Wednesday, April 05, 2006

A Clash

Tom "The Hammer" DeLay finally took one too many blows himself and yesterday announced that he would not seek re-election to the House seat he has held since 1984 and that he was resigning from Congress. Interestingly, the decision was not spurred by the results of any judicial decision. DeLay has yet to be tried or convicted on conspiracy charges, money laundering of corporate donations for use in Texas campaigns, or ties to former Washington power-lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

No, it was the ongoing deteriorating perception DeLay was experiencing among his constituents over such charges that led to his decision. The word on the street is that DeLay's own polling showed his chances at winning re-election as no better than even today and only likely to deteriorate over the summer.

DeLay attempted to strike an altruistic pose during his taped public announcement, refusing "to allow liberal Democrats an opportunity to steal this seat with a negative, personal campaign." He was more pragmatic later in a FOX News interview, saying the race "would have been nasty" and "cost a fortune."

The power of perception in politics is well established. Yet the nature of DeLay's withdrawal was also a reminder that words and ideas also carry great power in general. Indeed, they sometimes have the ability to blow up in your face or your hands just as viscerally as any action. Nowhere is this more true in modern Western society than when the all-too ubiquitous phrase "terrorism" is in play.

Just ask one Harraj Mann of Great Britain. Reuters reports Mr. Mann, a mobile phone salesman from the Rossmere area of Hartlepool, boarded a taxi today on his way to a flight at Durham Tees Valley Airport. Mann intended to visit family members in London. While in the taxi, he sang along to various tunes on his iPod by groups such as the Clash, Procol Harum, Led Zeppelin and the Beatles. He got on board the airplane and was waiting to take off when two plain-clothed police officers suddenly appeared and marched him off for questioning.

Mann was first alarmed and then bemused to learn they were doing so under Great Britain's recently passed Terrorism Act. Police became suspicious of him after a tip-off from the taxi driver. One of the songs Mann sang while in the cab was the 1979 anthem "London Calling" by the Clash. It features, among other, similar lyrics, the words "Now war is declared – and battle come down."

After a short questioning session and search of his luggage, police became convinced that Mann was no threat. However by that time, his flight had already left and he is not sure whether he will be reimbursed for it. He says he feels frustrated as to why he was targeted. He appreciates that police "acted on the information they had" but also blames a "culture of fear" as contributing to the incident.

For their part, the police regret any inconvenience or embarrassment to Mann but noted, "The report was made with the best of intentions and we wouldn't want to discourage people from contacting us with genuine concerns."

Now consider the case of Robert Colla of Ventura California. Part of his hand was blow off yesterday when a 40 mm round of ammunition exploded in his classroom as he taught about twenty-five students at the local Adult Education Center. This was no terrorist attack, however.

Colla was more than aware of the round in his classroom. In fact, he was the one who brought it there. He found it years ago while hunting, assumed it to be a dud, and decided it would make a nifty paperweight for his desk. That is exactly where it was sitting when Colla struck it while making a point as he taught, causing it to (finally) detonate.

Colla was taken to the hospital in stable condition and nobody else in the classroom was injured. So far as I know, police will not be prosecuting him the matter. After all, "It was just a horrible accident," as one of his fellow teachers observed. Doubtless, Colla's intentions were pure. At the same time, finding a 40 mm round and bringing it into a public setting rather than disposing of it properly could be considered an act of criminal negligence.

So could singing a song about blowing stuff up during a cab ride to the airport, for that matter. But of those two, which seems intuitively the most reckless and which carried the most likely potential for subsequent danger/injury? I'm thinking it was the case of Colla yet it was Mann who was suspected/accused of being a terrorist.

Then there is Brian J. Doyle, the fourth-ranking official in the Department of Homeland Security's Public Affairs Office. That makes Mr. Doyle one of the people protecting us from terrorism here at home. The Associated Press reports that the Polk County Florida Sheriff's Office charged the fifty-five year old man yesterday with using a computer to seduce a child after authorities said he struck up sexual conversations with an undercover detective posing as a fourteen year old girl.

Doyle had repeatedly instructed the "girl" to perform sexual acts while thinking of him. He wanted her to obtain a webcam so he could see her. He sent her pornographic movie clips as well as non-sexual photos of himself. One photo appears to have been taken at his office and he is wearing a Homeland Security pin on his lapel. Doyle was apparently quite cavalier in identifying himself and where he worked.

Now child pornography and pedophilia are not terrorism, although they certainly share much in common in their desire to prey on and exploit the innocent. Parents of any real fourteen-year-old girl who met Doyle online and found a note from her explaining that she had gone somewhere to meet him would have felt fear and terror – and possibly grief – that could rival any bombing victim's family.

So what heavy penalty is Doyle facing this morning? The Sheriff's Office released him after charging him last night. A spokesperson said that if Doyle waives extradition, as he said he would, he could be back in custody by the end of this week. But the spokesman also admitted, "The bottom line is we don't know when he's coming back." The Department of Homeland Security reports that Doyle is "expected to be placed on administrative leave [starting today]."

The police caught Doyle with a computer full of child pornography, yet he was held no longer than Mann, whose luggage and background were clean as a whistle.

Doyle and Tom DeLay will clearly face further attempts at punishment from authorities. Both of them as well as Colla will also suffer a certain drop in their regard by others as a result of their actions. But they are either guilty or strongly appear to be so of the crimes which they are accused. Mann was totally innocent and yet there is a strong chance that his acquaintances, co-workers, and employer may well ask – as Mann asked – "why him?" but with more suspicion than bemusement.

That is the power of words and ideas. Terrorism is not necessarily a worse nor lesser crime than political corruption or gross negligence or pedophilia. However, it is a far more hot button concern in our modern world. Would Mann have been arrested or even reported if he had been singing a song about bribery or money laundering or child pornography? It seems unlikely, in my opinion.

It also seems unlikely to me that Mann would have been reported and arrested if he had sung the very same Clash tune but looked a little different. You see, Mann is of Indian descent. Would he have appeared so threatening to the taxi driver or authorities if he had looked a little less Middle Eastern, a little less Arabic, a little less Muslim? I bet he would not. I bet they would not have given him a second thought.

Terrorists have created a legitimate "culture of fear" in many Western societies nowadays. But it is important to remember such creations are not unique to them. Indeed, we have been creating cultures of fear all on our own for millennia – there is nothing new about them. Nothing is more common to their creation than when our familiar culture clashes with foreign ones. And we have often done so on nothing more substantial than words and ideas. They are what can ultimately defeat the vile specters of racism and prejudice. They are also their source.

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