I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Michelle Malkin's site exposes secret virus attack by Iran

(updated below - updated again)

Fox News contributor Michelle Malkin recently created a new website called "Hot Air," which basically exists to warn Americans on a daily basis, in the most urgent and scary tones, that there is a new Muslim plot unfolding on every street corner in America. While Michelle appears in videos on the site, she assigned the task of documenting and commenting on the Muslim menace to an anonymous blogger who respectfully and appropriately calls himself "AllahPundit," and often just "Allah."

Today on Malkin's news site, "Allah" reported that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is waging vicious jihad against the West through the unleashing of secret viruses embedded in Ahmadinejad's new blog. In a post entitled "Iran spreading viruses through Ahmadinejad’s blog?," "Allah" sounded the alarm based on this:

That’s the word on the street, according to an e-mail Bryan just forwarded me. I’ve been over there a bunch of times, though, and haven’t noticed any problems with my computer.

A short time later, a commenter explained that the great Persian virus threat that "Allah" was warning about was nothing but a fantasy in his head:

There’s no virus on that site. The false alarm stems from the fact that most elements on that site are dynamically loaded via JavaScript, and that method could be exploited by malicious code that is injected there, e.g. by comment writers.

Also today on Malkin's site, "Allah" screeched that an international flight from London to DC was diverted perhaps because, "Allah" speculated, of a "Note referencing Al Qaeda?" This cautious alarm was shortly thereafter followed by excited "confirmation" -- the jackpot: "All right, this gets the red font: Fox just said the woman had a note referencing Al Qaeda, along with “vaseline,” matches, and a screwdriver" (emphasis added).

In fact, the plane was diverted because "an apparently claustrophobic passenger" engaged in bellicose behavior, and "federal security official for Logan said there was no indication of terrorism and denied reports that the woman had a screw driver, matches and a note referring to al-Qaeda."

Potential terrorist threats are obviously newsworthy, and national media outlets frequently (and often recklessly) engage in speculative reporting, particularly when it comes to exciting news events, in order to manufacture news interest. "Allah" was not the only one in hysterics over this diverted flight today (though the Iranian blog attack seemed to be his scoop). But numerous pro-Bush blogs such as Malkin's go far beyond mere irresponsible hyping of news stories. They have as their principal goal scouring the Internet in order to find whispers and rumors about scary Muslims and then endlessly harp on them. The most baseless innuendo will be "reported" and the barest rumors of a new Islamic terrorist plot get particularly hysterical and frenzied attention.

So today, readers of Malkin's Hot Air learned that Iran is attacking the world by spreading a deadly computer virus through its leader's new blog ("Bryan" said so in an e-mail), and an airplane had to be diverted because a woman with dangerous weapons and an Al Qaeda note caused a “security emergency.” None of that was true, but no matter. When Malkin and company tomorrow ominously report that some Middle Eastern men bought disposable cell phones at a Wal-Mart, all will be forgotten and forgiven and the fear and aggression levels will remain sufficiently high.

Fox News has been running segments repeatedly warning, literally, that August 22 may be -- to use its own words -- "The End of the World Thanks to Iran," because that date is a special Islamic day of violence when Iranian mullahs have decided to obliterate the West once and for all. They parade on "experts" and other guests to seriously examine the magnitude of the August 22 Persian threat.

For people whose principal source of news and analysis are venues devoted to the daily demonization of Muslims -- one hysterical, scary story after the next from the likes of "Allah" -- what would one expect their views to be on whether endless wars are necessary and constant abridgments of liberties justifiable? Fear-mongering generates aggression against the perceived, exploited threat. That is its purpose.

UPDATE: One point that bears emphasizing is that objections to these fear-mongering tactics do not arise out of a dispute over how seriously to take the threat of terrorism. To the contrary, nobody does more to trivialize the terrorism threat than the hysterics and fear-mongerers who play petty games with it and who seek to squeeze every drop of political advantage out of it on a daily basis. People begin to tune out and cease to take the threat seriously precisely when discussions of terrorism consist of vapid, deceitful obsessions with secret Iranian blog viruses, magic Muslim violence dates, and lurking Islamic terrorists on every neighborhood corner, and when minor risks are exaggerated with transparently political motives.

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I will be on Air America's Majority Report tonight at 8:30 p.m. EST. Local listings are here; live audio feed is here.

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UPDATE II: Andrew Sullivan persuasively suggests that many of the more strident claims made this past week about the U.K. terror plot -- including its imminence and even its plausibility -- may have been unwarranted, even untrue.

Dick Morris revealingly predicted that revelation of this plot would give the President a 10-point bounce in the polls, yet he received almost no boost at all. In addition to causing people to take the terrorism threat less seriously, playing political games with these threats also causes people to be far more skeptical of their government's statements regarding terrorism. It's the classic Boy Who Cried Wolf syndrome, and in the terrorism context, that can be a very dangerous problem.

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