Saturday, November 27, 2010

Concept of the Day: Americans and/or Terrorists

We owe today’s concept of the day to James Taranto. It’s the subtitle of his latest "Best of the Web" column on the Wall Street Journal website. Link here.

It is: “The government treats Americans like terrorists--and terrorists like Americans.”

Sometimes people are angry about something without really being able to identify what is upsetting them.

This does not mean that they are irrational and prey to their emotions, but, rather, that their emotions have gotten ahead of their powers of thought.

It isn’t abnormal to be upset but not to know about what. It’s basic to the human condition. Emotions are rapid-fire; rational thought is slow motion.

When reporters ask Americans what is making them angry or afraid, they often have trouble answering. This does not mean that they are irrational or ignorant.

When a man is walking down the street and starts feeling afraid, he might not know what stimulus has triggered the emotion. If you ask him, he might have difficulty identifying it. Yet, you should not assume that he has no good reason to be afraid. The chances are very good that he is not just afraid of his shadow.

The same applies to anger. Anger will attach itself to the easiest cause, but there may well be a more subtle and more important cause that escapes immediate detection.

The existence of such emotions, coupled with a less than articulate explanation, does not mean that the person is irrational or ignorant.

Within this context, “high concept“ has the virtue of articulating, clearly, precisely, and intelligibly what has made you so emotional.

When you hear the concept, you know in a flash that that’s it.

Often, the concept’s constituent elements are not new. They may even be familiar. The concept takes them and makes a connection that you had ignored. It allows you to get a handle on experience, to grasp or to capture something that had been eluding you.

If you look up the etymology of the word “concept” you will see that it refers to the notion of grasping or capturing.

Taranto’s concept brings TSA screening procedures together with the recent trial of accused terrorist Ahmed Ghailani.

He begins by noting, as many have, that the government has instituted new, invasive screening procedures because it refuses to engage in anything resembling “behavioral profiling.”

Discussing the New York Times’s attitude toward profiling, Taranto writes: “The Times's underlying objection to profiling surely is not that it would leave us vulnerable to elderly white female Iowan terrorists but that it's unfair for innocent young Arab Muslim men to receive greater scrutiny than innocent old white Christian ladies. That's ‘discrimination.’ Better to treat everyone as a potential terrorist.”

Better to assault the dignity of an elderly white female Iowan than to hurt the feelings of a young Arab Muslim man. That, after all, is the basis for the policy. Is it any wonder that Americans are seriously upset about it?

Then, Taranto moves on to the recent criminal trial of Ahmed Ghailani.

In his first attempt at a connection, he writes: “The introduction of the new TSA procedures was contemporaneous with the acquittal of Ahmed Ghailani on 284 of 285 counts in the 1998 African embassy bombings. Ghailani, formerly a detainee at Guantanamo Bay, was accorded all the rights of an American civilian defendant, as a result of which the judge disallowed his confession and the testimony of a key witness because intelligence officials had used coercive means to obtain information from him.”

Of course, contemporaneity does not connection make. It could be an accident that two new government policies are introduced at roughly the same time.

And yet, these are both policies of the same government. They are two aspects of the administration policy toward terrorism.

The Obama administration has always had a policy of trying terrorists in civilian courts. And it has always attempted to dissociate terrorism from Islam.

Admittedly, the administration has lately been backing away from that policy, as well as from its grandiose pronunciamentos about Gitmo, but still, the trial of Ahmed Ghailani was exactly what the Justice Department had always said it would do.

It is fair to say that when a foreign terrorist who committed his terrorist acts on foreign soil is tried in an American criminal court, he is accorded the rights and privileges of an American citizen.

To most Americans, a soldier in an enemy army, does not, and never has deserved to be treated as if he were an American citizen.

While the Ghailani trial has not elicited as much public outrage as the TSA screeners and pat downs, it still articulates the administration’s attitude toward terrorism, but also, and perhaps inadvertently, its conception of American citizenship.

Citizenship confers rights and responsibilities. It can be gained by birth, but it is sustained by fulfilling responsibilities.

In some cases citizenship can be gained by a long, arduous naturalization process. To people all over the world, American citizenship is a supremely desirable good.

What then does citizenship mean when its rights and privileges are accorded to someone who does not want it, does not respect it, and who hates the country and everything it stands for?

It is not unreasonable to say that the Ghailani trial cheapens American citizenship. It certainly does not advance the cause of justice.

You know, as I know, that sophisticated thinkers, the cognoscenti and the intelligentsia, are infatuated by nuance. They will most likely dismiss high concept thinking as a mere oversimplification. They will swat it away as modern vulgarity-- thinking in sound bites.

But if you have to choose between maddening and barely intelligible complexity and crystalline simplicity, William of Ockham, would have told you that there is more truth in the concise formulation than in the pseudo-sophistication of double talk and mumbo jumbo.

The name William of Ockham gives “high concept” some serious credentials. Our intellectual elites are still going to have difficulty accepting it. In their hearts they believe that if they can understand something easily, if they can grasp it completely, then it must necessarily be untrue.

Many of our greatest thinkers have so little confidence in their own minds that they cannot accept clarity of thought. They reject concepts that give them the opportunity to grasp experience because they want to live in their minds, in places where experience counts for nothing.

And they have no real interest in communicating with other, less  nuanced minds. They hold the common people in such contempt that they never bother to work their thought into a form that makes it clear, precise, and intelligible.


David Foster said...

"Think like a wise man, but communicate in the language of the people"

--W B Yeats

Cappy said...

"You know, as I know, that sophisticated thinkers, the cognoscenti and the intelligentsia, are infatuated by nuance.

Could those infatuated by nuance be classified as the stupidigentsia?

Stuart Schneiderman said...

... in a better world.

Anonymous said...

I think the point about the meaning of citizenship is crucial. I had already thought about this conundrum, even before you mentioned Taranto's column! : Why does our government bend over backwards to accord the rights of citizenship to enemy combattants (those our troops are now fighting) while at the same time diminishing,even denying, our own in the form of invasive body searches!!! Go figure...