Friday, December 28, 2007

Conspiracies, Anyone?

I first heard a report of the Associated Press/Yahoo! News poll on NPR this morning, so I was glad to see a more extensive written account by Associated Press Writers Jim Kuhnhenn and Trevor Tompson on the Yahoo! News Web site. Here is the lead:

Voters began to worry more about their pocketbooks over the last month — even more than about the war in Iraq.

More than half the voters in an ongoing survey for The Associated Press and Yahoo! News now say the economy and health care are extremely important to them personally. They fear they will face unexpected medical expenses, their homes will lose value or mortgage and credit card payments will overwhelm them.

Events, however, can quickly change public opinion. Thursday's assassination of Pakistan opposition leader Benazir Bhutto could draw more attention to terrorism and national security, an issue that still ranked highly with the public and which 45 percent of those polled considered extremely important.

Most of the article is devoted to the first two paragraphs, the only surprise being the extraordinary strength that the writers must have exercised to avoid hauling out the old Clinton campaign slogan, "It's the economy, stupid!" The reader who persists through this portion of the discussion, however, will be rewarded by the following elaboration of the third paragraph:

The impact of Bhutto's assassination on public opinion depends on whether Americans perceive her death as an added threat to the United States. Terrorism was the only issue polled that Republicans were trusted to handle better than Democrats.

Republican Rudy Giuliani had benefited most from people's fears of terrorism. But over the past month his level of support dropped, even among voters who said terrorism was an important issue. Giuliani is now trying to get some of those voters back, releasing an ad Thursday that uses images of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on New York.

Assassinations have long been a notorious breeding ground for conspiracy theories. I sometimes wonder if the shock of the tragedy leads people to dispense with rationality, perhaps out of the despairing feeling that rationality no longer does any good. Thus, the more hare-brained the conspiracy theory, the more likely it is to proliferate. It is a game anyone can play and is thus best avoided.

Nevertheless, it is hard for me to shake free of the contextual knowledge that the Bush Administration played a major role in persuading Bhutto to return to Pakistan with the promise of her concluding a power-sharing agreement with President Pervez Musharraf. The reasoning probably was based on the premise that a powerful secular authority was more important to American interests than a government that reflected the voice of the people at a time when many of those voices were being drawn to fundamentalist Islam. On the basis of the news reports, we can assume that Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice knew that it would be difficult to cultivate any beneficial dialog between Bhutto and Musharraf, particularly if the only real beneficiary would be the United States; but we can probably also assume that her reasoning was heavily (exclusively?) influenced by ideological commitment. That same ideological commitment, however, probably also allowed her to ignore the extent to which her strategy would be putting Bhutto into harm's way, with the possible consequence of losing all the marbles in this game. However, to push that metaphor a bit further, those would be Pakistani marbles, meaning that the strategy was not only blind to risk but also short-sighted with respect to higher-level goals, such as capturing Osama bin Laden or bringing down Al Qaeda. On the other hand, if all the marbles were lost (and there is now a pretty clear threat of this being the case), then the American fear of terrorism would escalate, either of its own accord or with a bit of encouragement from appropriately placed propaganda.

Does all this add up to a conspiracy theory that Bhutto was sacrificed to turn American opinion back in favor of the Republican administration? Before leaping to such a conclusion, recall the three forms of "service pathology" I recently explored (bearing in mind that any government is basically a service provider whose clients are the citizens of the country): ignorance, negligence, and contempt (usually manifested through malice). Any conspiracy theory would have to be grounded in motivated actions directed towards the third form: a willfully malicious contempt of opinions of the electorate that were finally heard in the 2006 election. My guess is that this is not the case, since so much of the narrative in the preceding paragraph involves decision-making that was impeded by excessive ideology. The narrative is one of signification incapacitated by ideology, a fundamental ignorance of how to "read the signs" and "see things as they are," from which one could then anticipate the consequences of one's actions. It is based on the familiar (and usual incorrect) assumption that theory can trump practice. Unfortunately, practice almost always gets the upper hand and can be very cruel when it does so (as it was in this particular situation).

So I seem to have demonstrated my initial point: Thinking about conspiracies tends to eschew rationality. Rationality tends to come up with better explanations. They are not necessarily pleasing explanations; and, when the situation is a tragic one, they tend not to make us feel better. Nevertheless, I continue to support Stephen Flynn's fundamental proposition in his book, The Edge of Disaster: In trying to deal with terrorism, resiliency is more important than preventative security. As in Poe's "Masque of the Red Death," we can never be absolutely secure from all harm; but we can be strong enough to recover quickly and surely when harm attacks. The riots on the streets of Pakistan are now playing out a narrative of the lack of resiliency. They won't make us feel any better either; but we should take them as an object lesson about our own national priorities, which have been severely jeopardized by excessive ideology. Unless we get out from under that jeopardy, we shall be as lacking in resiliency as the Pakistanis currently are; and we definitely will not feel good any the consequences that ensue from such a position!

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