Tuesday, May 17, 2011

This Is Not About Martin Luther

She's not even Lutheran, though she is a Protestant. But Katie Couric's obituary should read, "like Martin Luther...."

Martin Luther, a man of many character flaws- not the least of which was blatant anti-Semitism- nevertheless sparked one of the greatest social movements in world history, the Reformation.

And so it is with Katie Couric, a woman of many professional flaws, one of them on display on last Sunday's episode of 60 Minutes. Couric and Gates discussed "weapons of mass destruction" in this segment of the interview described by CBS News:

"What scares you the most? What worries you?" Couric asked.

"I think what I and most of us would say, it would be a terrorist with a weapon of mass destruction," Gates said.

"In this country?" Couric asked.

"Yes," he replied.

"Or anywhere in the world?" Couric asked.

"Well, anywhere, but especially in this country," Gates said.

Asked how likely that is, Gates said, "For years, we've received intelligence that they're trying to acquire a weapon of mass destruction. So far, they've been singularly unsuccessful, as far as we know. But it is the one thing that could be a huge challenge."

The flavor of this puff piece can best be appreciated by watching the video itself, available on the CBS website, though apparently not on youtube.

But the most significant part of the interview, which no one will recognize, is Gates' repetition of the term "weapons of mass destruction"- with no explanation or definition, and no request for clarification from Couric.

We've passed this way before. (Video of song by Seals and Crofts, which has nothing to do with this post, below. As to this issue, they were wrong. And on abortion, which is even more unrelated.) Dick Cheney referred to "weapons of mass destruction." George W. Bush emphasized "weapons of mass destruction."Secretary of State Powell, even in his detailed, albeit horribly misleading, address (transcript here) to the U.N. Security Council on February 5, 2003, employed the term "weapons of mass destruction" at least six times. The media repeatedly referred to "weapons of mass destruction" repeatedly and without clarification, helping lay the groundwork for public support of the war President Bush launched.

Repeat a phrase often enough and it becomes part of the lexicon, whether or not the individuals using the phrase, or their audience, know what it means or has any meaning at all. Presumably,if most members of the media had understood the phrase, they would have offered an explanation or at least asked the policymakers what they were referring to. Even now, many Americans regrettably believe chemical and biological weapons are of mass destruction.

This is not inconsequential because there was much evidence that Saddam Hussein possessed chemical and/or biological weapons but little reason to believe he had, or intended to develop or acquire, nuclear weapons. Moreover, Administration sources conflated biological/chemical weapons with nuclear weapons in part to exaggerate the destructive capacity of the former. In a post entitled "Saddam Does Not Have 'Weapons of Mass Destruction'," Timothy Noah on 8/27/02 explained

(Noah) That chemical and biological weapons don't deserve to be called "weapons of mass destruction" is a point long familiar to arms control experts. Here, for example, is Gert G. Harigel of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:

The term "weapons of mass destruction" (WMD), used to encompass nuclear (NW), biological (BW), and chemical weapons (CW), is misleading, politically dangerous, and cannot be justified on grounds of military efficiency. …Whereas protection with various degrees of efficiency is possible against chemical and biological weapons, however inconvenient it might be for military forces on the battlefield and for civilians at home, it is not feasible at all against nuclear weapons.

(Noah) Wolfgang K.H. Panofsky spells out the comparative lethality of nuclear versus chemical and biological weapons in the April 1998 issue of Arms Control Today, in an article headlined "Dismantling the Concept of 'Weapons of Mass Destruction' ":

The weapons detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which killed about a quarter of a million people, had an explosive power about one-tenth that carried by a modern nuclear weapon. … If a 1-megaton thermonuclear warhead exploded at optimum altitude over a large city, little would be left standing or alive within five miles. A firestorm could be ignited, further extending the range of destruction. In a large-scale exchange, lethal fallout would cover an entire region.

(Noah) Biological and chemical weapons, though certainly very nasty, are not nearly so deadly:

If virulent BW materials were to be widely distributed over an exposed population, then the ratio of potential lethality to the total weight of the material could be comparable to that of nuclear weapons. However, for this horrifying scenario to occur, the materials cannot be dispersed by a single-point explosion, but instead must be spread by an appropriate mechanism such as spray tanks or by "fractionating" a missile's payload and dispersing separate mini-munitions over a wide area. Moreover, survival of BW material depends critically on local meteorological and other conditions which define the delivery environment. The survival of agents is generally of short duration and effects are delayed for days. … There is little question that the lethality of chemical weapons—as measured by per unit weight of delivered munitions—is lower by many orders of magnitude than it is for nuclear weapons or the undemonstrated and inherently uncertain potential of biological weapons.

Noah's piece is infinitely (o.k., much more; "infinitively" is like referring to chemical and biological weapons as those of "mass destruction") more informative than Couric's adoring interview. Still, if Katie Couric continues to be a substandard journalist, she will have performed in her professional career a service, though dwarfed by that of Martin Luther, which will have overshadowed any of her deficiencies.

For it was Katie Couric who ever will be remembered as the media personality who asked Sarah Palin what Supreme Court decisions, other than Roe v. Wade, she disagreed with and what newspapers and magazines she "regularly read(s)." Palin's response to those questions helped transform her image as a bold, candid maverick into an immature and unsteady running mate for a 73-year old man. Unfortunate statements and erratic behavior have followed, but Couric's interview helped sink the McCain-Palin ticket, thus shielding the nation from the risk posed of Palin being first in succession to the Presidency. The political career of the former Alaskan governor continues on a downward spiral. And however a McCain presidency might have turned out, that is a major contribution to civilization

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Overwrought Reaction

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