Jewish World Review March 25, 2003 / 21 Adar II, 5763

Eve Tushnet

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Political War Profiteers, or, "You should be ashamed of yourself, you little terrorist!" | Are you a terrorist?

If you've ever smoked pot, illegally traded files, or just driven an SUV, some politicians want to class you with Mohammed Atta and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

War is just too good a rhetorical opportunity for special interests and their elected promoters to resist. From drug warriors to gun controllers, everyone wants to hitch his wagon to this war.

And in order to use the war on terror to push pet regulations, these political profiteers must define terrorism down. Americans should resist war exploitation not just because the particular regulations are often misguided, but because inflating ordinary political questions into national-security issues will distract law enforcement from real terrorism.

A few examples: First, and most famously, there were the Drug Enforcement Agency's "drugs fund terrorism" ads. Stoner youths gape at the camera and intone, "I helped kill a policeman." "I helped kill a judge in South America." How did the kids commit these heinous acts? They bought pot. Soon after, the DEA created a traveling museum exhibit linking drug use to the September 11 attacks.

Ramesh Ponnuru wrote on National Review Online's Weblog that the ads "appalled" him: "As it stands, the drug war hurts the war on terrorism in three ways: It distorts our foreign policy, diverts law-enforcement resources, and ...lets thugs monopolize (and therefore reap above-market profits from) the drug trade. If we ran an ad on their culpability for evil, what would the drug warriors say?" As Ponnuru later pointed out, those who favor legalization of some drugs argue that organized crime profits from prohibition of other drugs today for the same reasons that the Mob profited from prohibition of alcohol. Ponnuru tartly closed with, "Before the folks at the drug czar's office start trying to pin other people with the blame for indirectly causing violence, they might try looking in the mirror."

Environmentalists quickly piled on with a passel of ads attacking sports utility vehicles as oil-gobbling terror machines. Arianna Huffington's Detroit Project ads showed SUV drivers saying, "I helped hijack an airplane. I helped blow up a nightclub. ... I helped our enemies develop weapons of mass destruction."

Jacob Sullum at Reason magazine dismantled what he dubbed the "axles of evil" argument. He pointed out how little oil revenue from the U.S. actually reaches the madrassas and the suicide-bomber payoffs. He concluded: "By [the ads'] logic, you're supporting murderous fanatics anytime you drive when you could have used public transit or ridden a bike; take a cab when you could have taken the subway; go on a weekend road trip instead of staying home; fly when you could have taken a train; buy a gas-powered mower or leaf blower instead of an electric one; or eat out-of-season produce that has to be flown or trucked in from someplace warmer."

But most of the pseudo-terror politics involves the same fallacy: If terrorists ever see a penny from your purchase, you are a terrorist. Terrorists seek out illegal sources of revenue, to make their transactions harder to track. This makes it possible to link virtually any crime that involves buying and selling to terrorism. That's a powerful rhetorical weapon for anyone who seeks to keep certain behaviors illegal: Any arguments that an activity should be legalized can be dismissed by asserting that the activity benefits terrorists.

That's how a complex intellectual-property dispute became a battlefield in the war on terror.

Earlier this month, Congress held hearings on whether illegally downloading music, videos, and software programs funneled cash to killers. They didn't find much. Even anti-filesharing star witness John G. Malcolm, deputy assistant attorney general in the Department of Justice's criminal division, had to admit that he couldn't point to any actual cases in which filesharing had funded terrorism--it was all speculation.

Perhaps the oddest rhetorical move came when Washington state Rep. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma, sought to label guns as "weapons of mass destruction." The initial impulse behind the idea wasn't necessarily silly: Darneille says that she noted the speculation, during the hunt for the D.C. sniper, that the sniper might be a terrorist. She wanted to ensure that terrorist acts using guns were given appropriately harsh punishment. (Although one wonders whether the laws in Washington were really all that soft on terrorist murders of any kind.)

But instead of simply tightening the laws against terrorist attacks-if that was necessary-Darneille tried to loosen the definition of "weapons of mass destruction." The new definition included any "device, object, or substance that a person intends to use to cause multiple human deaths." By this definition, a serial killer's knife is a "weapon of mass destruction." Yet knives were never discussed, raising suspicions that Darneille's real target was lawful gun-owners. By rhetorically associating guns with anthrax and nukes-weapons no American citizen could lawfully own-Darneille contributed to the anti-gun hysteria that fuels gun control.

Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote, "You say, it is the good cause that hallows even war? I say to you: It is the good war that hallows any cause." It's sad, though not surprising, to watch today's political Nietzscheans in action.

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12/26/02: The Desire for Gender: The novelist who made me an ex-feminist
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11/19/02: The Marriage Movement has a Sitcom!
11/07/02: Judgment Day: Time for the GOP to Make the Case for Sound Jurisprudence

© 2002, Eve Tushnet