OF BIGOTRY, GREEN FOOTBALLS, AND

OF BIGOTRY, GREEN FOOTBALLS, AND DOUBLE STANDARDS

Glenn Reynolds defends the Little Green Footballs site against charges of bigotry. (See, for example, Max Sawicky’s outburst.)

My first exposure to the site was through this controversy, so I’m not an expert. The first interesting thing I saw on the site was the Prague story (see below), which gave me a favorable impression, reinforced by the site’s high literacy level and generally sober tone.

My second, and stronger, impression was that one of the site’s purposes seems to be convincing its readers that al-Islam, and Muslims generally, are in favor of politico-religious murder. (One of its regular features has the sneering heading “Peaceful Religion Watch.”) That isn’t a nice asssertion; I only wish there were less evidence that seems to support it. A degree of hatred for other religions, and approval of those who act violently on that hatred, that would qualify a Jew or a Christian as an extremist, appears to be well within the Islamic mainstream, both with respect to what religious leaders say and with respect to what politicians, journalists, and schoolteachers say. [That sharia prescribes the death penalty for apostasy doesn’t even seem to be controversial; Torah does the same, of course, but no one even thinks of acting on that commandment.] And the absence of prominent Muslims, and especially of prominent Islamic religious leaders, prepared to loudly and rudely denounce the extremists, is really depressing. (As is the willingness of the international community, including the United States, to treat Saudi Arabia as a partner and not as a rogue state.)

Nonetheless, given how explosive religious bigotry is, it can only be called unfortunate that LGF doesn’t work harder to make a distinction between the murderous strains of political Islam and the Islamic tradition generally, or the hundreds of millions of people who follow the words of the Prophet peacefully. (Yes, the same can be said about those who denounce the excesses of other religions.)

But in light of Glenn Reynold’s forthright denunciation of the gay-baiting of Andrew Sullivan, I wonder how he feels about LGF’s reference to a Jewish apologist for al-Fatah as “Yassir Arafat’s boyfriend”? Do I sniff a double standard?

HAVEL’S BOMBSHELL AND THE SILENCE

HAVEL’S BOMBSHELL AND THE SILENCE OF THE HAWKS

Remember the fuss about the alleged meeting between Mohammed Atta of 9-11 fame and an Iraqi agent in Prague? William Safire has been boosting the story, and virtually calling officials who dismissed it and reporters who covered those dismissals incompetents and liars. Glenn Reynolds posted about it here, and it’s been around the right half of the blogosphere. It’s one of the very few pieces of actual evidence backing up the warhawks’ assertion that SH and ObL are in cahoots. (Note that one could — as I do, on even-numbered days — support taking out SH while disbelieving in the al-Qaeda connection, but politically it’s been an important theme.) Richard M. Smith lays out a careful history of the story up until June.

A front-page story in today’s New York Times says that Czech President Vaclav Havel told “senior officials” in the Bush Administration “earlier this year” that the story didn’t stand up. It occurred to me that it might have been nice if the administration had shared this tidbit with the rest of us, or even with the Congress, rather than leaving the denials in the form of leaks from unamed officials, as Safire documents, but I can’t say I was surprised; if a probably false story is politically useful, why not let it run, while backing off far enough not to get splattered?

Now the question arises, what do the people who helped put the original story around do now? Anyone who would like to bet that Safire retracts, let alone apologizing, may call collect. I’ve spent some time today searching the warblogosphere for references to this story. None yet on Instapundit or the Volokh Conspiracy, but there is one, with a link to the Times story, on Little Green Footballs.

Since Glenn Reynolds reads LGF — he has a post today defending the site from charges of bigotry, which is how I found the reference tot the Prague story — it will be interesting to see how long it takes him to inform his 100,000 readers per day that the assertion in his earlier post doesn’t seem to stand up.

UPDATE

Tom McGuire at JustOneMinute has a nice post on this, under a title I wish I’d written.

SURVEY RESULTS The results of

SURVEY RESULTS

The results of my survey on the Minnesota “voter fraud” flap are in, though not yet numerically tabulated. Most respondents, including most self-identified Democratic partisans, thought the text was ambiguous. One, at least, thought it deliberately so: “nudge-nudge, wink-wink.” So Eugene was right and I was wrong about how a sample of people (at least, a sample of people prompted by a headline and a question about voter fraud) read the text.

Meantime, Juan Non-Volokh links to a follow-up story in which the head of the conservative group that created the flap in the first place denies making any serious accusation at all: “My tongue was planted firmly in my cheek.” Score one more for the Republicans’ capacity to create scandal out of whole cloth, and make it stick.

Juan notes that I didn’t respond on the question of whether a voter registration drive designed to benefit a particular candidate is inconsistent with the legal limits on tax-deductible groups. Like Juan, I’m no expert on the law of 501(c)(3) status, but I think the answer is that such activity is allowed. So, for that matter, is the partisan scandal-mongering of the “Taxpayers’ League of Minnesota,” which is amost certainly a 501(c)(3). Your tax (exempt) dollars at work.

UPDATE

Someone who knows more about 501(c)(3) law than I opines that a voter registration drive explicitly aimed at helping a named candidate is outside the lines. I stand corrected.

Eugene is glad to be vindicated, but agrees that raising frivolous claims about voter fraud isn’t nice. As Confucius says (Analects, I, 1), “How pleasant it is when friends come from afar!”

I think this blog has found its mission: to be a neuron in the electronic corpus callosum connecting the left and right blogospheres.

UPDATE

Spinsanity has a rundown of how this non-story has been bounced around the country. It’s the usual suspects: Brit Hume, Limbaugh, the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, the Manchester Union-Leader. Not a bad return from one phony press release from someone who now says he didn’t mean it. And of course the fact that the whole thing was made up won’t lead any of these folks to retract. Is there some part of the phrase “vast right-wing conspiracy” you need more carefully explained?

A Po-Mo in the White House?

My colleague Andy Sabl, and one or two other readers who have not offered to have their names published, have raised questions about my assertion that universities tend to attract people with a strong urge to keep their thinking coherent and in touch with reality. What about the post-modernists, I am asked? Aren’t they even more tolerant of incoherence, and even less interested in having their ideas track reality, than the ordinary folks whom I called “non-philosophers” and among whom I numbered our current President?

This is not the forum, and I am not the person, for an attempt to disentangle what, if anything, postmodernism means (other than a chance at a career teaching LitCrit or political theory).

Having made the segue from the important (and obviously correct once you think about it) observation that our knowledge of the external world is personally and socially constructed, rather than a Baconian “spelling-out” of the book of nature, to (what seems to me) the obviously silly proposition that such knowledge is merely constructed and has no external validity of the sort that would allow one to brand a proposition as false-to-fact (for there are no facts, only interpretations), the PoMos are able to justify, or explain away, the most appalling crimes. The psychological mechanisms at work are entirely different from those of a Treasury Secretary O’Neill, for example, who denies that the Bush tax cuts benefited the very rich disproportionately, and refuses to allow the Treasury to calculate exactly what that proportion is, but at some level the results are the same, and all laid out in 1984 and Arendt’s “Lying in Politics.”

So I stand corrected. It is not the case that their contempt for the difference between truth and falsehoold distinguishes the President and those who work for him differ from the professoriate generally. That contempt separates them only from the respectable parts of the academic world. There is actually a resemblance between Bush & Co. and the denizens of academia’s lowest slums.

UPDATE:

Thanks to Matthew Yglesias for this link to a Washington Post story documenting Presidential mendacity. Note Ari Flesischer’s bland lie about lying. Perhaps that should be called “meta-lying”?

Criticism and self-criticism

Eugene Volokh has a characteristically clear-minded post on one of the characteristic differences between left and right (in this case, I think, a difference that carries over from liberalism and conservatism in their traditional forms). It’s a matter of overdoing, or underdoing, the natural human preference for that which is one’s own: self, family, party, country. Liberals, in their fear of chauvinism, can fall into the error of being biased against their own countries, just as conservatives can take patriotism to the excess of chauvinism.

One extension of Eugene’s point: this explains why liberals notoriously form circular firing squads. Criticizing your own side, aberrant for conservatives, is a norm for liberals. It also helps explain the liberal overrepresentation among academics: the academic norm of disagreement is congruent with the liberal norm of self-criticism.

OH, NO! NOT SWEDEN AND

OH, NO! NOT SWEDEN AND MISSISSIPPI AGAIN!

Glenn Reynolds has many virtues, but his stubborn refusal to admit that he’s wrong — indeed, his insistence that he’s right when the evidence is flatly against him — is not among them. Consider the following:

Hey, I only just now noticed (via Atrios) that Krugman mentions me in the piece — to say I was right about Sweden, and then to say it doesn’t matter.

[snip]

I will note that Krugman’s comments about Sweden remind me of the standard cry of economic fall-behinds: “we’re poor, but we’re rich in the things you can’t count.” Such statements may be true, of course, but they’re awfully convenient.

Well, actually, no. Krugman does not say that Reynolds was right about Sweden. Krugman points out that Reynolds was completely and utterly wrong about Sweden. And it has nothing to do with “things you can’t count,” unless Reynolds thinks that only money can be counted. Here’s what Krugman actually says:

A few months ago the conservative cyberpundit Glenn Reynolds made a splash when he pointed out that Sweden’s G.D.P. per capita is roughly comparable with that of Mississippi — see, those foolish believers in the welfare state have impoverished themselves! Presumably he assumed that this means that the typical Swede is as poor as the typical resident of Mississippi, and therefore much worse off than the typical American.

But life expectancy in Sweden is about three years higher than that of the U.S. Infant mortality is half the U.S. level, and less than a third the rate in Mississippi. Functional illiteracy is much less common than in the U.S.

How is this possible? One answer is that G.D.P. per capita is in some ways a misleading measure. Swedes take longer vacations than Americans, so they work fewer hours per year. That’s a choice, not a failure of economic performance. Real G.D.P. per hour worked is 16 percent lower than in the United States, which makes Swedish productivity about the same as Canada’s.

But the main point is that though Sweden may have lower average income than the United States, that’s mainly because our rich are so much richer. The median Swedish family has a standard of living roughly comparable with that of the median U.S. family: wages are if anything higher in Sweden, and a higher tax burden is offset by public provision of health care and generally better public services. And as you move further down the income distribution, Swedish living standards are way ahead of those in the U.S. Swedish families with children that are at the 10th percentile — poorer than 90 percent of the population — have incomes 60 percent higher than their U.S. counterparts. And very few people in Sweden experience the deep poverty that is all too common in the United States. One measure: in 1994 only 6 percent of Swedes lived on less than $11 per day, compared with 14 percent in the U.S.

Life expectancy, infant mortality, literacy, leisure, income at the bottom end of the distribution (and, Krugman didn’t add, homicide rates and prison populations) — all measurable and countable, and Sweden is way ahead on every one of them. Not ahead of Mississippi, but ahead of the United States of America, the richest, freest, greatest country in the world.

That doesn’t mean that Sweden’s public policies are better than ours in some absolute sense. Even if they were, that wouldn’t mean that we ought to adopt them; Sweden is a different country, with a different history and a different population, and one size doesn’t fit all. (For a longer exposition of these issues, see here and here.) But it does mean that the right-wing attempt to portray Sweden (richer than France, richer than Britain, richer than Germany) as some sort of disaster area is simply false-to-fact. Enough already.

WHO LOST NORTH KOREA? Lots

WHO LOST NORTH KOREA?

Lots of schadenfreude in the Right Blogosphere about the discovery that North Korea has been building nuclear weapons after all. Here’s an Andrew Sullivan post linked to by both Glenn Reynolds and Eugene Volokh. You can guess what all of them say: Clinton blew it again, the New York Times was wrong, yay for our team. No mention, of course, that one of the consequences of being committed to war with Iraq is that our capacity to do something about North Korea is diminished. And, of course, absolutely no mention of how the Administration kept the Congress in the dark for twelve days, long enough for the Iraq resolution to pass.

So I’m grateful to William Burton for unearthing this little gem. Turns out that as recently as April, Bush waived inspections requirements in order to give North Korea $95 million to keep building a “peaceful” reactor. Burton even notes that the contractor for the project — which would have been out of luck if Bush hadn’t found that the US national interest required the waiver — used to have Don Rumsfeld on its board.

Dollars to donuts none of this ever makes the real media. “Who controls the present controls the past, and who controls the past controls the future.”

THE NOELLE BUSH PRECEDENT So

THE NOELLE BUSH PRECEDENT

So neither Jeb Bush nor his wife were in the courtroom to see daughter Noelle led away in handcuffs. Bush, having asked the media to respect his daughter’s privacy, then went on national TV for an hour to talk about the situation. (You’ll be glad to know he no longer blames himself. I’m OK, you’re OK.) But there’s a silver lining: the case is getting Bush sympathy from undecided voters.

Actually, unlike one left blogger whose post I can’t find right now, I think that Bush’s decision to stay away from the courtroom was, all things considered, a proper one. Showing up would have looked too much like putting pressure on the judge. (Though Bush had already publicly criticized the same judge for refusing to close the hearing, despite the fact that drug court hearings are rarely if ever closed.) And of course his plea for privacy has been extended by the media to not asking about the consistency between his hard-line drug policies (including a big cut in drug treatment funding) and what he wants for his own daughter.

As a result, there has been remarkably little comment about the extraordinary precedent set in this case, a precedent that if followed could put a serious crimp in any sort of drug-diversion or drug-court program. To review the facts briefly: Noelle Bush, age 25, having been caught forging a prescription for Xanax (a short-acting benzodiazepine tranquilizer) was allowed to enter a drug court program, receiving residential treatment under judicial supervision instead of prison time. She then proceeded to bring crack cocaine into the treatment facility, and one of her fellow patients called the cops. (The patient complained that Noelle Bush had been caught repeatedly with drugs, and that the treatment program was allowing her to get away with it while coming down hard on similar violations by other patients. No way to know how much of this is true.)

By the time the cops showed up, the bosses at the clinic had ordered staff members to shred their notes about the incident and not to talk to the police, making it impossible to prove that the rock found in Noelle Bush’s shoe was in fact hers. Prosecutors tried to subpoena evidence from the staff, including the shredded notes, but NB’s lawyers and the clinic’s lawyers argued, successfully, that a federal law protecting the privacy of drug treatment patients forbade any staff member to testify.

Can you imagine the outcry from the drug warriors, starting with Bill Bennett and John Walters, the current drug czar, if such an outrageous claim had been made, and accepted, in a case involving a drug user not named Bush? The whole idea of diversion and drug courts — treatment in lieu of punishment — depends on the ability of the criminal justice system to find out whether the offender is in fact attending, and complying with, treatment. That’s the big advantage of a drug court over a straight diversion program: the judge sits on top of the process and makes sure violations don’t fall through the cracks. But if this interpretation of that federal privacy law — which seems, on its face, designed to protect people from having the fact that they’re in treatment spread around — is right, no treatment provider could ever tell a probation department or a drug-court judge about a client’s no-show or dirty urine. Madness!

My view, for what it’s worth, is that no one should go to prison, or even jail, just for using drugs (or even for forging prescriptions to get them). Selling drugs, or stealing to get drugs, is a different matter. And once someone has been convicted of a crime other than drug possession, using the threat of (very short) jail stays to enforce abstinence from the expensive and addictive drugs whose continued use is virtually inseparable from continued crime makes good sense. [See here for an exposition of this idea, which has now been embraced rhetorically and abandoned practically by two consecutive administrations.]

Anyone with any heart at all has to feel sorry for Jeb Bush in this situation, and if the media must err, I’m glad it has been on the side of cutting him some slack. But there are questions begging to be asked, and if he’s going on TV to talk about it in an effort to get some sympathy votes, then someone ought to be asking them.

Bush is an Idiot: Not!

Matthew Yglesias makes two rude remarks about George W. Bush. Not only do I regard making such remarks as encroaching on my private turf, but in this instance both seem to me false-to-fact. And the wrongness of one helps make sense of the other.

The first has to do with the latest Andrew Sullivan flap. Apparently (I must have missed it) some Left Bloggers have been gay-baiting Sullivan. Glenn Reynolds has been (I think properly) tough about this. Yglesias responds, in effect, that’s it’s odd to hear so much concern about homophobia from backers of a President who believes (1) that no one should have sex outside of marriage and (2) that gays shouldn’t be allowed to marry.

That isn’t really much of a defense of liberal gay-baiting, but it’s not a bad debating comeback: presumably being denied any sexual contact at all is worse than being made fun of for whatever sexual contact one does have. If Bush believes both of those things, Yglesias seems to be saying, then he must believe their logical entailment — that no gay person should ever have sex — and therefore must be a moral monster.

Hold that thought for a moment. Now consider another recent Yglesias comment, this one making fun of the coinage “idiotarian” and the attempt to construct a political philosophy consisting of being against it:

Incidentally, don’t you think “anti-idiotarianism” would be a good name for an ideology based on the proposition that a country shouldn’t be led into war by an idiot?

Now come on, guys, how many times is GWB going to eat our lunch before we figure out that he’s not an idiot? He’s radically unserious, both morally and intellectually, but that’s not the same as being stupid. Let’s not forget that dyslexia, which he almost certainly has and which explains some of his verbal stumbles, is defined as unusual difficulty in reading despite normal intelligence.

When Yglesias calls Bush an idiot, what he means, I think, is that Bush is in the deepest sense not a philosopher: not someone who cares about the difference between true and false, as opposed to what he can get people to believe, or who is concerned that the things he believes should be congruent with reality, or even consistent with each other.

I agree with Plato that it would be useful if our rulers were philosophers in that sense. (Plato can’t have meant that rulers should be deeply interested in, say, epistemology or ethical theory, unless he was an idiot, which seems unlikely.) But I also agree with Plato that, desirable as it might be, having a philosopher-king is not the usual state of affairs. And I strongly disagree with Yglesias’s apparent view that all non-philosophers are idiots.

Arianna Huffington has observed something else about Bush: his low tolerance for complexity. Again, not the most desirable trait in a ruler. But note that the capacity to believe contradictory propositions can substitute for a tolerance for complexity (or rather, tolerance for the cognitive dissonance that recognizing complexity usually entails). So Bush, for example, can believe that nonmarital sex is bad (not obviously false, in sociological terms), that gay marriage would disrupt the social order (again, not a silly belief, though not one I share) and not draw the conclusion — except, perhaps, as a “Sunday belief” — that all gays should be condemned to perpetual celibacy.

Holding the first two beliefs but not the third would be impossible for Yglesias, or me, or you, dear reader, or for anyone Yglesias would regard as not an idiot. But it’s quite easy for the majority of the population.

What Orwell called “doublethink” needs to be inculcated in intellectuals, but that is only because an intolerance for contradiction has been drilled into them. Normal people do it naturally. The average American believes in both physics and astrology. The average American considers himself a Bible Christian but does not believe in Hell. The average American thinks that we should be spending about ten times as much on foreign aid, as a percentage of the Federal budget, as we actually spend, but also wants the foreign aid budget cut, and will simply refuse to believe you if you tell him the actual numbers.

Again, this isn’t aberrant. This is normal and natural. Universities exist in part because people who really, really believe that 2 + 2 = 4 under all circumstances aren’t comfortable in business or government or the professions. Unless intellectuals learn (to use another Orwellism) to “bellyfeel” the fact that most people aren’t intellectuals and are nonetheless not stupid, they’re going to keep getting unwelcome political surprises.

How gay conservatives deal with the fact that the politicians they support hold, or at least express, a set of beliefs that imply that no gay person should ever have sex is a different question.

[Note that it’s possible to believe that without hating gays or thinking that they are bad people. The traditional Christian position is, as C.S. Lewis expressed it, that a homosexual orientation is “a burden to be borne, not a sin to be repented,” but that perpetual chastity is the only proper way to bear that burden. Just chalk it up to the Christian God’s rather quirky sense of humor.]

Granted the assumption — which I don’t hold, but which isn’t obviously self-contradictory — that gay sex is a bad thing, there’s nothing inconsistent thinking that gays ought to be celibate. It’s exactly my view about those unfortunates who are attracted sexually to children, and only to children: the desire isn’t their fault, but they must not act on it, even if the only alternative is celibacy.

“But,” you say, “gay sex isn’t at all like pedophilia. There’s nothing wrong with it.”

Right. But that’s where you and I on the one hand, and George Bush and most of the electorate on the other, disagree.

The voters’ views are obviously changing, and we can trust GWB and his fellow conservatives to follow in due course, once they’ve milked gay-baiting for whatever votes it’s worth. (As Bush did against McCain in South Carolina two years ago, promising never to appoint a gay person to a job in his administration.) After all, today’s Republicans have learned to treat Jews and Catholics as damned near as good as white folks; why not gays? And changing his position won’t cost non-philosopher Bush a night’s sleep.

UPDATE: More thoughts here on Bushism and postmodernism.

BLOOD LIBEL: NOT! MORE ON

BLOOD LIBEL: NOT!

MORE ON BALLISTIC SIGNATURES

To review the bidding for those who came in late:

In answer to a question prompted by the DC-area sniper problem, Ari Fleischer rejected out of hand the proposal to insitute a national ballistic signature system, on technical and privacy grounds, and using the “Why would a killer obey a gun law?” argument.

When it comes to criminal behavior and people who use guns to commit murder, there is no amount of laws that will stop these people from committing these depraved crimes. The issue is their morality. The issue is their values. They have broken the law, they will break the law, new laws do not stop people like this. (See here.)

Congressman Jim Moran asked why the White House wanted to protect the privacy of people “who would be shooting other people.” See here and here. Glenn Reynolds called that a “blood libel.” Various pro-gun bloggers backed up Fleischer in various ways, claiming (1) such a system would cost too much; (2) it would produce too many false positives, leading to unwelcome police visits to buyers of guns with look-alike signatures; (3) a gun’s signature naturally changes with time, and can also be deliberately disguised; (4) getting signatures of new guns wouldn’t do much good due to the large stock of existing weapons, and there’s no feasible way to get signatures from weapons already in private hands; (5) the resulting database would amount to natinal firearms registration, with confiscation as a possible next step.

Flesicher later backed off somewhat, saying the technical issues ought to be studied.

OK. Deep breath. There are two issues here, one operational and one rhetorical. Operations first.

Here’s the proposal. Each firearm would be test-fired (as almost all now are), the peculiarities of the marks it leaves on the bullet and shell casing recorded in some electronic form, and the data stored in a national database along with the serial number of the gun. The serial number, in turn, allows a gun to be traced to the federally licensed firearms dealer [“FFL”] who sells it.

That “gun tracing” process is already (imperfectly) in place for guns found at crime scenes. Each FFL is required to make sure that each purchaser is not disqualified from buying (not a convicted felon, for example), and to retain a record of that check, including the name of the buyer. So, given the identify of the gun, it is possible to trace it to its first retail purchaser. A ballistic signature database would make it possible to start the tracing process with a bullet or shell casing, rather than the gun itself.

Because sales in the secondary market (when one non-dealer owner sells to another) do not have to be background-checked, the trail frequently runs cold at that point. The gun is traced to the retailer and then to the purchaser, but he sold it through an ad in the newspaper to someone whose name he doesn’t recall. Still, tracing statistics can be useful in identifying patterns of illegal gun trafficking.

[Note: Many of us think that it would be useful to eliminate the private-sale loophole and require all weapons transfers to be background-checked, thus making it possible to trace each gun to its last lawful purchaser (and incidentally making it marginally harder for ineligible buyers to acquire guns). Since many secondary-market sales go on at or near gun shows, there is a superstition among the gun controllers, which they have managed to communicate to the press, that there exists some sort of “gun show loophole.” False. Nothing is legal at a gun show that wouldn’t be legal anywhere; the loophole is for private sales generally. But the current trace system still has investigative benefits, despite the problem of the trail running cold.]

There is some dispute about how good current ballistic signature technology is; Eugene Volokh links to a post from Clayton Cramer citing a skeptical view from a California law enforcement working group, though that report is about hanguns rather than rifles. But Moore’s Law is still working hard, so anything that a computer can almost-sorta-kinda do today will probably work pretty well ten years from now. That suggests that whatever system we put in place now ought to record as much data as possible — perhaps a photograph — of the bullet and casing markings, in addition to whatever classification is now done, in order to allow upgrading the in the future.

A system with a high false-positive rate will be too expensive to use routinely; on the other hand, if the Maryland State Police had a list of 200 rifles, with one chance in three that the sniper’s gun is on that list, they’d be running down those leads.

Yes, markings change with use, and can be deliberately altered. But here again advances in image-processing techniques are likely to make such techniques decreasingly useful, as people who thought they had erased audio tapes or deleted files from computer storage media have discovered.

But the “What do we do about old guns?” argument actually destroys the “Technology isn’t ready yet” argument. Whatever its technical capacity, the system won’t be much use the day it starts, because it won’t have many signatures in it. Over time, the proportion of guns whose signatures are recorded will rise, and the usefulness of the system will rise with it. That means that the time to start taking signatures is before the comparison system is fully mature — now, for example — so that when the computers get smart enough to do high-accuracy automated comparisons they’ll have some data to do them on.

The “gun registration” argument is pure red herring, though Eugene takes it seriously as does the Right-Thinking Blogger. Given the serial number of a gun, it’s already possible to trace it to its first retail purchaser, though the records are decentralized in the FFL’s rather than kept in a national database. Taking ballistic signatures won’t change that in any way; such a system only means that, given a crime-scene bullet or shell casing, it might be possible to identify it with a gun — even if the gun isn’t available — and thus with a purchaser. Gun confiscation will be exactly as feasible technically the day after the system is in place as it was before. (Exactly as feasible politically, too, which is to say, not feasible at all.)

The “We have enough laws already” business is herring of an even deeper red. No one is asking killers to obey anything. We’re trying to make it easier to catch them: trying that is, to better enforce the laws already on the books, which is precisely the mantra of the NRA and its tame politicians.

None of this answers the question about whether compiling a database of ballistic signatures is currently worth doing; some experts (David Kennedy, among others) think so, as does the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, but they could be wrong. Still, the alacrity with which the White House press secretary (acting on instructions, of course) dismissed the idea on obviously fallacious grounds suggests that the politics of guns currently trumps even domestic-security concerns at 1600 Pennsylvania. If terrorist threats are now a semi-permanent feature of the American landscape, making investments now that pay anti-terror dividends in five years is only prudent. (Fleischer’s quick retreat suggests that, at least this close to election day, even the NRA isn’t all-powerful.)

Now back to Mr. Moran. If he really meant, or meant his hearers to understand, that Ari Fleischer and his bosses don’t want to do ballistic tracing because they want serial killers not be be caught, that would have been an obviously false and defamatory thing to say. But it seems implausible that he meant that, or that he meant to be misunderstood in that way. He was indulging a fairly standard rhetorical device: stating an unintended consequence of one’s opponent’s position and then demanding why anyone would desire it, eliding the fact that the position so attacked has advantages as well as disadvantages. [Moran seems to be saying that only criminals, rather than target shooters or hunters, will have their guns “matched” by the database, which would be true only if the technology were perfect; in the real world, a certain number of innocent people are going to find the police on their doorsteps asking questions, not necessarily politely.]

That’s not a rhetorical trick I approve of, because it tends to conceal, rather than revealing, what’s at stake in a dispute. But to call it a “blood libel” seems to me … well, libellous.

The original, or copyright, Blood Libel was the accusation that Jews made ritual use of the blood of Christian babies. (In the most common version, the blood was used in baking matzoh for Passover.) The first time I heard it used in political discourse to describe a false charge of non-ritual killing was by Ariel Sharon and his friends, who called it a “blood libel” that people held Sharon responsible for a mass killing undertaken by his Christian Lebanese allies against their Palestinian opponents, with Sharon’s troops nearby and not intervening. I thought it then, and think it now, a skilful attempt to portray Sharon as a victim of anti-Semitism rather than as someone who had provided a good reason to be ashamed of being a Jew. But the logic from Sharon’s side was clear: Jews had been falsely accused of murder in the past, and this accusation against a Jew was simply a reversion to that unsavory practice. (Who says the left has a copyright on victim-mongering?)

But all of that was a long way from Congressman Moran. When the President said, in reference to the Senate Democrats’ unwillingess to make the proposed Homeland Security Agency a patronage dump for Karl Rove (see how easy it is to make a difficult problem seem easy if you’re willing to be nasty enough?), that the Democrats preferred the interests of public-employee unions to the security of the nation, was that a blood libel? When Attorney General Ashcroft claimed that opposition to military tribunals was aiding and abetting terrorism, was that a blood libel?

The seeming willingness of this administration to sacrifice privacy in every other domain — not just in the domestic-security realm, but also with respect to things such as medical records — makes it hard to swallow the claim that its willingness to forgo possible investigative advantage in the case of guns is due to its solicitude for privacy rights. (This isn’t the first instance of preferring gun owners’ privacy to public safety; we’ve already had the Attorney General’s announcement that the FBI would be required to instantly destroy records from the National Instant Check System, thus making it harder to prosecute some violations of the felon-in-possession law.) The decision to oppose ballistic signatures without looking at their merits was a decision to please the gun-rights crowd rather than give (future) law enforcement an extra edge.

It’s not libel to say so. Truth is a defense.

[UPDATE: There turn out to be several technical errors in the above. The system under development works on shell casings, not bullets. It’s not just images that would be stored, but the actual casings themselves. And the point about false positives apparently isn’t right: comparing two casings can provide a definitive match. Thanks to Susan Ginsburg for the corrections.]