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A look at how democracy works

by Nora Edinger

REGIONAL EDITOR

Last week's congressional overthrow of a "federal betting parlor on atrocities and terrorism" should have made Americans thankful for a free press.

The Pentagon's unorthodox effort to gather intelligence on the Middle East did not draw much interest among lawmakers until two lesser-known senators started kicking up a fuss and media sent their message around the world.

By the next day, it seemed a great deal of lawmakers shared their umbrage with an Internet market modeled on the exchange of commodities such as gold, corn and pork bellies. (The concept being that traders who thought an event such as an assassination is likely would buy shares, and traders who thought an event is unlikely would try to sell -- thus revealing their collective knowledge of the situation.)

Democrats and Republicans took to the floor to share their thoughts on the market's outrageousness. A Web site that solicited traders with such comments as, "Involvement in this group prediction process should prove engaging and may prove to be profitable," was down by last Tuesday afternoon.

Given their sudden passion, one might almost think lawmakers were universally surprised by the market's existence. That was not the case.

Lawmakers had been notified in a May 20 report of the possibility of using "market forces" to predict events such as whether terrorists will attack Israel with biological weapons, according to The Associated Press. And the Pentagon already had spent $600,000 of taxpayers' money on the program.

But what one television broadcast of the program's downfall referred to as a "congressional pile on" didn't happen until the market hit the public arena.

A large part of lawmakers' quick footwork likely was due to voters ringing their phones off the hook with comments such as, "Has the government gone stark raving mad?"

After having covered the state Legislature for three years, I also can guess that a number of lawmakers did not fully realize what the Pentagon report meant until media analyzed it. I'm not suggesting that this is because they are unintelligent or slack in their duties. It's just that many, many reports come past lawmakers' desks, and it is unlikely that all of them have expertise broad enough to understand all subjects all the time.

So media coverage may have both pushed lawmakers who quietly supported this inane program to the correct side and helped those unaware of its full ramifications into action.

That makes this American journalist plenty happy. Bravo to the two senators who fired the first shots. Bravo to the national media that made them reverberate. Bravo to the citizens and lawmakers who reacted with common sense.

This was one of those times when democracy could be seen as the sweet thing it is.

Regional Editor Nora Edinger can be reached at 626-1447 or by e-mail at nedinger@exponent-telegram.com