“Could be of benefit to terrorists”: Theresa May channels Al Franken

One of the more ingenious bits of political satire that I have seen in recent years was a Saturday Night Live sketch (apparently conceived by Al Franken) that parodied the use of out-of-context quotes or intentional misunderstanding of words in political advertisements. This was during the 2008 US presidential election, and was directed at John McCain, but there was no shortage of alternative targets; and Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential election campaign exceeded even the satire.

The sketch showed McCain in a sound studio, recording the “I approved this message” message, purely as a frame for showing a succession of increasingly ridiculous ads. In one, an ominous voice says,

Barack Obama says he wants universal health care. Really? Health Care for the whole universe? [pictures of spiral galaxies] Even for Osama bin Laden? [pictures of Obama and bin Laden next to each other]

It proceeds to my favourite, the same ominous voice intoning that “Barack Obama says he wants to provide tax breaks to child molesters”. At that the McCain character asks, is that true? The advertising executive explains that Obama has proposed giving tax breaks to all Americans, and that would certainly include child molesters.

I thought of this when I heard about this recent BBC interview with Home Secretary Theresa May, explaining why the police were justified in using anti-terrorism laws to interrogate David Miranda, who was suspected of nothing other than ferrying documents that the UK wanted to keep secret between two journalists. Despite the fact that the law seems to allow detention only for the purpose of ascertaining whether the person detained is a terrorist, May argues that the information he was carrying “could be of benefit to terrorists”. Of course, as William Saletan has pointed out, this is a climb-down from the Home Office’s earlier language that Miranda carried “information that would help terrorism”, and that many people believe — and certainly the journalists and their publishers seem to believe — that publishing this information would help everyone. If it helps terrorists, then only incidentally.

Or, as Theresa May would have rewritten the SNL sketch,

Glenn Greenwald and Eric Snowden say they want to provide secret information about US and UK espionage activities to al Qaeda.

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