Sunday, August 29, 2010

Frame It Right -- commentary

The success or failure of a discourse is usually determined by the way a debate gets framed. Those who favor allowing the Muslims to build a mosque next to ground zero of the 9/11 disaster have tried to frame the debate as a freedom of religion issue, and for reasons he will probably not articulate, President Obama tried to help them out. When his comments created a swift backlash, he of course backed off.

Those who support building the mosque want to frame it as a freedom of religion issue because such freedom is a cherished part of our culture and is guaranteed by the First Amendment of our Constitution. Framing it as such allows them to pull on one of our emotional heart strings, hoping it will be more powerful than the negative emotions evoked by their actions.

Anyone who has ever built a church knows that there is a difference between freedom of worship and the freedom to build a building wherever one wishes, even on private property. Most cities of any size have zoning laws to control what is built where.

I don’t know about here, but I know that in Anchorage, Alaska, where I oversaw the renovation of an existing church, there were no zones for church buildings. That meant every church building project required a zoning exemption. This meant holding a public hearing where all those with objections could voice them. If the church would negatively impact the area or if there were a significant number of people or even a few significant people who opposed the project, the exemption could be denied. I suspect New York City too has zoning laws with which projects can be denied. The most common issue is traffic patterns and how it impacts a neighborhood.

It was never a freedom of religion issue in Anchorage as there were dozens of places in the city where people of all faiths could worship, as is true in New York City. It was a freedom to build issue and apparently the constitution does not guarantee that freedom.

Surely an Ivy League elitist and experienced community organizer like President Obama knows this and yet he tries to frame it, at first, as a freedom of religion issue. Instead of trying to spin it this way, he needs to tell us his real reason for supporting construction of the mosque on this site, unless of course he spoke from ignorance. His best course of action would have been to have stayed out of it. Those who feel passionate about the issue aren’t going to be swayed by the freedom of religion argument and he just runs the risk of antagonizing the voters.

Just to remain bipartisan, let me say that in my memory, the most disastrous example of a president framing a discussion wrongly was George W. Bush’s argument for going to war with Iraq. It was the right decision but the wrong argument. He argued that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction (WMD’s) that had to be neutralized.

With that argument, Bush could only win if WMD’s were found when our troops invaded, and they weren’t, so he lost the discussion and his credibility. This wrong argument plagued him the rest of his presidency.

To understand what his argument should have been, we need to go back to his father’s presidency. If you remember, Saddam invaded and occupied Kuwait. The United Nations came to the defense of Kuwait by asking the United States to go in and remove Saddam’s occupational forces, which we did.

Unfortunately, the wimpy UN saved Saddam the embarrassment of a surrender. They agreed to allow him to get by with only a cease fire agreement. They didn’t even make his generals suffer the embarrassment of surrendering their weapons while at the signing of the cease fire agreement.

As is always the case, a cease fire agreement carries with it conditions, and in this case, those conditions included Saddam allowing free and open inspections to assure the world that he did not have and was not developing WMD’s. And of course, Saddam did not live up to these agreements and had no intention of doing so.

With this background, Bush’s argument should have been that a failure to keep the cease fire agreement made it null and void. This means the hostilities resume as the basis on which they were stopped is no longer valid. With this argument, the fact that there were no WMD’s would have just been an interesting detail. The important fact would have been that at last we had our free and open inspections and the truth could now be confirmed.

So, Mr. President, be careful how you help frame an argument. If you do it wrongly, it will always come back to bite you.

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