May 5, 2013

The Discredit Game


It’s such an old technique. When people in power find themselves confronted with someone they do not understand yet consider a threat of some kind—a philosopher or revolutionary or just someone who thinks differently—there are a number of ways to deal with the problem. You could eliminate him in some way, but if you do that you run the risk of calling too much attention to him and creating a martyr. If that happens then other people might start getting ideas. Look at what happened with the Greeks and Socrates.

            You can ignore the problem and hope it’ll just go away, but then there’s the chance that before you know it Hitler’s winning elections.

            No, there’s a neater, cleaner way to remove the annoyance, and it’s practically foolproof. Time was the trick was to float the idea that the threat in question was nutty koo-koo, that his writings were “incoherent ramblings” that made no sense and were boring on top of it. Get that out there in the press and your work was done. I mean, who in their right mind would pay any attention to a crazy man? It worked like a charm with Manson. At his 1970 trial, Manson was making a little too much sense so they removed the press and the jury when he was finally allowed to take the stand and give a statement. If you go back and read it now it’s a fairly lucid indictment of what American culture had become, and clearly explains his own role as a chosen devil within that culture. But no one got to hear it, and it’s been described as “rambling” and “incoherent” testimony ever since. So to this day, Manson is considered an evil, bloodthirsty raving lunatic by the masses.

            Then there was the case of Ted Kaczynski. Even before his manifesto was published in some of the country’s biggest and most respected newspapers (that lesson again: terrorism works), public officials and reporters alike who hadn’t yet read the manifesto were describing it as a “long, rambling, incoherent diatribe about the environment or something.” Well of course who’s going to waste his time reading that? Nobody, and now Kaczynski’s thought of as some kind of mumbling schizophrenic tree hugger.

            But again, if you read the whole thing there’s nothing rambling about it. In fact it’s quite direct, precise and logical. A little redundant, maybe, but logical. And while it touches on environmental issues it’s actually a very wide-ranging analysis of what the Industrial Revolution has brought us. But none of that matters because no one’s going to listen to a crazy mumbler.

            The goal of course is to prevent these ideas from spreading, to maintain things exactly as they are, to keep the masses in line and the people in power in power. As times change, though, so do the means of discreditation. You don’t need to worry about people reading manifestos anymore because, well, it just ain’t gonna happen. While the goal used to be transforming the perceived threat into something pathetic, after the attacks in 2001 that won’t do the trick anymore. The world became a live action cartoon and at the same time the masses somehow got dumber and could only understand the world in cartoon terms. In order to fully discredit a perceived ne’er-do-well in the eyes of the public, what you need to do is turn him into some kind of super villain. And the easiest way to do that is to make him an Islamic extremist. Who’s going to take a Muslim seriously, right?

            The recent manhunt following the Boston bombings was a textbook example. Even before any suspects were identified they were being referred to as Islamic terrorists with al-Qaeda connections. When the Tsarnaev brothers were finally identified and their pictures went up, you could hear the wind go out of the cops and the politicians and the media. They were two white kids, for godsakes! What the hell are we supposed to do with that? I mean, what if they were just a couple of nihilistic goofballs with bad attitudes who made those bombs for giggles? That’s no good—that would almost imply that ANY damn teenager could do this! Where would that leave us?

            So after about thirty seconds of confusion everyone figured it out and before they knew anything at all began asking, “when did they become radicalized?”

            (After hearing that I shot an email off to my friend Grinch asking, “Did we ever become radicalized, or were we just bored?”)

            Then sure enough it turns out the Russians had been warning the CIA about them and the older brother had been on a terrorist watch list for, well, a real long time. It was fascinating to watch as they started to piece a story together. But they hadn’t yet turned these kids into full-fledged super villains.

            Things really got interesting about a week and a half after the bombing.

            Okay, so let’s try and get all this straight. After Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was arrested, police on the scene reported they had been involved in a fierce gun battle with the wounded nineteen year-old bombing suspect, who was hiding in a boat at the time. During the wild exchange of bullets, it was also reported, Tsarnaev had shot himself in the throat.

            Then a few days later we learned that no guns were found in Tsarnaev’s possession. Nothing was found in the boat, and in fact it appeared the two brothers only had one gun between them during their initial shootout with police, as opposed to the massive arsenal of weapons that had been previously reported.

            The next Wednesday, NYC Police Commissioner Ray Kelly announced during a press conference that in his interview with officials, Tsarnaev had said that when they were stopped by police, he and his brother were on their way to New York to “party.”

            Around this time Tsarnaev was finally read his Miranda rights, at which point he stopped talking.

            The party explanation seemed to make a lot of sense given the psychology already on display. The day after the bombing, witnesses reported that Tsarnaev returned to school, sent out a happy tweet or two, and did some partying of his own. That he and his brother would zip down to New York to have some fun seemed to fit. They’d been down to New York before and now they had reason to celebrate.

            Well, the next day Kelly and NY Mayor Michael Bloomberg held still another press conference, this time to break the disturbing news that the then-fugitive Boston bombers had in fact been on their way to Manhattan to plant bombs around Times square. (I guess the “heavy arsenal of weapons” story had reappeared while I wasn’t looking.)

            Thank god for the state of our collective short term memory. Now public officials can tell two radically different stories on consecutive days and no one will notice or call them on it. And once again in this case, no one did.

            So why change the story, replacing a perfectly rational one with a cockamamie one? Well, I can think of at least two primary reasons. The first is psychological. It drove in the final nail when it came to discrediting the two. See, crazed super villain jihadist terrorists loaded down with bombs in a wild-eyed bloodthirsty rush to blow up Times Square are far easier for the general public to understand than a couple of goofball fuckups with bad attitudes heading to New York to party after blowing up the Boston Marathon. Simple nihilism is beyond most people’s comprehension, but comic book villainy is a snap. It’s easier to understand the world that way.

            The second reason is economic. The day before Ray Kelly tossed out the “party” story, he had given reporters a tour of the NYPD’s new high-tech surveillance command center, which receives live feeds from some 4,000 smart cameras posted around the city. Smart cameras, see, can identify potential threats in an instant and alert the cops. The tour was at heart a P.R. push to get more funding to put up more cameras to watch all of us a little more closely. Covering the city with cameras the way they want is going to cost tens, maybe hundreds of millions of dollars. So to Kelly and Bloomberg, those crazy Tsarnaev brothers were a godsend. But, now, you tell the budget folks at Homeland Security they were on their way down here to party, where the hell does that get you? You tell them they were Islamic extremists with a double armload of weapons they were gonna use to blow up the Olive Garden on 43rd Street or the Nike store, and hell, you can start putting up more cameras next week.

            It was a win-win situation. The Tsarnaevs are completely discredited, they confirmed the presence of a much larger, more sinister diabolical force in the world, and it makes it possible for the cops to crack down on the rest of us even harder without anyone making a peep about it.

            I don’t think most of this would bother me nearly so much if they weren’t so goddamned obvious about it.


You can contact Jim Knipfel at this address:

With occasional exceptions Slackjaw generally appears weekly. For email notification of other Jim Knipfel publications (books, etc.) and events please join the Slackjaw email list here.