FRAMESHOP: Outsmart 'Em

To avoid being drawn into the 'ticking bomb' frame that the GOP is using to control the debate on terrorism, respond with the 'outsmart 'em frame.

Redirect  with this question:  Why has Bush failed to outsmart the terrorists?

When we talk about safety in terms of being smart, rather than being brutal--we focus attention on the real issue in this torture debate:  the dumb brute policies of the Bush Administration.

Outsmart and outhustle.

The 'Ticking Bomb' Frame

The so-called 'ticking bomb' frame that has dominated the debate on national security over the past few days. But why is it wrong?  Progressives are having a hard time responding to this frame, and as a result are losing ground in the moral arguments about the illegal torture policy of President Bush and Vice President Cheney, and the illegal network of secret prisons. 

What can Democrats say to reframe the debate on torture?

Here are a few suggestions....

Here is the scenario described by the 'ticking bomb' frame:

At 11am on a Monday morning, the Metropolis police discover that a terrorist cell plans to blow up the city with a huge bomb.  The bomb is set to explode at 12noon that same day--in one hour.  At that same time, the police capture a known terrorist and bring him to a police station for questioning.  In order to find out where the bomb is located and disarm it, thereby saving millions of lives, the police decide to use torture.

This story has been told in some form or another pretty much non-stop for the past few days.  Ever since the media began reporting on a network of secret prisons run by the CIA and aggressively backed by the Vice President, the White House has been arguing that the possibility of a ticking bomb scenario requires that there be no restrictions on interrogation.

The basic elements of the White House argument are the same as the basic elements of the 'ticking bomb' frame, which are as follows:

  • the clock is ticking on a catastrophic disaster
  • many lives will be destroyed
  • knowledge of how to stop this disaster exists
  • police/authorities do not have this knowledge
  • a terrorist suspect does have this knowledge
  • to stop this disaster, the police must force the suspect to give them the knowledge
  • a choice is made to force out this knowledge using torture
  • one life is destroyed to save millions

There are certainly more elements in this frame than I've outlined, but those are the basics.

So what's wrong with this?  And what's the alternative?

Problem:   Break Glass in Case of Emergency
The first big problem with this 'ticking bomb' frame is how it frames the idea of 'knowledge' or 'information.'  Notice how the torture narrative is based on the premise of getting knowledge 'out of' someone. When someone is tortured, people often talk about 'breaking' the person.  We do what is necessary to get them to 'spill the beans' or do what we have to so that the suspect 'coughs up' what they have.  This is a metaphor of 'knowledge' as a thing that is inside of someone.

Once this idea of a knowledge or information is established, the rest follows. Torture, in this conception, is identical to the "break glass in case of emergency" scenario that everybody knows  well.  In every building there is a box with an ax inside, behind protective glass.  Under no circumstances should we break that glass, take out the ax and start hacking at people's doors--unless the building is on fire, then we break the glass and hack away. The emergency suspends normal rules of "do not break public property" "do not destroy" and  so forth.  And while it may seem frightening at first, we must break the glass in order to save those lives.

In the case of the 'ticking bomb' frame, the ax is the knowledge or information 'inside' the terrorist.  Ordinarily, we would not break the glass.  But when there is a 'fire' (e.g., a nuclear bomb in Metropolis), we have a moral imperative to break the glass to get the 'ax' out.

The problem, of course, with this idea as it is applied to the current situation, is that the White House's 'War on Terror'  essentially claims that every building is on fire at all times, such that whenever we see a fire box, we are compelled break the glass and start hacking at doors.  Pretty soon, those axes are no longer tools for saving lives.  They become a danger in and of themselves.   

Solution:  Outsmart and Outhustle
To reframe the 'ticking bomb' debate, we can't  just take a softer position on when we required to break that glass--on when we should and should not torture.  Instead, we need to redefine the entire way we talk about this situation.

We should begin to reframe the 'torture' debate, in other words, by asking this simple question:

Why have we failed to outsmart and outhustle the terrorists?

Here we can begin to see the basic structure of a completely knew way of talking about national security that defines secret prisons and torture for what they are:  failures.

The scenario for national security we must begin to imagine--and insist on talking about--is a scenario where we never depend on a suspect to tell us where the 'ticking bomb' is hidden.  We have failed if we have not worked hard enough, fast enough and--most importantly--smart enough to anticipate and prevent the 'ticking bomb' from happening.

When we capture that suspect, we want to place him or her in a room, and tell them something they did not know when they arrived there:  We found the bomb before your colleague placed in there. 

To protect this country, we must outsmart and outhustle the terrorists.

Now, let's return for a second to the initial 'ticking bomb' scenario and look at it from the perspective of the 'outsmart and outhustle' frame.

In that scenario, the police or military interrogator is not the embodiment of power and strength, but the very image of the dumb brute.  And the terrorist is not the embodiment of mortal danger but the very image of the smiling, clever crook. 

The scene in the interrogation room--the place where the 'ticking bomb' frame asks us to suspend our morals to allow for torture--is in fact the classic encounter between the angry and frustrated dumb brute, and the silent and smug genius criminal. 

And by embracing and repeating this 'ticking bomb' scenario over and over again, we are accepting the image of America as that dumb brute, unable to solve problems in any way other than to crush the competition with a lethal pounding of big, angry fists.

The 'ticking bomb' scenario, when seen through the 'outsmart and outhustle' frame, shows clearly that the choice to torture is the choice to accept that America is a dumb brute, and the terrorist is quick and smart.

The 'Outsmart and Outhustle' Frame
Torturing prisoners will not change the fact that the Bush Administration has failed to outsmart and outhustle the terrorists.  It will only make a bad situation worse.

President Bush's policy of torture is just the latest in a long list of mistakes by an administration that has failed to be smart and fast enough to protect the American people.

When the United States military outsmarted and outhustled Osama Bin Laden, and trapped him in the caves of Afghanistan--President Bush chose to forfeit that success by using brute strength to destroy Iraq.  And he failed. And American is less safe for it.

When homeland security started to outsmart and outhustle terrorists through a series of innovative security measures at airports and in our cities--President Bush chose to abandon that success by setting up a network of secret prisons that use brute strength to torture suspects.  And he failed.   And America is less safe for it.

When local state authorities try to outsmart and outhustle illegal immigrants crossing into America, and the potential danger than this influx may cause--President Bush chose to give billions in tax breaks to wealthy Americans, forcing vigilante groups to resort to brute strength to protect our borders.  And this is failing.  And America is less safe for it.

And the list goes on.

Rather than trying to outsmart and outhustle the threats to America, President Bush keeps taking the road to failure--he keeps trying to protect America with the tactics of the dumb brute.

But as every child in America knows, it is Jack who outsmarts the giant, and it is David who slays Goliath.  The dumb brute may look menacing in the short  run, but he is always brought down.

America can no longer afford to let this White House drag the nation into failure after failure using the dangerous tactics of the dumb brute.

America is not a dumb brute.

To protect America, we must outsmart and outhustle those who seek to do us harm.

© 2005 Jeffrey Feldman

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In other words...
This 'ticking bomb' scenario is a GOP talking point--it is luring us into a debate that we cannot win.
by Jeffrey Feldman 2005-11-09 06:21AM | 0 recs
Work smarter, not harder
This may  be your best frameship every Jeffrey. Instead of trying to be tougher or more macho than Dick Cheney, or a bigger cowboy than Bush, we should focus on being smarter.

This also plays into the idea that Republicans are incompetent and incapable of governing. It works extremely well over a broad range of issues.

I like this frame extremely well for the war on drugs and many other law and order issues.

by Gary Boatwright 2005-11-09 07:36AM | 0 recs
Excellent writeup and work,
once again Jeffrey.  It should be incorporated by Democratic leaders, when given their opportunities.

I'm wondering; however, how it can be boiled down into an elevator talking point?  I do not work around Kool Aid'ers, so I don't think I would find myself in this situation -- but I can see why the Republican frame is working with many Bush supporters.  Saying that we should have known where the bomb is before we grab the terrorist makes sense to me ... but in the hypothetical, we are already in the doomsday scenario.  To me, torture isn't the answer, and even McCain says ask military folks or the Israeli's -- torture isn't going to get you the right information anyways.  But the ticking time bomb story is getting played in the RWCM, and your frame seems similar to Kerry saying that we need to fight the Iraq "war" smarter, etc.  All true, and perhaps given yesterday's election results it would work better this year as the incompetence and corruption and false choices presented by the Bush administration is exposed.

Kerry's interview in the NY Times was selectively quoted against him, even though I agree with Gary that this fits with the war on drugs and law and order issues.  Kerry said he looks forward to the day when terrorism is a nuisance issue best handled by law enforcement rather than fighting illegal and unnecessary wars which are sapping the strength out of our military and country by the day.  I am encouraged by yesterday's election results, and I hope as Republican talking points get exposed as just that (talking points), Americans will be open to your framing.  

by Intellectually Curious 2005-11-09 02:01PM | 0 recs
Re: Excellent writeup and work,
Good question.

Short answer:  football metaphor:

Our outstanding military pushed Bin Laden into his own endzone, and it was close to game over--a huge victory against terrorism was in our grasp.  And then the President dropped the ball by heading into Iraq.  And when you fumble, the only way to get back in the game is to hustle, hustle, hustle.  Be smart and hustle

I know it sounds a bit cheesy to push this kind of narrative, but I like football metaphors as a way of turnign the debate to the question of working extra hard.  

So, the long answer is:  we guard against the doomsday scenario by working overtime, everyday, all the time, by investing in technology, by seeding American industry initiatives on national security, by re-dedicating the reserves to home-front guarding, by spending the tax cuts on a new national police force dedicated to guarding transportation, by retranching our intelligence, etc., etc.  

Boiling it down (and I realize this is very long-winded, today) will take a little time to figure out.  

by Jeffrey Feldman 2005-11-09 03:27PM | 0 recs
The Big Media Matrix Controls The Discussion.
So it is not safe to try to "frame" things. The only safety is in telling the truth. No amount of brutality can "fix" terrorism. The government's "war on terror can be no more successful than it's "war on cancer." In fact, by spreading DU around the world via the combustion of nuclear power plant waste ("DU"), we are going to loose a lot more of the war on cancer. The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
by blues 2005-11-09 10:58PM | 0 recs
I really like the fire hatchet analogy
That captures so well what is wrong with Bush's (i.e., Cheney's) whole War on Terror philosophy. We are running around Iraq with our axes right now CREATING MORE FIRES as a result.

I think you should continue to build on and refine this analogy. We should break that glass only when we need to, when it's too late to do anything else (which should be EXTREMELY RARE). Fire (i.e., terrorism) prevention through intelligent long term planning (not impetuous wars and sudden terror alerts) should be our priority if we want to survive.

by Jim in Chicago 2005-11-10 12:04AM | 0 recs


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