Saturday, October 20, 2007

Fear factor

The last thing a competent propagandist wants to do is lie to you. He (or she) is much happier to sit back and let you deceive yourself. (Less work, for one thing, and less chance of getting called out.) Today's example suggests how easy it is for the skilled craftsman to plant a seed and let the reporter do the heavy attitudinal lifting. It's worth discussing among editors because aggressive editors could have flagged it before it hit print -- or the wires (which is how it cropped in an over-credulous fishwrap hundreds of miles from the point of origin). Ready? Here we go:

Chertoff working to stop IED attacks at home
WASHINGTON - The ingredients can be purchased from Home Depot. They are cheap and easy to assemble. And they can be combined to lethal effect.
(High school. Laundry lists. Menus. That's where we learn to stop writing ledes like that and what they look like when we don't).

Improvised explosive devices, or IEDs as they are commonly called, have become the weapon of choice of today's terrorists, whether on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, or on public transit systems in Britain, Spain and India.
(Two concepts here are badly in need of defining.)

And increasingly, they are a threat in America, Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff told members of a think tank Friday.

OK. Let's stop for a second here and ask Secretary Chertoff what he means by ... no, let's ask the reporter, who after all is the one who introduced the terms. What's an IED, and what's a terrorist? Those might seem like annoying questions, but they aren't idle ones, because they have a lot to do with how we categorize this information and pull it out later to make political judgments or help understand new information.

First off, what's an IED? Is it something you put together from a Saturday jaunt to the Home Depot, or is it -- well, let's have a look at how it's been used in news language so far. The earliest plausible hit in the New York Times is from Oct. 19, 2003 (you'd have to be really paranoid to see a connection in those dates, wouldn't you?). Quoting an unclassified but "official use only" document prepared for Jerry Bremer's Occupation Authority, the Times has this:

As the document puts it, most ambushes "are initiated by a combination of RPG or IED attacks and immediately followed by small-arms fire." RPG refers to rocket-propelled grenades and IED is the term for improvised explosive devices, or homemade bombs the guerrillas assemble by drawing on unguarded caches of weapons or explosives they hid during the war.

The Washington Post has one pre-9/11 hit (January 2001, referring to Lockerbie); its first Iraq reference is from Tom Ricks in July 2003:

"They've gone to standoff weapons -- mines and mortars, and IEDs" -- improvised explosive devices, or bombs -- said Capt. John Taylor, the intelligence officer for the base near Bayji.

The AP has two prewar hits (one Lockerbie, one from a 1989 warning about explosive marzipan) and otherwise first mentions the term in September 2003:

"At 9 this morning an American patrol was ambushed by IEDs (roadside bombs), RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) and small arms fire. The patrol returned fire and support was called in," Swisher said.

So if you thought an IED was pretty much what you'd thought from reading media accounts these past four years, you had reason to. As the nice folks at the Pentagon's American Forces Press Service put it, the IED is the "weapon of choice of the enemy. They plant these devices on the sides of roads and as targets go by, they use remote devices to explode the charges. IEDs can be anything from hand grenades rigged to garage-door openers to artillery shells wired to the cell phones. One blast was so powerful it overturned an Abrams main battle tank."

Not, in other words, something you pick up at the Wal-Mart. Our prototype bird here -- in the writer's own phrase, what is "commonly called" an IED -- is something made from discarded or stolen military components, probably remotely triggered, and aimed at a U.S. or allied military target. If that's a rising threat here in the Contiguous 48, Mr. Secretary, could we have some details?

Over at the Washington Post, the panic button is pushed a bit differently. We get the scare hed and lede on 1A:

IEDs Seen As Rising Threat in The U.S.
As Preparedness Is Criticized, Bush Works on a Plan

The Department of Homeland Security and the FBI agree that the homemade explosive devices that have wreaked havoc in Iraq pose a rising threat to the United States.

Same IEDs! The Mahdists are coming for our traffic jams! Or are they?

While roadside bombs and armor-piercing charges have become the signature weapons of the Iraqi insurgency, U.S. officials define the domestic IED threat across a wide spectrum, including a block of TNT with a remote-controlled detonator; a fertilizer bomb delivered by a car, truck or plane; and a suicide runner carrying a peroxide-based explosive.

Oh. In other words -- with all due respect to Newsday's breathless "weapon of choice of today's terrorists," they're pretty much what terrorists have used for quite some decades now. (That's "terrorist" in the narrow, and definitionally useful, sense of "a nonstate actor who uses violence against primarily civilian targets to influence government actions or civilian attitudes.") It's sort of how the federal building in Oklahoma City was blown up, and the King David Hotel, and you can add your own examples from dozens of other choices.

So what are Chertoff and the Homeland Security people bringing up the idea now? Dunno. My concern is with why it's a story now -- more specifically, why it's a story in which nobody asks "why is this a story now?" What's new about the threat, and how does it affect the way we tell people to interpret risk?

And, at bottom, why is it a story in which nobody challenges a pretty blatant game of semantic three-card monte? It doesn't look like Chertoff had to ask anybody to play. Why should he, when they're tripping over themselves to get into the game without any prompting?


Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Chertoff is playing the same old game - Scare the Population. As you say, the real question is why the media is cooperating so whole-heartedly.

8:26 AM, October 21, 2007  

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