ALARMED: Dove-Baiting

What do you get when you mix baseball, a Republican flack and Nuke LaLoosh? A lesson in how not to sell security.

The Baseball Hall of Fame, a shrine to America's pastime, has cancelled its celebration of the 15th anniversary of the great baseball movie Bull Durham, scheduled for later this month. The organisation did this because two of the stars of Bull Durham, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon (who happen to be a couple) have spoken out against the president and the ongoing war in Iraq.

More troubling and sadder yet is how Hall of Fame President Dale Petroskey justified his decision. In a letter that reached the media before it reached the actors, Petroskey wrote: "We believe your very public criticism of President Bush at this important — and sensitive — time in our nation's history helps undermine the U.S. position, which ultimately could put our troops in even more danger."

Petroskey’s letter to Robbins and Sarandon — which should outrage baseball fans enough to boycott the Hall of Fame — is rife with the lexicon of military gravity. It sums up the current conflict with language the Pentagon could have written, and patronizingly explains to the apparently dimwitted actors that the president is "constitutionally bound to make decisions he believes are in the best interests of the American people."

Ironically, Petroskey tells the actors that the large platform they have to voice their opinions (their right, he explains, "in a free country such as ours"), obligates them to "act and speak responsibly." This of course is the exact opposite of what Petroskey himself has done. For Petroskey, responsibly seems to mean in a way he finds agreeable.

(Contacted by various media outlets, Tim Robbins, who plays naive pitching prospect Nuke LaLoosh in Bull Durham, said he was "dismayed" and planned to write to Petroskey saying, "You belong with the cowards and the ideologues in a hall of infamy and shame.")

So why are you reading this here? Well, by happenstance, Dale Petroskey's misguided attempt at patriotism provides a kind of master class in how not to approach security. Some key points from the unwitting Professor Petroskey:

1. Don't assign risk where it ain't. For Petroskey to suggest Robbins' and Sarandon's views put troops overseas in danger undercuts any credibility he might have possessed before. It's hard to say what Petroskey even means by this. (Alarmed has asked him, through a press officer, to list the ways that US troops are endangered by Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, along with five other pointed questions. He has yet to respond. If he responds, we will print the transcript here). The bottom line is, fabricating a risk (ie, creating FUD) in order to achieve some goal will strip you of your credibility, and probably your job.

2. Careful with your logic. As noted, Petroskey says the actors' views are what's dangerous to troops. Cancelling the Hall event likely won't change their views, though. That means, by Petroskey's line of thinking, the troops and the US will still be endangered by Robbins and Sarandon even after the cancellation of the Bull Durham fete. Will Petroskey care enough about the troops' and our nation's safety to follow up by any means necessary to remove this grave danger? The point is, when you use faulty logic (two actors' political views endanger our troops) deliberately to achieve a completely different end (we don't want any unpredictable controversy here) you're going to get called out. You'll likely end up looking the fool, like Petroskey does now.

3. A dogmatic approach will lead to failure. Petroskey's obtuse mindset is this: Either you're pro-war, and therefore good, or you're anti-war and therefore need to be corrected, punished and censored. It apparently never occurred to Petroskey that the Bull Durham party could have been an apolitical celebration of an apolitical movie at an ostensibly apolitical institution. He could even have asked Robbins and Sarandon politely to refrain from talking about the war at the event. (Robbins told reporters he viewed the event as a "weekend away from politics and war.") Instead Petroskey took an intransigent us-or-them posture. Imagine using the Petroskey method with your CEO: You say to him or her, "Either you are pro-security and you give us the budget we want or you are anti-security and should be replaced." See how that works out.

4. Don't make it personal. Petroskey is a long-time Republican activist who served as an assistant press secretary to President Reagan. Robbins and Sarandon are noted Democratic voices. Though there's no direct proof of it, it's not a stretch to imagine that Petroskey simply wanted to stick it to the Democrats. It would be unwise for you to try the same thing in your organization. Making decisions based on personal biases always fogs risk analysis. Spot your biases, acknowledge them and try to prevent them from influencing you.

Beyond Petroskey's becoming an accidental case study, there's not much to take away from the ugly affair, except that active ideological jingoism is a hundred times scarier than conjectured terrorists and weapons of mass destruction. So is a representative of a sport, a game, acting like Joseph McCarthy, who was a disgrace to America and its values.

“Alarmed” is a biweekly column about security and privacy. Look for a new version every other Thursday.

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