Five Best Tuesday Columns
Michael Chertoff and Dallas Lawrence on social media helping a manhunt, Erwin Chemerinsky on the constitutional rights of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Richard Overy on the use of the word 'Nazi,' John Villasenor on ownership and Google Glass, and William Germano on writing for readers.
Michael Chertoff and Dallas Lawrence in The Wall Street Journal on social media helping a manhunt Social media and user generated sites — most centrally, Reddit, 4chan, and Twitter — not only documented the Boston bombings and subsequent search for the suspects; they organized, and even helped, much of the investigation itself, write former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Dallas Lawrence. "Moments after photos and video of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects were posted to FBI.gov, the government's website nearly crashed from the crush of visitors. [The Boston Police Department] posted all of the official photos and video to social media to compensate for the lagging website and to encourage their online distribution," the pair observes. "Many people shared these posts online—with some posts re-tweeted 16,000 to 17,000 times. Each one of these 'shares' on social media increased the visibility of the pictures and video that were key to identifying and locating the suspects—and to letting the suspects know that their images were everywhere. That knowledge is likely what prompted the Tsarnaev brothers to bolt from hiding." An account this weekend in The Washington Post, suggested otherwise — that the FBI released the photos last Thursday "in part to limit the damage being done to people who were wrongly being targeted as suspects in the news media and on the Internet." Jack Shafer at Reuters offered his forgiveness, given the adrenaline of today's media. "No longer passive recipients of the news, [readers and viewers] talk back to the press as never before, putting additional pressure on the press corps to get it right and to untangle the news pretzel they've baked. And that’s wonderful."
Erwin Chemerinsky at the Los Angeles Times on the constitutional rights of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Calls to label alleged Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as an "enemy combatant" would have subjected Tsarnaev to a military tribunal, before the White House announced Monday he would be tried as the American citizen he is — all of which has led constitutional scholar Erwin Chemerinsky to remind us that "[t]he Constitution does not — and should not — permit trying American civilians in military tribunals. A verdict from a military tribunal, no matter how fair the proceedings, never would have the credibility of a conviction from a federal court. More important, there is no stopping point to the erosion of the Constitution; why couldn't any crime that caused significant loss of life be deemed an act of terror and the suspect denied constitutional protection?" These calls have risen before, Chemerinsky notes. "Throughout American history, whenever there has been a serious threat, people have proposed abridging civil liberties. When that has happened, it has never been shown to have made the country safer." Michael M. Rosen, writing at Reuters, vehemently disagreed, writing that classifying Tsarnaev as an enemy combatant might somehow help deter future terrorist attacks. "As we sift through the challenging implications of last week's events, we must aim to deter future acts of terror on our soil by U.S. citizens and legal residents. Treating and trying domestic terrorists as enemy combatants can provide such a deterrent. The strongest reason to do this is to send a signal to other would-be terrorists that we, as a society, consider these acts so repellant that we treat them as acts of war."
Richard Overy in History Today on the use of the word 'Nazi' "Few words in regular use in historical writing can have been abused as much as the word 'Nazi,'" inveighs Richard Overy, who explains how the National Socialist German Workers Party ruled, and in some ways did not rule, German culture in the early-to-mid 20th century — and how that history have been obscured by the use of the party's nickname. "The failure to use the term with more precision has important consequences for the way the history of the Third Reich is written. It implies that the regime and the party dominated German institutions and social groups to an unprecedented extent ... The blanket assumption of 'Nazi' characteristics obscures the wide variety of institutions, organisations, cultural events and social tensions that can be found at every level under the Hitler regime. These phenomena need to be understood, and to do so they require a more sophisticated historical vocabulary." The search for lingual precision among atrocities continues, insists Jonah Goldberg in the Los Angeles Times, on the topic of the phrase "right-wing": "Before the identities of the Boston bombers were confirmed, [NPR's Dina Temple-Raston] said her sources were "leaning" toward believing that it was a homegrown 'right-wing' attack, and cited that 'April is a big month for antigovernment and right-wing individuals.' ... among the myriad reasons conservatives take offense ... is that the term 'right wing' is also routinely used to describe mainstream Republicans such as Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney. I can exclusively report that neither of them celebrate Hitler's birthday."
John Villasenor at Slate on ownership and Google Glass Google Glass, the wearable computer that plugs into Google's ubiquitous online services, charts new territory in the world of license-based goods, writes John Villasenor. "Google Glass ... is made useful largely through its ability to connect to license-based service offerings. When you use a service such as Google Maps, you do so under a license to access the associated content—you’re a licensee, not an owner of that content." And, he says, the inability of Glass owners to resell their headsets is misguided: "Most fundamentally, it does an end run around legal frameworks that evolved specifically to prohibit anti-competitive and consumer-unfriendly downstream control over transfers of ownership. And it’s confusing for consumers." But to David Kravets and Roberto Baldwin, who first reported the reselling restriction for Wired, the policy seems more or less inevitable: "Strange as it may sound, you don’t actually own much of the software you buy today. You essentially rent it under strict end-user agreements that have withstood judicial scrutiny. Google appears to be among the first to apply such draconian rules to consumer electronics."
William Germano at The Chronicle of Higher Education on writing for readers William Germano implores scholarly writers to renew their focus on readers, warning against crafting their books as "snow globes," hermetically sealed off from other people. "You might think that having all that power makes things easy for our reader. But it doesn't. There's too much to read, to know, to search for, to copy and paste; too much to wade through to locate the right scholarly writer with the right scholarly message. Even a successful quest will often end in disappointment. New reading conditions make old questions even more important: Whatever we write is for readers, or it's nothing at all. Do we write as if we mean to welcome readers?" Striking the same chord, Matthew Battles at The New York Times pushes back against the idea of writers as recluses, and situates them in the ongoing bustle of reality. "The poet Martial may have had a slave run a poem out into the world for reaction and contemplation. We now have Twitter and Facebook. But, overall, the exchange takes place where it always has: amid the blooming, buzzing confusion of the world."