Cases of misplaced shock: Drone killings and bad soccer calls

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I don't think there's anything shocking or implausible about Canadian Olympic athletes Christine Sinclair and Melissa Tancredi suggesting the ref in their soccer semifinal was in the tank for the U.S. and would wear an American jersey to bed that night. She called what amounted to a non-existent foul at a crucial point. You have to go back to 2002 to find another instance. There's no good explanation for it, which amounts to a licence to speculate on why she really made the call.

I don't think the Canadians were saying the Norwegian ref is infatuated with Americans; but rather that there's a bias at upper levels in FIFA, the Olympics and the major broadcasters for having a U.S. team in the final -- much as the NHL would doubtless prefer Stanley Cup finalists from major U.S. cities for similar commercial reasons. Officials know that and if they get a chance to bolster that bias, they may, consciously or by a more tortuous route. It's the way of the world; matters like money and audiences enter in. If you ignore those interests, you mightn't get as many choice games to officiate.

So it wasn't shocking or absurd to suggest that was the ref's motive. If it's true, her call would be wrong but at least make some sense. Yet as far as I can see there's been almost no support for the athletes' view, especially from journalists. At most they got sympathy for being upset and advice to move on for the bronze game, which they obviously did.

Let me take another case of misplaced shock: the widespread surprise and alarm over Barack Obama's recently revealed "kill list" for suspected terrorists, including U.S. citizens and, inevitably, innocent bystanders. Plus more dismay over the fact that Obama enthusiastically participates in the weekly cull about who his killer drones will target. Even a critic as acerbic, cynical and awesomely informed as Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi sounded scandalized: "These are moral absolutes. It's not right to assassinate innocent people."

Yet I'd say that was the advertised job description for U.S. president and Obama always knew it. You must be a warrior and display it (especially if you're seen as a risky liberal), you must kill even if that includes the innocent, you must "project" U.S. power, and you must be ready to lie about your real motive.

What motive? To get re-elected. The Obama people largely acknowledge this. They say if the shoe bomber had succeeded in 2009, it would have been disastrous for them; they can't let a single terrorist through or it will sink their re-election chances along with any agenda they still have. The drone killings aren't about saving American lives; many more may be endangered by the hostility in Muslim lands created by drone strikes. The point is to avoid electoral disaster and impress voters with Obama's martial zeal, which is why we've learned so much from his officials about these "secret" operations.

I'm not equating drone killings and bad soccer calls; but dubious behaviour in the public arena is generally hard to evaluate since high-level deliberations are conducted privately, forcing us to either speculate or take the word of secretive, powerful people with many reasons to lie.

That may make me cynical about motives but not jaded concerning action; there are still choices that can be made. For soccer officials who truly want to do the job, maybe they should stay at lower or even local levels of the game, where financial and other pressures don't exist -- a bit as teachers often choose not to leave the classroom and rise into administrative ranks where they'd have to play a different game, cut off from kids and teaching.

For Obama? He said his presidency was all about change. But I think it's clear now that the position has more power over the man than the man does over the position. Real change in U.S. politics will probably have to come from the bottom up rather than the top down. So maybe he should have remained a community organizer in Chicago instead of entering electoral politics -- if changing the nature of American politics was what he genuinely wanted to do.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

Image: cosimoilvecchio/Flickr

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