Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Be afraid ... wait, don't

We love a little good old-fashioned watchdogging by the perpetually alert sentinel that is the American press -- particularly when it comes to challenging national-security claims by the powers that be. Why, then, do we have this barest trace of suspicion about the top story on the WashTimes frontpage today?
The online hed is a bit more to-the-point than the print one. Here it is, with the lede of the Times's 1A story:

Critics: Obama admin hyping
terrorist nuclear risk

The Obama administration is warning that the danger of a terrorist attack with nuclear weapons is increasing, but U.S. officials say the claim is not based on new intelligence and questioned whether the threat is being overstated.

Nice to see the Times holding a security assertion up to expert scrutiny, but ... wait, what's that from Arnaud de Borchgrave, editor-at-large?

Is the world more dangerous today than it was at the height of the Cold War? Anyone who is still anyone in the field of nuclear arms control has weighed in with a resounding yes. North Korea's second nuclear test, followed by a renunciation of the 1953 armistice agreements, and more missile firings, is the latest red flag on a dark nuclear horizon. Nuclear terrorism, unthinkable during the Cold War, has become the most immediate fear of the experts.

The Times isn't actually retreating; it's just -- attacking in a different direction? After all, things were different back in June, weren't they?

Evidently they were, so let's detour for a second into the land of securitization. (Naturally, all the cool kids will want to be the first to get the hott new securitization book before the movie* comes out.) When you try to push an issue out of the realm of normal political give-and-take and into the shadow realm of Mordor existential threats that call for extraordinary measures to preserve our way of life, you're "securitizing" it -- at least, you're trying to. The success of your "securitizing move" is contingent on what your audience feels as well as on what it knows, and that audience includes the media as well as the public. If you succeed, you get a role in saying what sorts of extraordinary measures are needed and for how long ("until I say you're safe" is often the goal).

Now, you might be in the camp that says securitization is fine as long as we categorize the right things as existential threats (say, nuclear annihilation or climate change, rather than ee-legal aliens and the War on Christmas). Or you might think that what we ought to be doing is "desecuritizing": moving stuff out of the shadows and back into the realm of political debate. But either way, if you want to be credible (which is one of the ways you convince your audience to buy into your understanding of security), you generally want to ensure that it's the issue, rather than the colored Kenyan Muslim socialist source, that's getting your attention.

If your earlier 1A masterpieces, then, have looked like this:

Henry Sokolski, director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, said the danger of nuclear terrorism is growing and the NEST teams are limited in dealing with the threat. (June 2008)

"This action comes at a time when experts warn that the threat of nuclear terrorism is growing," the report said. (May 2008)

Or, to move inside the A section, this, from another familiar writer from the Times stable:

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III yesterday said that it was only a matter of time and economics before terrorists will be able to purchase nuclear weapons and that the world's law-enforcement community must unite to prevent it. (June 2007)

And, to hold down on the tedium, yes -- let's go back to May 2002 and call it good:

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld yesterday raised the potential of nuclear attack in America, saying terrorist-sponsoring countries "inevitably" would acquire weapons of mass destruction and "would not hesitate one minute in using them."

Those are news stories, and they shouldn't detract from the Times's occasional habit of running commentaries by people like Graham Allison and Brian Jenkins that actually help put issues of nuclear terrorism into perspective. But they do make fairly clear that the Times's view of what constitutes an existential threat has more to do with the political camp that's constructing the threat than with the nature of the threat itself. And -- nice as it is to see someone calling out a security claim on the front page -- that's not a productive way to do either journalism or security.

* "The Eternal Triangle," with Ingrid Bergman as hypotenuse.



Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

So - any chance that the threat has actually decreased since You Know Who was elected, so that when he says it isn't, he IS hyping?

9:05 PM, April 15, 2010  

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