What's in a Name


I notice similar language in the ledes of a couple stories on Alberto Gonzales' first policy speech. From the Washington Post:

Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales yesterday affirmed his support for controversial anti-terrorism legislation due for congressional renewal this year but indicated he is willing to consider changing some of its provisions to ensure their continuation.

and from the New York Times:

Laying out his law enforcement priorities for the first time since taking office, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales urged Congress on Monday to speed the process for deporting illegal immigrants, end the impasse over judicial nominees and extend federal antiterrorism powers under the USA Patriot Act.

Emphasis mine in both cases. Obviously, it's understandable why one would refer to the PATRIOT Act that way. But how legislation is characterized is probably more important than we realize. As Thomas Sowell has noticed, we have a tendency to name things according to intent—we'll call something an "anti-poverty law" whether or not there's any evidence that it does a damn bit of good at reducing poverty, and the very name helps to elide the question of whether it's effective to that end.

In the case of PATRIOT, though, many of its provisions were sought during the Clinton administration, well before 9/11, for reasons having little to do with terrorism—so even the intent here is questionable. And as the Justice Department's own report revealed last year, the law has been put to plenty of purposes well beyond anything plausibly definable as terrorism. Again, the shorthand's certainly understandable, but since the scope of PATRIOT is often central to the debate over it, that description tends to frame the issue in terms favorable to its proponents—you can't be against fighting terrorism, can you?—even though the aptness of that description is, in a sense, a central point of contention. Just something worth bearing in mind.

NEXT: Egyptian Improv

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  1. This sounds familiar. Oh, that’s right…wasn’t that whole “unprovoked attack on a toothless despot who was crippled from years of sanctions, and had never actually attacked or showed any desire to attack the US” ruse in Iraq presented under the guise of “the war on terra”? Doesn’t Bush, to this day, still refer to Iraq as the “central stage in the war on terra”? Terra, as it were, is the new Commie Bastard Bogeyman. And anyone who is against fighting the bogeyman du jour, well, they’re just pussy-assed hippies, right?

    Not to mention that they called it “operation iraqi freedom”. Who’s gonna oppose iraqi freedom, huh? Everyone loves freedom!

    What a nice ruse. Forge a bill that calls for the routine rape and extermination of our liberties, but then, call it the “Save all those poor starving homeless babies” Act when you present it to Congress, and, viola! I mean, what self-interested beaurocrat wants it on his permanant record that he’s opposed to helping poor, starving, homeless babies!? That monster!

    Pretty sweet tactic

  2. This just in, things given favorable names. Who knew?

  3. He’s also stressing the ‘war on obscenity’:
    In his first lengthy address since becoming attorney general in early February, Gonzales said people who distribute obscene materials do not enjoy constitutional guarantees of free speech.

    “I am committed to prosecuting these crimes aggressively,” he said to a Washington meeting of the California-based Hoover Institution.
    Which dovetails well with good ol’pork spending guru Ted Stevens plan to regulate content on cable TV:



  4. <editor>Fair play, Julian, demands that you suggest some alternatives here.</editor> “Federal surveillence and arresting-people powers”? “Federal anti-terrorism, anti-drug dealing, anti-gambling, anti-prostitution, anti-poolside-horseplay powers”?

  5. If you guys were in the real world instead of being in a fantasy you would see truth. What will it take, more American deaths inside our borders? Or will you write that we all deserve to die and suffer for our SINS?? Can you not have any feelings for the victims of Saddam and his ilk? Must you always say our great nation is worse? I hate to write negative like this but must make my thoughts public just like you people do. Why is it that you cannot see atrocities other than in a fantasy world of your own making??

  6. gene,

    Do you remember a catch-phrase from the fifties “better dead than red”?

    If the alternative to this is a soviet style american government, than I say simply, NO.

    And I might remind you what a Fed judge, appointed by Dubya himself, said about the govs end run around our freedom. In rejecting the Bush administrations attempt to hold american citizens without recourse to the courts “To do otherwise would not only offend the rule of law and violate this country’s constitutional tradition, but it would also be a betrayal of this nation’s commitment to the separation of powers that safeguards our democratic values and individual liberties.”

  7. Was that you, thoreau ?

  8. I meant to ask, was it thoreau masquerading as gene …

  9. Nope, not gene.

  10. Hey, what about Padilla?

    “Federal judge: Charge Padilla or release him
    Ruling given in ‘enemy combatant’ case”


    Predictably the govt appeals.


  11. Never mind. Missed the post down the page.

  12. For the suspicious minded in the audience: No, I did not post under the pseudonym “gene” just to prove my own point.

  13. Assuming gene is not a ruse, he is nevertheless the poster boy for Franklin’s comment about giving up a little liberty in the name of security.

    One is no more secure than when one is dead. What else can possibly happen? That’s why I often say that people too focused on security have a secret death wish.

  14. I am my own person with my own completely free thoughts. Question??? Where do you read into my comments the idea about “better dead than red?” or my being a poster boy??? I am stating that we need to understand what is happening and whom we have the fight with. Our own government is not the enemy. I know and approve the idea that our government bodies need to be held accountable for their actions. But we currently have way too much distrust and misinformation out there. “Trust but verify” is a very good thought that many high level thinkers use. My Grandpa told me that some people just jump right out of the frying pan and into the fire and always complains about being burned.
    Ohh—Thanks for thinking I might be Thoreau or Juan, that is a real complement.

  15. gene,

    Just clarifying, I am the one who would rather be “dead than red”. And I am the one asserting that the Patriot Act, Gonzales, and the Bush admin in general is advocating a Soviet style government to “stop” terrorism.

    Of course we must remember when our prez first met Putin, he lookied into his soul and saw what they had in common. Little did I know at the time it was love of soviet style gov, and a hate of freedom.

    You really need to follow my links and then come back and tell us all that the Founders would not be horrified at what we are expected to give up to “stop” terrorism.

  16. Gene stated:
    “Our own government is not the enemy.” No, not THE enemy, and perhaps not so much an enemy as an opponent, but an entity to be resisted nonetheless.

    I find the hysteria of terrorism to be rather amusing. Terrorists are not a state. They do not have access to the powers of a state. Bin Laden and his buddies cannot invade, occupy, and defeat even so much as small beach-front resort. While they are a threat to life and property, they are not the gravest threat on the planet. Some effort can and should be put into identifying terrorists operating inside the US, but I believe we had sufficient law before the PATRIOT ACT. After all, the 9/11 Commission indicated we knew some of the Who and What ahead of time. We just didn’t take it that seriously.

    As opposed to terrorists, a state, with armies and nukes, is a real threat. They CAN (potentially) invade, occupy, and defeat the United States. I’m much more concerned about North Korea than I am about bin Laden.

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