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A Dangerous Lack of Rigor


Two recent events reveal the lack of rigor that has come to pervade our public sphere: the failure of the UN (or anybody else) to question seriously the case for war against Iran, and the first presidential “debate.”

At its annual meeting, the UN General Assembly squandered an opportunity to invite U.S. and Israeli officials to produce their evidence that Iran is building a nuclear bomb, and to substantiate their claims that if Iran builds a bomb, it presents a threat to world peace and security that cannot be “contained.”  As I’ve written here, such a process would be easy to set up in the UN or Congress. Indeed, any country could host such a tribunal.

Instead, the world slouches toward a replay of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.  The case against Iraq was built on flimsy and fraudulent evidence. That’s common knowledge – now.  But it could have been common knowledge then if the case against Iraq had been tested rigorously beforehand.

What’s painfully missing in our public discourse is cross-examination.  Lawyers have long agreed with jurist John Henry Wigmore’s assessment: “Cross-examination is the greatest legal engine ever invented for the discovery of truth.” Indeed, a criminal defendant’s right to cross-examine witnesses against him is enshrined in the Constitution.  In cross-examination, the questioner can probe where the facts came from and whether they’re built on faulty perceptions, mistaken memory, flawed methodology, untamed ambiguity, bias, or outright lies. The questioner can pin down a person’s position, clarify ambiguities, expose inconsistencies and logical flaws.  People are cross-examined every day in countless minor court cases across America, yet we routinely fail to cross-examine officials who claim it’s necessary to send U.S. troops to their deaths, kill and maim thousands of innocent people, and spend billions of dollars. We apply more rigor to a restaurant’s application for a liquor license than to a President’s war cries.

Had then-Secretary of State Colin Powell been cross-examined during his now-infamous February 5, 2003 presentation to the Security Council– a presentation mainstream U.S. media patsies reported as convincing  – the U.S. case would have been exposed as built on coerced confessions, lies, illogic, forged evidence, fear-mongering, and an interest in stealing Iraq’s oil.  Support for the war would have eroded. It’s shocking that such inquiry isn’t required by law, given U.S. leaders’ track record of defrauding Americans into war.

The U.S. case against Iran appears at least as flimsy – if not an out-and-out con job  – as its case against Iraq.  The UN, Congress, and corporate media’s failure to examine it is unconscionable.  It’s not as if no one knows this is a problem.  The New York Times and Washington Post actually issued mea culpas in 2004 for failing to ask rigorous questions about the U.S case against Iraq. No lesson was learned, apparently.  Instead of questioning the case against Iran, U.S. corporate media appear to be helping the Obama Administration make its case for war.

A brief example: On this year’s anniversary of 9/11, the Associated Press treated readers to an “exclusive” story that the International Atomic Energy Agency, which oversees inspections under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), had “received” new intelligence about Iran’s bomb-building, from the U.S., Israel, and “at least two other Western countries.”  (George Jahn, “AP Exclusive: New Intelligence on Iran Nuke Work”)  The AP’s sources: six anonymous diplomats.  Anonymous diplomats? Really? This was newsworthy only in that it revealed a patent, comically cynical attempt to manipulate a public already over-manipulated with 9/11 remembrances into supporting a war.

A lack of rigor also pervaded the October 3 presidential “debate.”  These debates follow a format negotiated by the candidates with the business-funded Commission on Presidential Debates.  Not surprisingly, the debates are set up to avoid serious questioning – there’s no cross-examination! You can’t be on a college, or even high school, debate team if you refuse to submit to cross-examination, but you can rule the most powerful and destructive country in the world.

It’s a sign of our lame-brained, select-a-fact times that our leaders never have to face serious questioning, even when they threaten to get us into another war. Maybe that’s what it means to run the country as a business: empty-suited CEOs drive their companies over cliffs while espousing platitudes to angry, scared – and silent – employees. But we’re still a country, not a company. We must question authority.  If we don’t, history’s judgment will be against us.

Brian J. Foley is a law professor. Email him at Brian_J_Foley@yahoo.com  See his blog  Lawpaganda.


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