every single bit of political violence in the world Hates America Because It Hates Our Freedom. That's the sort of long-range brainlessness this centerpiece feeds, and the grownup press needs to stop feeding it. In a hurry.

In a roundabout way, that's why the hed -- "One Less Merchant of Death" -- is a bad choice too. I don't mind if you call Zarqawi names, and I don't mind that much if you say "less" for "fewer" with count nouns in colloquial big-type gloating. But* again, derogatory terms often have pretty specific connotations and can't be used interchangeably. A "merchant of death" isn't somebody who kills a lot of people. It's someone who makes the wherewithal of death available -- usually used for arms merchants,** also sometimes for people who flog cigarettes to preadolescents and the like. Call him a vicious terrorist all you want, but why confuse matters by introducing a term that already has an unrelated, and thus confusing, meaning?

To make a long story short: Nice idea, gang. Now throw it out and start over.

* there's an echo of this discussion over on Testy Copy Eds, q.v.
** Per the OED, "merchant of death, a person who makes a profession of war; spec. an arms dealer or a mercenary soldier." I'd like to see better and more current cites on the latter, though again, I wouldn't have called Zarqawi a mercenary.

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