A Children’s Treasury of Analogies in the NSA Debate

After Glenn Greenwald’s husband was briefly detained in Heathrow airport while carrying stolen, encrypted top secret government files over the weekend, yet another round of florid, over-the-top reactions came out in the commentary industry. Common to these is a misreading of the facts of what happened (namely that Miranda was being used to traffic stolen top secret government documents across national borders), or comparisons so ludicrous as to defy reason.

So here we go:

Glenn Greenwald: “But to start detaining the family members and loved ones of journalists is simply despotic. Even the Mafia had ethical rules against targeting the family members of people they felt threatened by. But the UK puppets and their owners in the US national security state obviously are unconstrained by even those minimal scruples.”

Andrew Sullivan: So any journalist passing through London’s Heathrow has now been warned: do not take any documents with you. Britain is now a police state when it comes to journalists, just like Russia is.

Kerry Howley: kind of romantic that loving a journalist is now an act of terrorism

Jack Shafer: If you bring a thumbdrive into the UK, you’re a criminal suspect.

Philip Gourevitch: when African states do like this US & UK act all superior: Glenn Greenwald’s partner detained at Heathrow for 9 hrs

Amie Stepanovich: Now, when following a story, journalists will not only consider their own liability, but the risk they are taking on behalf of their family.

Kevin Gozstola: This act committed by the United Kingdom (and likely in service to the United States government) is similar to what the government of Iran has done in its targeting of journalists’ families.

Gozstola, again: For nine hours, Miranda was the United Kingdom’s hostage… The hostage-taking was all to send a message to other journalists that this could happen to them if they report on information from whistleblowers, who dare to reveal how the national security apparatuses of countries are committing abuses and crimes by violating the rights and privacy of citizens.

You know, I’d planned to keep going, just to demonstrate the breadth of the deliberately misleading outrages journalists, commentators, and random people are spewing over this, but now I’m thoroughly depressed. This reminds me of when the New Yorker’s John Cassidy said “I’m with Snowden,” and demanded journalists answer, “Which side are you on?”

Just as then, being on the side of the truth is, apparently, not an option here — the world is not a series of complex events, but a simplified bifurcation into “us” and “them,” and “them” always must be vilified as your enemy. I expect this sort of manicheanism from Beltway partisan rags, but not from high-brow magazines and ostensibly professional journalists… but that is, apparently, naive of me.

This is the sort of story that hits close to home. It can be deeply worrying when a loved one gets wrapped up in a project you’re working on — like a John Grisham novel or something. But the specifics here, especially how Greenwald and his employer deliberately involved said family member, also matter deeply to why it played out the way it did. That so many commentators not only cannot recognize that (the depressing majority of journalists commenting on this incident did not acknowledge such exculpatory information), but actively make comparisons to genuinely horrific police states or organized criminals that murder their own citizens (another common trope of Greenwald’s hyperbolic rhetoric about the U.S.), should matter.

But apparently it doesn’t. No one is going to wonder about the heated, and factually incorrect, overreactions to David Miranda’s detention because it is inconvenient to do so. Which means the next time anything remotely similar happens, the reaction will be the same — and will be just as wrong.

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