Spinsanity: Countering rhetoric with reason
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Is Rational Discourse Another Casualty of Tuesday's Attacks?

By Ben Fritz (ben@spinsanity.org)
September 17, 2001

A time of tragedy is inevitably, and rightfully, a time of emotion. Just as so many of us are distraught, upset, and angry at the terrorist attacks against the U.S. last week, so too are many political pundits. We should expect no less, of course, as they are Americans who, like all of us, saw their nation wounded and friends endangered or even killed.

They have a responsibility, however, not to allow the nation to descend into irrationality. Carefully reasoned, thoughtful political debate is in fact most necessary now as we consider the best course of action. An irrational political debate could lead to an ineffective or even counterproductive response, and also do lasting damage to the norms of American democracy.

This is why some of the political rhetoric of the past week has been so troubling. Many pundits and editorial boards have given America exactly what it does not need: inflammatory rhetoric, wildly irrational political analyses, and extremely divisive attempts to stigmatize political opponents as anti-American.

The inflammatory

Most inflammatory rhetoric came in the guide of "bomb now, ask questions later" articles from writers apparently completely overcome with anger. The word "irrational" barely even applies here, as these articles lack even the pretense of rationality.

Among those making such purely emotional calls for revenge were syndicated columnist Cal Thomas and the editorial boards of the New York Post and Philadelphia Daily News. The words of the News were easily the most chilling for those who believe logic and rational argument are important in politics, as its argument came down to one simple statement: "[W]e will remember your actions, and crave only one thing: blood for blood."

The News never identifies who the "you" in this sentence is, however, because we don't yet know, but it does prime its readers for bloodthirsty vengeance: "REVENGE. Hold on to that thought. Go to bed thinking it. Wake up chanting it. Because nothing less than revenge is called for today." These words border on the authoritarian and the savage. Many Americans support a strong military response, of course, but The News's rhetoric encourages bloodlust rather than carefully reasoned action.

The irrational

Some pundits actually did take the time to present evidence in their analyses of last Tuesday's attacks, but failed to make rational arguments. Instead, they allowed overblown rhetoric and shaky reasoning to take them from the facts of the case to extreme conclusions or prescribed responses not at all supported by the evidence presented. Many of these illogical arguments could be found on the pages of National Review Online, by writers such as David Gelernter, William F. Buckley, and Michael Ledeen.

The worst, however, came from columnist Ann Coulter. Her column abruptly transitions from a remembrance of her friend, conservative writer Barbara Olson, who died in the plane that hit the Pentagon, to a call to "invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity." The "they" in this sentence is Muslim terrorists, a group that Coulter simply assumes throughout her piece is both culpable and easily identifiable.

Coulter's supposed logic for this extreme conclusion is that "Those responsible include anyone anywhere in the world who smiled in response to the annihilation of patriots like Barbara Olson." The only people Coulter could possibly mean here are the group of Palestinians shown on TV celebrating at news of the attack on the U.S. Coulter's logic implies that simply celebrating a death makes people responsible for it, regardless of whether they played any role in it. And it is extremely disturbing to advocate military action against an entire nation, or nations, based on the beliefs of some people on the streets.

Soon after, Coulter moves on to the topic of airport security, where her "Muslim hijackers" as "they" trope first rears its head:

Airports scrupulously apply the same laughably ineffective airport harassment to Suzy Chapstick as to Muslim hijackers. It is preposterous to assume every passenger is a potential crazed homicidal maniac. We know who the homicidal maniacs are. They are the ones cheering and dancing right now.

As I already stated above, however, it is not clear at all that the ones seen cheering and dancing are the homicidal maniacs. Also disturbing here is Coulter's assumption that "Muslim hijackers" are easily identifiable. Some people of Arab descent, likely to be Muslim, are identifiable, of course. And if Coulter simply means to promote racial profiling, she should state that explicitly. Instead, she absurdly assumes, with no evidence, that "Suzy Chapstick" (apparently everyone who is not a Muslim hijacker) is easy to separate from Muslims who intend to hijack airplanes.

The divisive

Besides the purely emotional and the irrational, a third tactic by some pundits has been to try to promote unsupported and divisive tropes while discussing the disaster. Conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan is a chief perpetrator in this case, as evidenced by his take on events in the Sunday Times of London (part one, part two):

The middle part of the country - the great red zone that voted for Bush - is clearly ready for war. The decadent Left in its enclaves on the coasts is not dead - and may well mount what amounts to a fifth column.

Considered in this context, "what amounts to a fifth column" is an irrational suggestion that liberals in this country will engage in acts of terrorism against the United States, or help the terrorists in some way. In reality, Sullivan is attempting to preemptively define active political opposition to any part of this "war against terrorism" as tantamount to treason - a frightening and anti-democratic precedent. Thus, before most liberals have even taken a stance against potential military action, Sullivan is attempting to define them as having done so, and thus assume them as the enemy in future debate.

Logic, now more than ever

At a time of national mourning, it may seem misguided to criticize political discourse for irrational arguments. But we must set high standards for ourselves in our politics, and not let irrationality take over political debate and shape US policy. As our leaders talk about going to war, it is imperative that the rational discourse so vital to democracy doesn't become another casualty of last Tuesday's attacks.

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