Monthly Archives: January 2015

(Small) moments in the use of passive voice, to obscure government workers’ incompetence

Sort of a non sequitur in an article about firefighter overtime from the Washington Post (emphasis ours):  “District revenue from traffic cameras fell off precipitously during the second half of the last budget year because of failures by city workers to keep the systems running.  Amid an effort to transfer more maintenance duties from contractors to city crews, some red-light and speed cameras and other traffic-control devices stopped working.  In some cases, batteries in the systems went dead, [D.C. City Council Chairman Phil] Mendelson said.”

This throw-away passage refers to another budget challenge in the local Washington, D.C. government that is not the subject of the article.  We can suppose that the inference is clear, though it’s an odd use of a semi-passive construction to suggest that the cameras “stopped working” and batteries “went dead.”  To co-opt James Taranto, why do bad things always happen to the city government workers?

The Post has extensively covered the roll-out of traffic cameras in the city, but seems to have never previously reported on the in-sourcing of maintenance.  A September 2014 article reported that revenue from this boondoggle was lower than projected, according to a spokeswoman for the mayor, “for a variety of reasons, including delays in deploying some new devices, higher speed limits on some streets and more motorists obeying the law.” The spokeswoman went on, “And we don’t view any of this as a bad thing.  As we’ve said all along:  the purpose of automated traffic enforcement is to improve public safety and save lives, not to raise money.”  Naturally, the Post agreed in an editorial, “Automated Cameras Mean Safer Streets in the District,” despite many studies in different jurisdictions showing that cameras do not even improve, and may even harm, safety.

Any big-government skeptic assumes that the main purpose of the cameras is to further tax citizens. So it’s not surprising that the Post would tread lightly in questioning the cameras’ effectiveness or government workers’ competence.  Not surprisingly, the D.C. inspector general found that the abuse of the system runs through the entire traffic-ticket value chain (i.e., racket). Perhaps the scandal of city workers’ dereliction in maintenance is worth some coverage in its own right?

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Why does the mainstream media refer to “the Prophet Muhammud”?

Virtually every mention in the Western mainstream media of the seventh-century historical figure Abū al-Qāsim Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn ʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib ibn Hāshim, who founded Islam toward the end of his life and whom the religion regards as the final prophet, refers to him as “Prophet Muhammad” or “the Prophet Muhammad,” complete with capital “P.”  (The name Muhammad is sometimes spelled differently due to transliteration from the Arabic; even the New York Times apparently doesn’t have a consistent spelling in its style guide.)

The uncritical assignment of the title “the Prophet” seems rather normative given the media’s neutrality on, or disdain for, religious belief.  They refer to Cardinal and Pope, but those are official titles granted by a recognized sovereign state, akin to Duke or King.

Use of “the Prophet” seems more analogous to “Jesus the Christ” (which means something like “Jesus the messiah”), which would also editorially confer a religious imprimatur to a historical figure—which the mainstream media’s news pages rarely, if ever, do when it comes to Jesus.  Mainstream newspapers rightfully discuss Jesus as a historical figure, of course in the context of his place in religion, but one doesn’t find many examples of a reporter assenting to the views of the faithful through his use of default language.

One would think that the mainstream media, committed to objectivity, would use language like “the Muslim historical figure Muhammad” or “Muhammad, the founder of Islam” or “Muhammad, whom Muslims regard as the final prophet.”  Do the editors of the New York Times think that prophets exist?

P.S.  In the Muslim world, the press always refers to him as “Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)” and “Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)” or “the Prophet (pbuh)” in subsequent references.  How long before the Western press feels compelled to adopt this usage as well?

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Only 6.8% of those released from Guantanamo during the Obama administration have returned to terrorism to far. Progress!

Cliff Sloan, the bureaucrat responsible for winding down the terrorist detention center at Guantanamo for the past 18 months, takes to the pages of the New York Times to laud progress during his tenure and downplay the perceived challenges in finishing the job.

One of his main arguments suffers from some fatuous logic.  He cites former Vice President Dick Cheney’s report that 30% of those released are “confirmed” or “suspected” to have returned to Islamic terrorism after their release as a “deeply flawed” exaggeration because only half of those fall into the “confirmed” category.  Great, so only 15% of the released detainees certainly returned to terrorism!  (Thankfully, some of these have been killed or recaptured, and others have bounties on their heads, which should certainly give us pause in praising the wisdom of releasing anyone.)

He claims as some sort of success that fewer still of those more recently released have returned to the battlefield:

Of the detainees transferred during this administration, more than 90 percent have not been suspected, much less confirmed, of committing any hostile activities after their release.  The percentage of detainees who were transferred after the Obama-era review and then found to have engaged in terrorist or insurgent activities is 6.8 percent.

By definition, the more recent the sample size we are examining at any point in time, the lower the percentage of recidivism will be.  This obvious logic seems lost on Sloan.  Among terrorists who were released yesterday, the recidivism rate is zero!  Complete success!  Naturally it takes time for released terrorists to escape Uruguay, Kazakhstan, Qatar, or wherever they are sent from Guantanamo, be debriefed, reintegrate into the terrorist network to resume their calling to jihad, and come to the attention of our intelligence agencies.

Reasonable people can disagree about our Guantanamo policy.  There are legitimate arguments to be made about efficacy, cost, and even due process.  (Though Sloan’s quote from an anonymous “high-ranking security official from one of our staunchest allies on counterterrorism” that “The greatest single action the United States can take to fight terrorism is to close Guantanamo” seems like a non sequitur.)

Most Americans probably agree with the maxim that it is “better for 100 guilty men to go free than for one to be wrongly convicted.”  But this applies to American criminal defendants subject to U.S. constitutional protections.  It is easy to make the opposite argument—or at least to prescribe the presumption of guilt—when it comes to foreign terrorists captured on the battlefield taking up arms against the U.S. and its interests.

In any event, the citation of 6.8% of those released having definitively returned to terrorism in a relatively short time should be a red flag, not a celebration of success.  Not only does all evidence and logic inform us that that number will necessarily increase as time goes on, but there is no doubt that a principle of diminishing returns applies.  Presumably the 127 Muslim terrorists still detained at Guantanamo are the most risky cases, which is why they haven’t been released so far.

Let’s not throw around small-sounding (and artificially deflated) numbers as a means to take credit for the perhaps relatively lower-hanging fruit in an effort to obscure the grave risks of releasing terrorists back into the war against our civilization.

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