P.S. ACOT: Larry King Deconstructs A Blunkett Remark

P.S. ACOT: Larry King Deconstructs A Blunkett Remark

[I decided to put this in my column:

At the same time, British Home Secretary David Blunkett wrote the following in The Observer in Britain: "I could have appeared a dozen times last week on radio and television, but I turned down the offers. I would have merely added to the speculation, to the hype, to the desire for something to say for its own sake. In other words, to feed the news frenzy in a slack news period. Is that really the job of a senior cabinet minister in charge of counterterrorism? To feed the media? To increase concern? To have something to say, whatever it is, in order to satisfy the insatiable desire to hear somebody saying something? Of course not. This is arrant nonsense." I particularly like his use of the word errant.

Then I decided to ask Larry King, what he thought. After a long absence, I am proud to return him to my web site with fresh material.]

The passage you quote from the Observer has more to do with British politics than anything else. David Blunkett is the Home Secretary, a cabinet-level post roughly analogous to Attorney General in the U.S. He wrote the Observer piece shortly after thirteen men were arrested in and around London on suspicion of terrorist activity. His Tory counterpart had criticized him for not being more forthcoming about what, exactly, they might have been up to.

Coincidentally, the government had just issued its long-awaited instructions to the public on what to do in the case of a major terrorist attack. They came in a 22-page pamphlet mailed to every household. The advice boiled down to: go home, stay there, and listen to the wireless for instructions.

The 13 men arrested are suspected, among other things, of planning to explode a so-called dirty bomb, one that spews radioactive material through a conventional explosive. Not everyone thought the most sensible response would be to toddle along home, put on the kettle, tune in to the BBC, and wait for the gamma radiation to seep through the garden window.

And possibly not so coincidentally, Blunkett was about to feature in one of our fun-loving tabloids for his affair with a married woman. In those circumstances, some people thought, an alert politician might take pre-emptive action to ward off any suggestion he was paying less than full attention to his official duties. I'm aware some circles in the States see this as a rebuke by Blunkett of his American counterparts.

I can see how that explanation appeals in those circles, where it's an article of faith the Saudis told Cheney to make sure Bush sets off at least three terrorist alerts before the election so Halliburton can profit from a panicky rush to build bomb shelters in remote locations. Although Michael Moore will expose the whole business eventually, it'll be too late. By then most Americans will have been sent to the corporate detention camps to be re-educated for their new minimum-wage jobs with no health-care benefits flipping hamburgers at McDonalds and making lattes for Starbucks. In fact, what we're seeing is an illustration of the cultural differences between the U.S. and Britain. Americans provide too much information, in almost any situation. Strangers on airplanes explain the pathology of their latest divorce before the seatbelt sign pings off. Brits guard all information as if it were the family silver. You can sleep with an Englishwoman for months and get less data from her than an American gives a clerk at the Division of Motor Vehicles when he's renewing his driver's license. (Trust me on this one.)

The different attitudes are reflected in how the two governments treat their citizens. Actually, in Britain, you're not a citizen; you're a subject. The different terms are instructive. A citizen, according to the oldest usage cited in the Oxford English Dictionary, is "an inhabitant of a city or (often) of a town; esp. one possessing civic rights and privileges.'' A subject, by contrast, is "one who is under the dominion of a monarch or reigning prince; one who owes allegiance to a government or ruling power, is subject to its laws, and enjoys its protection.''

So in the U.S., you have rights and privileges; among those most people count the right to know what the hell is going on. In the U.K., you're under the dominion of a family of German immigrants whose collective achievement comes down to one thing: they were born. Nevertheless, if you need to know what they or their government are up to, you'll be told, in due course. Possibly. Someone in a better position than you to judge what you're capable of comprehending will decide.

Of course, American governments lie, obfuscate, mislead, and generally do their best to keep their citizens from finding out what they're up to. But since the fall of Richard Nixon, they usually haven't tried to stonewall completely. Even Bill Clinton, accused of the heinous transgression of enjoying sex with a nearby airhead, felt he had to lie, evade, dance around the issue, and end up making a fool of himself, rather than just say, "Hey, pal, it's none of your business."

British governments stonewall routinely. You can't even call it stonewalling, since nobody expects them to tell people much. One of the most disorienting experiences British journalists have, their titanic hangovers aside, comes when they're sent to the U.S., especially to Washington. They're staggered by the wealth of information the U.S. government makes available. An American journalist who's new in London, on the other hand, spends months cursing the supercilious civil-servant twits who tell him with thinly veiled contempt they have no intention of revealing to him some piece of information he could get back home from a web site.

It's worth remembering the arrests in the U.K. came because Pakistan, working with the U.S., arrested a man who handled a great deal of communication for al Qaeda. Intelligence stemming from that arrest led the U.S. to raise its terrorism-alert level. To explain why, the head of the Department of Homeland Security and various intelligence officials gave press conferences and released a lot of explanatory material. The transcripts of the press conferences alone run to about ten pages. More material was released in ensuing days. By contrast, the British government's total disclosure related to the arrests around London consisted of this e-mail from Scotland Yard:

Thirteen men were arrested under the Terrorism Act 2000 this afternoon and evening as part of a pre-planned, on- going intelligence-led operation. The men have been arrested on suspicion of being concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism. The arrests were made in north west London, Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and Lancashire. Officers are executing a number of search warrants at residential premises granted under the Terrorism Act 2000. The search warrants are being executed at residential premises in London, Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and Lancashire. Searches are on-going and are expected to take some time to complete. The men are aged in their 20s and 30s. They will be brought to a central London police station and interviewed by officers from the Met's Anti-Terrorist Branch. Today's operation is part of continuing and extensive inquiries by police and the Security Service into alleged international terrorism. Officers from the Met's Anti-Terrorist Branch were supported by officers from Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and Lancashire.

That's it. No press conferences, no elaboration. In the next couple of weeks, a few more press releases followed. Most were a couple of lines that said the police had applied for extensions to detain the men further, a legal necessity. One said one of the men had been released. Another said two of them had been "de-arrested'' on terrorism charges but arrested on charges related to forged documents. The most recent, this week, gave the names of the men and the charges against them. None provided any detail of what the men were suspected of, except what could be gleaned from the formal charges.

In that light, look again at the statement by Blunkett. Consider what he's saying: "Is that really the job of a senior cabinet minister in charge of counterterrorism? To feed the media? To increase concern? To have something to say, whatever it is, in order to satisfy the insatiable desire to hear somebody saying something? Of course not. This is arrant nonsense.''

Note first his insistence on his position in the hierarchy. He's a "senior cabinet minister.'' You should never forget that British society is still dominated by its class system. In fact, you can't forget, because those who feel they belong to a class above yours -- senior cabinet ministers, for instance -- will damn well make sure you remember.

He asked, is it the job of such an august person to "feed the media.'' Yeah, as a matter of fact, it is. The media are how you talk to people. People elected you to office. Their taxes provide the budget for the department of which you are the august senior minister. Not to mention the salary that allows you to carry on with married women in the style to which you've grown accustomed.

"To increase concern?'' Damn right, if concern ought to increase. Personally, it concerns me quite a lot that the London area was sheltering at least eleven men who you, the august senior cabinet minister, suspect wanted to blow me and my friends all to hell and gone.

"To have something to say ...'' etc. In the circumstances, the senior cabinet minister should have something to say. If you can't think of anything else, maybe you could explain why you shouldn't be replaced by somebody who can think of something else.

"Of course not. This is arrant nonsense.'' Quiet, peasants. Guards! Clear this rabble. Horsewhip a few; remind them of their place. To put things in the contrasting light, imagine Tom Ridge or John Ashcroft saying something similar. Keep in mind they'd be saying it after the arrest of a group of young Moslem men in whose possession were plans for various public buildings, forged identification, and a variety of weapons. Would the right response -- shifting into the local idiom -- really be: "Hey, I'm a busy guy. Why should I be talking to a bunch of reporters right now? You think I ought to run off at the mouth just to hear myself talk? That's bullshit.'' Nobody would tolerate that in the U.S. Here, the people know their place.

Cheers,
Larry King

-----

Larry King is an American-born expatriate I know who lives in London. He is not the talk show host, nor is he the author of The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas. From time to time, he contributes a Letter From Europe to my column. Below, I list the letters that have appeared so far.

Larry King's Letter from Europe: Very Little Happens in August (Sep. 6, 1999)

Larry King's Letter from Europe (Feb. 2, 2000)

Larry King Takes Over The Column: Spring in London (April 10, 2000)

Of Twits And Things (July 24, 2000)

Larry King on Eurostar (March 19, 2001)

Joe Brancatelli and Larry King on Rail Travel (March 26, 2001)

Larry King on Foot and Mouth and British Tourism (April 2, 2001)

Larry King on 9/11 (Oct. 15, 2001)

Larry King on Lords and Dukes And Journalists (Feb. 11, 2002)

Larry King on Presidential Greatness (March 4, 2002)

Larry King on British Broadcasting (March 11, 2002)

Larry King on England, the U.S. and the Middle East (April 29, 2002)

Larry King on the case FOR the war with Iraq (March 24, 2003)

Larry King Deconstructs A Blunkett Remark (August 19, 2004)

Larry King On The British Election (May 9, 2005)

Larry King On 7/8 Bombing (July 10, 2005)

Larry King: Bye Bye Blair (May 28, 2007)

Larry King: Thoughts On The State of Journalism and Teaching (January 18, 2008)

Larry King Letter from London: American Ex-Pats Vote (May 19, 2008)

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