"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 27 June 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.

News Hole



Governing is a pain in the ass, more or less: There's never enough money to satisfy every constituency, the newspaper always has something unpleasant to say, political rivals pick away constantly at everything you do. Fortunately, however, those last two problems can be fixed. The bad twin in Iran's split-personality government certainly has this one figured out pretty well: A couple of months back, that country's putative justice system shut down sixteen reformist newspapers over the course of five days, all without hearings. Just in case someone missed the point and thought to start a new one, officials came up with the clever expedient of jailing a bunch of the people who wrote for the targeted papers, on charges that their writing is offensive to adherents of the state religion. Meanwhile, several of the strategists and opinion-makers of the political opposition languish under house arrest; one is recovering from a gunshot wound.

If it's not clear what all of that jailing and shuttering means, by the way, the helpful New York Times staffer who reported it turned to a representative of Human Rights Watch for this keen and incisive analysis: "It's not only a violation of Iranian law, but a violation of Iran's obligation to uphold freedom of expression. This increasing intimidation and the closings are clearly politically motivated." All over Tehran, Iranian hardliners are slapping themselves on the forehead over that one. It's all over, now — they've figured out the secret plan! You have to admire a reporter who still has the energy to telephone Human Rights Watch and ask if Iran really respects its obligation to uphold freedom of expression — it's like finding a supermarket cashier who still says hello to every customer.



And the folks on the media desk at Human Rights Watch have to be working through lunch, these days, just to keep up with all the phone calls. Iran is hardly the only country run by people who simply don't have the appropriate respect for their obligation — maybe they just overlooked it — to uphold freedom of expression. In Russia, the influential media-chain owner Vladimir Gusinsky recently learned that the Russian government simply won't tolerate shady financial goings-on in that country's private sector; the former K.G.B. agent who runs the delicately pure nation averred that he had no idea who would ever have come up with the notion of arresting someone who runs all kinds of newspapers and television outlets that keep zealously criticizing the government. Gusinsky got out, but he didn't get off the hook — and neither, just maybe, did Putin.

At just about the same time in Serbia, the one guy who apparently kind of passes as a plausible political threat to Slobodan Milosevic — not counting war crimes prosecutors, of course — was the victim of a remarkably lazy assassination attempt; Vuk Draskovic's would-be killers sprayed all kinds of bullets at their unarmed, unguarded target, taking a nasty chunk out of one of his ears. (United Nations officials suspect the shooters are former heavyweight boxers who've served prison time for rape.)

All of which conclusively demonstrates, once again, that much of the world has yet to embrace the relatively enlightened values of the American political system. And they should get with the program, already — they'd save a lot of hassle.

A couple of administrations back, for example, the lawyers who worked in the White House — on the ground floor, one flight above the employees who answered to a "higher law" — concluded that the United States couldn't do any construction at all on a missile defense system without violating the terms of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty we'd agreed to as a nation in 1972.



In a less politically advanced country, papering over an old and inconvenient set of facts like this would easily be an ugly, labor-intensive process for a regime that really, really wanted to build something they'd promised not to build: The usual arrests, the usual fire in the newspaper archives. But in the United States, we can skip all of that: We just hire new lawyers, and start all over, precisely as if the old facts had never existed — even though they remain right there in plain sight.

And so the Clinton administration now announces, simply and plainly and without needing to shoot anyone in the ear, that the 1972 treaty governing the creation of anti-missile systems now says that we can begin building an anti-missile system - just as long as we don't actually, you know, build it. The Russians aren't buying that one at all, but you have to assume that most of their government officials are busy repressing the news media and just haven't had time to think the thing over (or maybe they just don't have that class in expedient reasoning in Russian law schools.)

And, anyway, who cares about what the Russians think? The problem, over here, is over here. Assuming bravely that anyone cares, U.S. officials have the task of judging the reaction of the voting public and anticipating a response. And so then comes the beautiful step, the elegant little hop to the side that neatly dodges everything that people in other countries have to fight over: You don't hide your purely political maneuvering behind a scrim of honest intent or rational policy. Much more simply, much more wonderfully, you just say that, hey, it's politics, man, and we have an election coming up.



"Basically," an unnamed administration official tells the Times, "the administration is working hard to free up as much wiggle room as it can before it has to make a decision." The treatment of "the administration" as a discrete, self-aware creature provides a nice added touch, especially when you quote the faceless entity describing its own intent in the third person. If this were a play, it would enjoy a long run in a 99-seat experimental theater, with the voice of Tim Robbins as The Administration.

The great, energy-saving dynamic of this choice, too, is that it cuts through every knot of intrusive fact. The reason we need an anti-ballistic missile defense, of course, is because rogue countries like North Korea might attack us with a volley of one or two warheads, just because they're, uh, rogue states. And so how do you deal with the fact that, in newspapers all over the country, the story on the administration's lawyers giving the go-ahead to the missile shield tended to run right next to a photo of the leaders of North and South Korea triumphantly clasping hands and smiling? You repeat the argument, in the same tone of voice: North Korea. Rogue country. Ahem. Questions?



Compare this to the absurdity of saying that an openly hostile nation with 6,000 warheads was for decades prevented from attacking us by the threat of a massive, earth-ending counterstrike — but that North Korea would probably take a shot at us as soon as they got the big tube all gassed up on regular unleaded, and then calmly take whatever we sent back — and you should find the going a bit easier.

And so the wastefulness of repression becomes pretty clear. Why on earth should you bother jailing or shooting reporters and political opponents? It's so much easier just to tell them that, yes, I'm contradicting all known facts, with no evidence on my side, for entirely political reasons... And you can count on them to nod and say, ah yes, that's a good one.

You can, if you occupy a position of authority, fear the free movement of information. Or you can blow right past it, smiling and waving, honking the horn and feeling no worries at all. It's not often that the easiest choice is also the most effective.

courtesy of Ambrose Beers
picturesTerry Colon

Ambrose Beers