Monday, February 25, 2008

Ahmadinejad, Israel, and mass killings

Stephen Peter Rosen

I am worried. Last year I did some historical research on the shifts in discourse within British, Japanese, and South African official elites prior to their use of biological weapons. In all these cases, including the deliberate distribution of small pox-infected blankets by the British in North America, the use of bubonic plague by the Japanese in China, and the use of anthrax by the South Africans in what was then Rhodesia, use of biological agents was preceded by an escalation of rhetorical campaigns to demonize and dehumanize the targeted enemy. The problem in using these shifts in discourse as an early warning indicator, is, of course, one of calibration and of over-prediction. Many references to enemies as less than human are not associated with biological attacks or other unconventional mass killings. Some streams of discourse are chronically laden with dehumanizing rhetoric. Detecting meaningful shifts requires close study of the discourse of interest over time, and I have not done this with regard to Iran and Israel. Casual observation suggests that references to Israel as a "cancer" are old, but that the reference to Israel as a "black and dirty microbe" is new.

On the basis of my historical research, my recommendation was that a significant shift in discourse of this character be used as a indicator that we should focus intelligence collection assets on a target that is now suspected of being willing to engage in mass killing by unconventional means, and to issue specific deterrent threats of retaliation. I do not know if either of these measures has been adopted by the government of Israel, or the United States, but it would seem prudent for them to do so.

I invite comment from those who systematically track Iranian discourse, to reassure me that there is nothing to worry about, or to verify my concerns.

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