Thomas L. Knapp
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Tom Knapp is Managing Editor of Free-Market.Net and publisher of Rational Review.

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Prisoners, Spanish and American

If you've been online for very long, you've no doubt been exposed to the "Spanish Prisoner" con. It's an oldie but a goodie, transposed to email format of late, and it apparently works at least often enough to keep its practitioners in business.

The "Spanish Prisoner" swindle traces its roots to 1588, when various English gentlemen of means were approached with the news that a wealthy countryman had been imprisoned by Spain's Phillip II. A heavy ransom would free him but, alas, he had no access to his riches. However, he did have a beautiful daughter and, once at liberty, would more than compensate his benefactor financially and offer that damsel's hand in marriage. The con man, of course, would facilitate the transaction for a share of the money (or, perhaps, of the young lady's favors). "Ransom" in hand, the charlatan would ride into the sunset, seeking his next mark.

In its email form, the "Spanish Prisoner" begins with the con artist introducing himself as a bank official in Nigeria (why Nigeria? Your guess is as good as mine). He has bad news, he has good news, he needs your help, and you're both going to get rich.

You see, it seems that Mr. X, an affluent individual, made a substantial deposit in the con artist's bank in Nigeria, immediately before being killed in a car wreck. Despite their best attempts, the bank has been unable to find a next of kin and there's this $25 million just sitting here in the vault ...

It's awful. Absolutely awful. Worse, a deadline is approaching. If the money is not claimed, it will go to the Nigerian government. $25 million. That sure is a lot of money. And the bank official has a plan. Would you be willing to be the "next of kin" and collect that money? He can arrange it ... if you'll split it with him. 50-50, say, or 60-40. When we're talking about that much money, who really cares?

The catch, of course, is that paperwork needs to be filed. Attorneys need to be paid. It's even possible that a substantial deposit will have to be made to open a European account into which the funds can be transferred once the "bank official" has things in hand. But you can trust him, right? After all, he's into this for several million dollars in mutual gain, too.

Of course there isn't any $25 million, there isn't any dead accountholder sans next of kin, and any money you hand over will be gone, as will the "bank official."

It's a simple con. Some bad news, a silver lining ... all it requires is a little time and just a teeny, tiny bit of sacrifice on your part to rake in a big windfall. I'd be tempted to write the successes of "Spanish Prisoner" con men off to extreme greed or naivete on the part of their victims if I hadn't watched the President of the United States try -- with some apparent success -- to pull the same scam on 270 million Americans just the other night.

In its "State of the Union" form, the "Spanish Prisoner" goes like this:

"Ladies and Gentlemen, the President of the United States of America." [The con artist establishes himself as a personage meriting respect and trust]

"Mr. Speaker, Vice President Cheney, Members of Congress, distinguished guests, and fellow citizens ..." [The con artist makes you feel that he's coming to you as an equal; you're important, he respects you]

"As we gather tonight, our Nation is at war, our economy is in recession, and the civilized world faces unprecedented dangers." [Awful, awful news]

"Yet the state of our Union has never been stronger." [A silver lining]

And then it's time for the close. You see, Mr. Bush has an inside connection to some really good stuff. What kind of stuff? Well, "freedom." And "peace and prosperity." A lot of it. You see, this old guy -- name of Tom Jefferson -- left it lying in a vault in the White House, where it's been unused and accruing interest for nigh on 200 years now.

There's just one problem. Mr. Bush can't get it out of the vault without your help ... and it only requires a little time and just a teeny, tiny bit of sacrifice on your part to rake in a big windfall.

Sound familiar? It ought to. Let's take a look at what kind of deposit will be required before Mr. Bush can get that stuff out of the vault, hide it in a bag of pretzels and hand it off to us as he feigns another choking incident during his next press conference.

"America and Afghanistan are now allies against terror ... we will be partners in rebuilding that country..."

After more than a decade of supporting Osama bin Laden in his efforts to kick the Soviets out of Afghanistan; after several years of supporting the Taliban with millions of dollars in "counter-narcotics" aid; and after three months of carpet-bombing the country under the pretense that by doing so we are somehow "punishing the terrorists" (even though not a single one of those thought to have carried out the September 11th hijackings has been identified as an Afghan national), at the cost of at least 4,000 innocent dead ...

We are now expected, as part of the deposit toward redeeming our Spanish Prisoner, to rebuild the damn place.

"Thanks to the work of our law enforcement officials and coalition partners, hundreds of terrorists have been arrested ..."

The second installment on our deposit is the acceptance, at face value, of the claim that the hundreds of detainees (actually, by many accounts, more than a thousand) held without charges, without counsel, incommunicado and unidentified are, not having been tried -- and to be tried by unaccountable and supremely powerful military tribunals, if ever -- to be presumed guilty of whatever crimes Mr. Bush might care to lay at their feet.

"While the most visible military action is in Afghanistan, America is acting elsewhere. We now have troops in the Philippines ... working with the Bosnian government ... patrolling the coast of Africa ..."

The third installment on our deposit is countenancing the continuation of the interventionist foreign policy that moved 19 men to take control of four civilian passenger aircraft and kill 4,000 innocent Americans and that has been the inciting factor in numerous other American deaths in every corner of the earth from the battlefields of South Vietnam to the discotheques of Germany for half a century.

"It costs a lot to fight this war. We have spent more than a billion dollars a month -- over 30 million dollars a day .... We need to replace aging aircraft and make our military more agile to put our troops anywhere in the world quickly and safely. ... My budget includes the largest increase in defense spending in two decades ..."

This deposit, of course, requires more than money. It requires the suspension of sensible disbelief. We have to accept that the mightiest military machine in the world is not only required for, but worn out by, the effort of bringing a few AK-47-toting malcontents to heel. The juggernaut that swept Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany into the dustbin of history and that held back the Soviet Menace for fifty years will have a tough time of it against a gaggle of goatherds armed with hookahs and hand grenades. Pony up.

Of course, it might be worth it. Mr. Jefferson's hoard is of legendary repute -- life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness ... hell, the title to the Louisiana Purchase might even turn up.

But no. Mr. Bush tips his hand. Unlike the ordinary "Spanish Prisoner" charlatan, he's not content to abscond to Monte Carlo with our deposit and leave us empty-handed. He does want to give us something.

Mr. Bush wants to give us "Homeland Security." Mr. Bush wants to give us the "USA Freedom Corps" to prod us into line and "extend the compassion of our country to every part of the world." Mr. Bush wants to give us an America "working with Russia, China, and India in ways we never have before" (something that his fellow Republicans frowned upon when they believed that Mr. Clinton was engaged in it).

Mr. Bush wants to give us a nation that looks like every hokey, comedic portrayal of the Third Reich ever made, complete with goose-stepping, monocled Himmler clones demanding "your papers, citizen."

Mr. Bush has put a new twist on the old "Spanish Prisoner" game. He's found a way to get us coming and going. Instead of disappearing with our "deposit," he'll keep us on regular and indefinite billing. The "American Prisoner," of course, will remain behind bars, just as the "Spanish Prisoner" did.

But Tom Jefferson's hoard really does exist, and that makes our plight all the more sorrowful. After all, Mr. Bush is asking us to pay him in the very same coin he promises to reward us with -- our rights. They don't live in a vault in Mr. Bush's White House. We don't need Mr. Bush to spirit them out for us.

As a matter of fact, all we really need to find is a way to keep his hands off them.

Thanks to John Stone for information on the "Spanish Prisoner" swindle.