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Archive for January, 2009

A Certain Failure to Connect

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 31, 2009

Have you ever had a moment where a connection is made that is screamingly obvious but has spent years in the making despite that clear linkage? Moreover, have you ever realized that you had made the linkage subconsciously but that it had eluded your conscious understanding?

As news of the CIA station chief under investigation for rape in Algeria broke earlier this week, Jeff Stein’s Spy Talk blog at CQPolitics described the situation as being reminiscent of Albert Camus’ The Stranger, the existential novel in which the protagonist is driven to murder by indifference to humanity and the heat, the glare, the smells of Algiers.

This morning I woke up with a song by the Cure, “Killing an Arab”, stuck on autoplay in my head.

I woke up to it. I was whistling it subconsciously in the shower, singing it aloud on the way to the bagel store this morning.

Standing on the beach with a gun in my hand, staring at the sea, staring at the sand

Staring down the barrel at the Arab on the ground, I can see his open mouth but I hear no sound

I’m alive, I’m dead, and the stranger, killing an Arab.

How, in the name of God, did I never make that connection, between a song sung by one of my favorite bands as a teenager and a book I’ve probably read four or five times for different classes? It’s a failure to connect that Meursault himself would relate too.

What is really throwing me for a loop is that clearly at some level I did make this connection– read about a situation referenced to The Stranger, wake up whistling  a song referenced to The Stranger that I never consciously  linked to The Stranger.

It’s absurd. Existentialism, indeed.

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Posted in Autobiographical | Leave a Comment »

PETA Goes Viral, STD-Style

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 29, 2009

Oh for the love of…

It never fails to amaze me when some hoary old media plan “gets it” and uses our collective stupidity against us to make their add all the buzz on the tubes. Every year at just about this time the world comes down with a nasty case of air-transmissable advertising plague featuring symptoms such as scantily clad women, FCC toe curling suggestivity, and the worst symptom of all– a desire to be run during the Superbowl.

This year’s GoDaddy.com “ban me” candidate is PETA’s “Screw Me With A Broccoli” campaign. In the flagship ad, recently rejected by NBC for Superbowl airing, a cavalcade of lingerie clad women cavort with asparagus and go down on pumpkins before one very brief shot of a totally nude woman apparently enjoying the nubbly end of a broccoli on bits of her anatomy where nubbly bits of broccoli apparently feel rather good.

So just as GoDaddy.com has used fake ads designed to be rejected by the Superbowl network to generate publicity, so too does PETA. And people still fall for this.

And here I am writing about it. I think Socrates said it best when he said, “Gack”.

Now, just for my friend ITC, here is your much asked for link to scantily clad women…

Posted in Jerks, Just Annoying | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

Embracing An Islamist Regime?

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 29, 2009

David Axe’s brilliant blog, War Is Boring, yesterday explored what I view as a patently insane proposal from the Council on Foreign Relations to establish an internationally funded Somali Coast Guard to combat piracy. Somalia cannot govern itself, provide food for its people or police its own territory much less the oceans so yes, sure, let’s assume that the mythical Somali government not only would use the international funding to establish a hugely expensive and technically complex force structure but also that they would even have the inclination to do so.

Stunning.

Axe himself had a more interesting idea– is the answer to the Somali problem simply embracing the concept of a hard line Islamic regime in Mogadishu? For the sake of background, Somalia, long the victim of near total anarchy, was for a brief while in 2006 & 2007 effectively governed by a confederacy of Sharia-law courts, known as the Islamic Courts Union (ICU). That came to an end in 2007 when the Bush Admin encouraged and facilitated an invasion of Somalia by Ethiopia under the concept that the ICU was providing a home base for alQaeda and similar Islamist radical elements. The Ethiopian Army, supplied with intelligence and armaments by the US in addition to oft rumoured US Special Ops raids and operations, had little problem defeating the ICU’s armed militia, taking back Mogadishu and eventually driving the ICU out of its last strongholds, leaving Somalia once again ungoverned and the ICU reduced to a guerilla band.

The piracy problem grew out of control shortly thereafter begging the question of whether we would be better off with an Islamic regime that isn’t disposed to liking the West or the current mess which threatens international commerce and the flow of oil. A fuller description of the piracy issue and the US Navy’s lackluster response to it can be found in my previous entry, The Vaporware Navy.

As the American Presidency moves to Barack Obama, we are seeing a different attitude being taken towards the Islamic World. While the realities and exigencies of war still exist and have been accepted by President Obama, an effort is clearly underway to defuse hostilities by winning over the Islamic people. Could that effort extend all the way to the acceptance of a true Islamist regime in Mogadishu if it meant Somalia would be under some authority and the piracy problem would be curtailed?

A return of the ICU may be underway already, even without our help or acceptance. With the withdrawal of Ethiopian forces Somalia has reverted to form and become an anarchist failed state, while the ICU is starting to re-emerge in the south. That being said, if the Obama Admin backed a return of the ICU as a reversal and redress of the policies of the previous admin ICU could take control of the entire nation fairly quickly.

What are the risks of an ICU/Islamist Somalia? There is, of course, the risk that our enemies would find haven there; it is a questionable risk, however, given that they are just as likely to find haven in an ungoverned Islamic region such as Somalia is now; indeed our Special Forces have been very active in Somalia taking down terrorist camps and operations. There is the risk of severe human rights abuses, as seen from a Western perspective, of allowing a Sharia-court based system to govern the country. Clearly it will not be pretty– women in burkas, denial of human rights, the reality of Sharia-mandated punishments for adultery, etc. That entails political risk to Obama’s left flank as the women’s rights and Amnesty Internaitonal crowds will feel betrayed by their President on this issue– the reality that the people of Somalia are living with even less human rights and dignity now doesn’t seem to penetrate the dogma of these folks. There will also be risk to his right flank as the Limbaughs and McConnels of the world try to hang a “soft on Islamic terror” label on Obama if he reaches out to the ICU. Never mind that you cant win a war against a movement and that you need to find soft solutions to the problems.

On the upside, we would almost certainly see a huge reduction to pirate activity out of Somalia. The Islamic Courts greatly curtailed piracy when they had control in ’06 & ’07 and there’s no reason to think that they suddenly see piracy as being in keeping with Islamic law; for a change we’d be on the benefit side of Sharia. Obama would have the opportunity to really make an impact on the Islamic “Street”; it would be very hard to demonize America as the enemy of Islam if we very publicly came out in favor of returning a Sharia movement to its role as ruler of an islamic nation. This is the kind of move that would do what Obama hoped to do with his recent interview with al Aribiya Television– prove that America is not the enemy of Islam. Additionally, returning order to Somalia would make possible real foreign aid to a suffering people, including the safe delivery of food. One wonders if the solution of so intractable a problem as Somalia might not also lay the groundwork for real action in regional neighbor Sudan’s Darfur region.

Can Obama recognize the ICU and return it to power in Somalia? Clearly it is within his power to do so, but the political cost, both at home and in Western Europe, will be extremely high. So too would be the potential payout. The time is arrived for America to realize that the export of Democracy and western style human rights to unwilling nations or those simply not yet equipped to deal with them is not a reasonable or even desirable goal; “better dead than red” does not translate to “better secular than starving”. Somalia is an Islamic nation in a state of chaos; resisting the emergence of an Islamic government to fix the problems is a fundamentally unsound strategy.

To look at past as prologue, consider the fact that a young socialist by the name of Ho Chi Minh desperately sought the acceptance and support of Harry Truman in 1945 & 1946. Ho effectively controlled post-Japanese occupation Indochina and had instituted a workable governing structure that was feeding the people and keeping order; he petitioned the United States to recognize his government and stop the French from reoccupying Indochina in much the same way we were making it clear to other European nations that the colonial period ended with the cessation of World War II. Ho was, sadly, not politically acceptable to a Red Scare America despite his friendly overtures; the rest is history. It is important for America to learn from that oft forgotten lesson and not allow our Islamist Scare mindset to prevent order from returning to Somalia and security returning to the seas off of the Horn of Africa.

Posted in Africa, American Politics, Foreign Affairs, History, Human Rights, Islamists, Warfare | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

The Ho-Hum Case Scenario

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 29, 2009

It’s no secret that some Federal officials have an overblown sense of their importance and that of the agency they work at; still, sometimes they manage to surprise.

Take Postmaster General John E. Potter, for example. Holding a title that sounds like something from a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta (He is the very model of a modern Postmaster General…), Mr. Potter is the gentleman currently responsible for upholding that credo we all learned as children about neither rain nor snow nor the attack of 93 foot long wasps with peptic ulcers preventing the brave boys and girls in blue from stuffing our boxes with legacy SPAM.

According to Mr. (Gen?) Potter, the economy is about to do to the mail service what even those ornery mutated insects could not– prevent the delivery of mail on Saturdays to every address in the United States. At least that is what Mr. Potter has described as the “worst case scenario” in testimony before a Senate subcommittee.

The horror.

You see, the economy has caused a downturn in the amount of mail being sent, which is causing the Postal Service to lose not only the usual birthday cards and checks but also roughly three billion dollars last year. Eliminate Saturday delivery and you save somewhere between two and  three billion dollars. This seems like a no-brainer to me– is Saturday delivery really terribly important, Mr. General?

It would seem that to Supreme Mail Commander Potter it is, in fact, critical to the very fabric of our nation. I myself see other things that could be counted as “worst case” scenarios for the Postal Service. How about massive layoffs? Pretty bad. Let’s try on the concept of eliminating door-to-door delivery entirely and dropping mail at central points, a la many of the suburban subdivisions built in the first years of this decade? Not a disaster, but surely more inconvenient than no mail on Saturday. How about the deep discounts for bulk mailers becoming financially untenable, which would set off a vortex effect of loss of demand for the mail service entirely? If that came to pass we wouldn’t just be talking about eliminating needless Saturday deliveries.

What Lord High Admiral of the Post Potter is failing to recognize is that his service is becoming anachronistic. There will of course be a need for the delivery of physical mail for the foreseeable future, but mail is no longer the integral form of communication that it was when the concepts and even the “modernizations” of the system were codified. Looking at the usual population of my own daily mail, advertisements outweigh actual content by about 1.5:1. While the ads are annoying, we must recognize that they keep employed a large number of Americans, from printers to marketers to salespeople and, yes, the good General’s field troops. Still, I do not need them six days a week. When I look at the stew of bills, official docs, greeting cards and the occasional check that make up the balance, I see efficiencies to be made that the market has already started to dictate. Many of us use electronic bill pay and electronic statements for all of our repetitive bills. The Evite has replaced the paper invitation for many people under the age of 50; the greeting card should be headed for the same fate. Electronic transmission of documents is an old story, goign back to the fax of the ’80s through email and now e-signature. Why the DMV, IRS, and other government agencies can’t move to those models and away from legacy paper mystifies me; send me an email when it’s time to renew my car registration and I’m a lot more likely to deal with it than if I receive a piece of paper that the kids will probably grab off of the counter top and draw lions battling clone troopers on.

So, in the end Mr. Postmaster General, I’m pretty sure that the old saw about a crisis for you not translating into a crisis for me applies to your “worst case scenario”. Give me two days without mail rather than just one and I’ll be fine. Give me one day without email and it’s a disaster.

Sound the retreat, Sir.

Posted in American Politics, Cultural Phenomena, Economy | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Money,Missiles, and a Question of Credit

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 28, 2009

Ben Smith had a very interesting short in his blog today, about your friend and mine Dmitry Medvedev and the Bush iskandermissile1v. Medvedev standoff over the proposed US missile shield in Eastern Europe and the Russian SS-26 forward deployment to Kaliningrad.

Smith, drawing on Joshua Keating’s piece in Foreign Policy, posits that President Obama and SecState Hillary Clinton’s tough talk on the US-Russia relationship may have catalyzed the rumored Russian decision to hold off on the deployment of the nuclear missiles to the Russian enclave less than 100 miles from Gdansk and 300 miles from Berlin. As much as I agree with most of Obama’s positions on foreign policy, I have to question whether anything he’s done has much to do with this decision.

As Obama ascends to the Presidency, the world does seem to be breathing a sigh of relief at the end of the seemingly random belligerence of the Bush Administration and some concrete results are building from it– the possibility of allies taking released Gitmo detainees and the possibility of true economic coordination to resolve the global financial crisis both having made news of late. If you told me that Russia had become amenable to revisiting this issue on that basis, I might have less of a problem with the analysis– the writing is on the wall that Western Europe will be giving Obama a honeymoon and Russia should try to capitalize on that to seek renegotiation of what has been a roundly botched and needlessly aggravating situation.

What I have trouble buying is that Russia has been cowed into making a unilateral decision, even if it is in anticipation of a delay or reversal of the deployment of the American missile shield to the Czech Republic and Poland. Are we to believe that Russia is more afraid of Obama’s posturing than that of the Bush Administration, which actually explored and had advocates for deploying American combat troops into Georgia during the 2008 South Ossetian conflict.

So, if we can discount that tough talk of Obama and Clinton while also questioning whether or not Russia is simply defusing a messy situaiton under the guise of joining the honeymoon party, what are we left with? To my mind the answer is simple– it comes down to money. Russia recognizes that Obama, who has never been a huge proponent of missile defense, would love to shed the expense of this system’s deployment to Eastern Europe but really can’t due to the fatc that the Czech Republic and Poland have stuck their necks out to accommodate the Bush Admin and by extension America  in playing host to the system. They also recognize that the downturn in petroleum prices is trashing what had been up until a few months ago their own boom economy and that they may once again need Western and Central Europe not just as clients for Gazprom and the rest of their petroleum industry but also as economic partners. Forward deploying clearly offensive missile systems in Kaliningrad meant to threaten Prague, Warsaw, Berlin, Copenhagen, Oslo and the Baltics is not necessarily the best way to foster the kind of mutual trust economic relationships that Moscow may well need.

Economics, goodwill, fear, hidden circumstance– it is hard to ascertain precisely what Moscow’s driving influence right now might be with regard to the deployment of the Iskander missile system to Kaliningrad, although we can make some educated guesses– most of which come down to money. Will the G20 meeting, to be held in April, be the forum in which the two leaders finally resolve this issue by agreeing to basically backburner all of it, as Keating suggests? Possibly, but I suspect that will be the “public” resolution to a problem whose outcome has already been dictated by forces outside of the control of Obama, Medvedev or indeed anyone. As always, strategic military issues are tied so tightly to economic realities that they become indistinguishable.

Posted in Foreign Affairs, Nuclear Weapons, Russia | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Virginia is For…Wimps

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 28, 2009

I knew that the Fairfax County schools would be closed today– there’s two inches of snow on the ground and we had a couple of hours of sleet overnight so, obviously, the world is coming to an end. Worse, the Fairfax schools haven’t used a single snow day this year and they’re just burning a hole in the pocket of the school admins.

I’m a fierce proponent of safety for the students and staffs of our school system; I’ve battled it out in public with a friend (and Running Local reader) over the exact opposite problem, the fact that the NYC Schools never shut their doors no matter how dangerous it is to keep them open. Somewhere there has to be a happy medium, right? Two inches of snow should not shutter the schools, but they shouldn’t be open when there’s two inches of ice on the roads and zero visibility. Common sense, right?

If we’re going to turn around our nation and fight our way out of these hard times, perhaps we all need to toughen up just a bit, eh? Let’s start by not acting like the asteroid is about to hit the planet everytime it snows more than a dusting. Once we can handle that, maybe then we can get spending under control.

Posted in Just Annoying, Rants | Tagged: , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Playing Chicken With The Train

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 28, 2009

“I’m big and black, clickety clack, and I make the train jump the track like that”–Cowboy Troy…because, hey, how often do you get to open a political post with a Hick-Hop quote, right?

One has to question whether or not John Boehner is clinically stupid. I’m sorry, I know that’s a fairly harsh lede, but really, Mr. Boehner, have you lost not only your mind but your will to lead the House GOP back into a position of at least some authority after the 2010 midterms?

Yesterday saw President Obama’s barreling freight train take a short ride down Pennsylvania Avenue to meet with the House GOP on their own turf, in the Capitol itself. Mr. Obama, who has built a national popular groundswell on the concept of a post-partisan Presidency has also done something a bit more realistic amongst the political cognoscenti– he’s made them understand that as far as the media is concerned that groundswell is at least founded on a sincere effort to work across the aisle.

How– no, why– then would Mr. Boehner try to marshall a lockstep partyline vote ont he Stimulus Package and show his hand before Obama convened the meeting with the House GOP? Is there a worse move that Mr. Boehner could have executed than to put a nation hungry for cooperation and terrified of where the economy is going than to show that he will not even pretend to cooperate and will let the economy burn while he plays politics with our lives?

I understand that there are philosophical differences between President Obama’s vision of how to fix the economy and, say, Jeb Hensarling’s or Jim DeMint’s in the Senate. They are part of a legitimate policy debate and absolutely need to be explored– which is what the President was doing on the Hill yesterday. It’s easy to spout a cynical view of the meeting and say that Obama went to simply break the GOP to his view, but it would also be an incorrect view; if Obama wanted a simple show he would’ve summoned Boehner, Eric Cantor, and a few other GOP Leadership/fiscal conservatives to the Oval for a photo op. He didn’t– in his first week he actually went to the Capitol rather than bringing people to the White House and met with the full GOP Conference. If you aren’t a DC type, what you need to understand is that a President leaving his turf to go to the Hill for something like this is a sign of one of two things– a defeated President or a hell of a lot of respect. Clearly, Obama is no defeated President.

So, in said hungry country, a wildly popular and brand new President humbles himself by going to the Hill as a sign of how willing he is to work with a loyal opposition. What is the media treated to by his hosts? A pre-meeting flurry of press avails featuring GOP leadership and ranking members saying that they are voting against the plan before even hearing what President Obama has to say. Politically, this is madness.

What Minority Leader Boehner is trying to do is clear– he’s trying to carve out a position for the GOP for 2010 by opposing government spending. Forgetting how laughable that is after the last eight years of GOP largess, it is understandable– he’s in a failing and falling minority and his only “traditional” lifeline is to stake out a position diametrically opposed to the Democrats and appeal to his base. By doing this, however, Rep. Boehner ignores a few things. First, America is scared and looking for someone to do something to get the long process of fixing our economy under way and, rightly or wrongly, they are blaming the traditional GOP positions and personalities for creating the crisis. The way for the GOP to start picking up seats is, clearly, not retreating to those positions. Second, Mr. Boehner is courting the tag of being an obstructionist, perhaps intentionally, perhaps not. Either way, it is the absolute wrong tenor for him to be taking– people want an amalgam of Democratic & Republican positions to make up this bill but they’ll settle for a purely Democratic one. Boehner, if he wants to forestall another dramatic loss in 2010 (and another serious internal challenge to his leadership this Spring), needs to get some of his positions into bills like this by cooperating and showing that the GOP is capable of governing at all.

Right now, that capability is seriously in question.

Posted in American Politics, CongressCritters, Economy, Obama Positions | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

Two Keys to Chili

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 27, 2009

First, you absolutely must control the television and radio stations in Santiago…but that’s not important right now.

Actually, I’ve been telling people that I’d be writing about cooking in this space as well as all the other gobbledygook I’ve been throwing at you, but the truth is I haven’t had the time or energy to do a lot of cooking lately. What I have done is make a pot of really, really good chili. No, it’s not something old school formal like beef en croute or whacked out creative like some of the Indian fusion stuff I do, but the Super Bowl is Sunday and dammit, this was really good.

So, chili needs two things above all else– more than one kind of meat and a spice that probably doesn’t come immediately to mind. On the meat front, whether I go with ground beef (almost always), ground turkey or something different, the one meat I have been using to great effect the last three or four times I’ve made chili is bulk Mexican chorizo. Here in DC there’s no problem getting this sausage even in our “regular” supermarkets, but if you have trouble finding it go to any Mexican grocery and they’ll have it. I specify Mexican because a lot of Latino countries have a sausage named chorizo– Argentinian chorizo is a bit sweet, Salvadoran is spicy but flavored differently than Mexican, etc. Mexican chorizo is by far the spiciest and adapts very well to chili.

The spice that I’ve been using– a cinnamon stick– gives a fantastic depth to the chili and provokes that, “Wow, what is that flavor” reaction int he people who eat it. One whole cinnamon stick put into the pot right before you add liquid and left for the whole simmer does the trick– the cinnamon oil releases and very subtly infuses the entire dish. Since cinnamon is a warm spice it makes sense when you think about it, as does the knowledge that cinnamon is widely used in savory dishes from the Yucatan and throughout West Africa.

This is clearly not a purist’s Terlingua or something like that nor does it pretend to be, so please, Texans, no hate mail!

So, for the chili…

  • 1lb ground beef
  • 1lb bulk chorizo or link chorizo, skins removed and crumbled
  • 3 cans RoTel diced tomatoes with green chiles
  • 3 cans Pinto or Black Beans with canning liquids, depending on your preference
  • 2 medium sweet onions, one sliced, one diced
  • 1 whole head garlic, cloves minced (if you really want to go crazy roast and squash the garlic)
  • EITHER 3 tablespoons chili powder (McCormick’s Hot Mexican is at least decent), or blend your own with ground dry chiles and ground toasted cumin seeds– lots of recipes on line for that.
  • 1 teaspoon dried ground chipotle pepper
  • 1 teaspoon prepared dried mustard
  • 1 tablespoon of dried (preferably) Mexican oregano
  • 1 whole cinnamon stick
  • 12oz. Beef Stock– Kitchen Basics works well enough
  • 1 tablespoon Olive Oil
  • Salt & pepper

In a heavy Dutch Oven, heat the olive oil until shimmering and drop in the sliced onions, stirring constantly. After one minute, add the diced onion and stir together until the onions caramelize; remove the onions. Crumble the chorizo and brown, remove but don’t pour off rendered fat. Brown the ground beef and the minced garlic in the chorizo fat, season with salt & pepper. Drain off all but a small amount of the grease from the pan and add back the onions & chorizo; mix to blend. Add the RoTel tomatoes and juices, beans with liquids, beef stock, chili powder, chipotle, mustard powder, cinnamon  stick and oregano– vigorously rub the oregano between your palms as you sprinkle it into the pot to release its oils and maximize flavor. Add salt & pepper to taste, going easy on the salt if you are using commercially made beef stock. Bring it up to a brisk simmer, then reduce heat to low and gently simmer for at least one hour and preferably two to three, adding a bit more stock as necessary if it seems to be evaporating too quickly. The longer it cooks, the more distilled the flavors become.

Serve over rice with finely chopped onions, shredeed jack cheese & sour cream as toppings.

The recipe can also work very, very well in a CrockPot– brown the meat and the onions then dump everything in the CrockPot and cook it for four hours or more.

Posted in Cooking | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Obama to Islam: We Are Not Your Enemy

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 27, 2009

President Obama (and doesn’t it feel good to read that instead of “President-elect Obama”?) gave an interview to al-Arabiya satellite TV and in the process declared to the Muslim world that the United States is not it’s enemy.

While from our perspective Obama is correct, this will obviously be a tough sell to many in the Islamic nations. The reality is that we must and will be continuing combat operations against or at least within Islamic nations for the foreseeable future– the devolution of Pakistan is going to be one of the major foreign policy story of the next two years along with the fall and Islamification of Mubarak’s Egypt, we are likely going to be seeing a lot more about major coordinated operations in Afghanistan, sooner or later the Special Ops types conducting operations in Indonesia and the Philippines are going to get picked up on by the main stream media, etc.

Is it unreasonable to ask the Islamic people to see us as anything other than an enemy? To put it closer to our own cultural experience, let’s ignore our strategic treaty alliance with the Aussies and suppose that China or India attacked Australia. Even though they wouldn’t be attacking the US, would we feel an enmity towards the Chinese? Does anyone recall a wave of Argentinian sympathy when the Falklands war was going on? Me either. Perhaps even more on point is the reaction of the Russians to the NATO operations against their Slavic brethren in Serbia. There was no compelling strategic linkage between Belgrade and Moscow, but that became the very identifiable pivot upon which the emotions of the Russian people turned on the West, facilitating the emergence of Putin’s dictatorial powers.

As an American, I do not view Islam as an enemy although I do see it as being the facilitator for the emergence of our enemies. It’s a fairly nuanced view and one that I realize many of our countrymen don’t share for a number of reasons, from positions that posit that Islam is indeed the enemy to the neo-Buddhist views of the far left that hold we have no enemy except ourself. In the Islamic nations, especially in the ones that are lacking in affluence and education, it is so much easier to simply hear the Pat Robertsons and Dick Cheneys of our nation who make noises about Islam being the enemy than it is to convey nuance just as in our nation, despite its affluence and education, it is so much easier to simply see binLaden as the face of Islam.

President Obama is making the right choices and broadcasting the right message; I am concerned, however, that any message, no matter how  correct, can not penetrate the cloud of static that has been fostered byt he previous administration. Now more than last month the United States is not the enemy of Islam; the question is if the often mentioned “Muslim Street” is even tuned in anymore.

Posted in Foreign Affairs, Islamists, Middle East, Obama Positions | Tagged: , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

The Special Calculus of Special Elections

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 26, 2009

feingold1Russ Feingold, so often the darling of the Goo-Go set, is either feeling very cynical this week or he’s just not thinking in terms of reality.

Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, is making noises about proposing a Constitutional Amendment to take away a Governor’s ability to make an appointment to fill out a vacated Senate seat and instead mandate that a special election be held. While that sounds like a very good, very “small-d” democratic solution to the problem of filling a vacant elected office, it is not; in fact it’s a boon to every political machine in the country.

Special elections hugely benefit the political machines and corrupt infrastructure that funds them. If money is the lifeblood of elected politics, then it is the actual corporeal structure of a special. By definition a special involves raising the maximum amount of cash in the minimum amount of time and nearly always favors a political incumbent with pre-made name recognition– people don’t come out of nowhere and win specials. Whoever wins the special is totally beholden to the machine that backed him, pretty much guaranteeing that you aren’t going to have some independent-minded free agent in the slot. This isn’t a secret to anyone who has ever spent a year or two in political life.

If a Governor makes an appointment, you get a similar political insider-type who is beholden to the Governor’s political interests. He or she may face stupid, onerous electoral conditions like New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand does, having to run twice in the next four years for a seat that normally runs on a six year electoral cycle; as a result she will be cutting deals like mad to finance those elections and to fend off what may be a developing coordinated challenge to herself and David Patterson from an unholy Bloomberg-Cuomo alliance. They also face a press that may be inherently hostile due to the unelected nature of the office.

So, if there are significant and equal downsides to each system that lead to very similar people gaining the office, then why would I be so shocked to see Russ Feingold, the alleged defender of good government and loud proponent of saving the public’s money from government folly, going to the absurd length of ammending the Constitution over a basically meaningless procedural change? Very simply because special elections are hugely expensive to the people of the state forced to hold them. A local special, to fill out a County or City office, places a huge financial burden on the municipality; a statewide election, as Feingold would mandate, is a financial kick in the shorts to the entire state for no practical gain over the current flawed system, which at least has the virtue of not causing a huge outpouring of taxpayer money to achieve the same result.

Appointment or Special Election; either way you wind up with a political insider who gets to run for re-election using the expensive (to you and me) tools of incumbency. Why would Russ Feingold decide to ding his political integrity over what is, in essence, a cheap press hit for him on the heels of the Caroline/Burris silliness? The simple answer is the cynicism of politics– he knows that people are outraged over the recent Senatorial follies but that they don’t actually know what they should be outraged against. He’s throwing them some red meat to the lions; he just isn’t telling them that the meat was cut from their own bodies.

From Feingold, that’s a shame.

Posted in American Politics, CongressCritters, Jerks | Tagged: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

A New Priesthood

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 26, 2009

The story of my academic life in middle & high school was my distaste inability to “show all work”. Arriving at a correct answer was never a problem for me, whether it was in algebra or trig, biology or the rudimentary computer science we studied back in the dark ages of the mid-Eighties. Showing all work though– there was nothing more frustrating than getting back a math exam with an 80 on it when every damned answer was correct but I had neglected to adequately translate my thought process in reaching that answer into a discernible, codifiable process. Actually there were a couple of young ladies who were considerably more frustrating, but that’s life as a teen-aged boy.

It’s that inability to show work, though, that intrigues me right now. I employed all of the standard dodges– what does it matter as long as I’m right, who will ever need this crap anyway (a mantra I recalled a couple of years back while trying to lay a triangular pattern of tile in my entryway), blah blah blah. The good Franciscan Brothers were, if you’ll pardon the phrase, hell bent on getting us to show all work.

They were, however, not quite so interested in process and practice in the humanities. Yes, there were papers to do in some of the Social Studies classes and essay questions on some of the Lit tests, but there were a surprising number of multiple choice, fill in the blank, true/false types of questions, too. For some reason the approach and execution of the thinker are less important in those topics, at least to the minds of some. The answer was adequate.

I’ve learned to appreciate, if not always execute, the description of systems over the intervening years. Its inherent value becomes apparent as one progresses through life, as the need to apply flexible process to rigid situations exerts and unveils itself. It is curious, then, that as we proceed further into an age in which we are told that mathematics and science are the raisons d’etre for education that very knowledge of process in falling by the wayside.

As computers run our algorithims and processors compute our runs, one can actually make the case that the display of work is an anachronism.  I play a game at a free site that requires deducing by eye the end results of a gravitational field– the math behind it is mind-boggling to me, but simple enough that whoever created the game gave away the result for free. Perhaps the time has come then when not only do we not need to show work, but we, the general populace, can not.

Why, then, is the Navy still teaching navigation by sextant at Annapolis? It’s an arcane and extraordinarily complex process involving taking sightings on the sun and stars. It is a technology surpassed what, five times over before we even reach GPS… yet it is still relevant. You must have the technical knowledge to navigate your ship if your systems are down, and, int he world of Academy graduates, the basic knowledge of taking a sighting and computing your position off of it underlies so many other integral processes that you need it to formulate the next generations of technology.

Those Middies with their deep knowledge are still a pace behind the diminution of process, however. There’s is a complex but approachingly ancient technology, whereas mathematical knowledge now proceeds into areas that support technologies beyond the understanding of most. Anyone can explain the construction of the internal combustion engine, even if you can’t build one yourself. Explain to me, however, how the computer you are reading this on is engineered and is working, or how the signals generated by the buttons I’m pressing are translating into the blog you’re reading somewhere else in the world right now. Yes, of course we all know the basics– integrated circuits, binary code, etc.– but the workings, the actual workings? Show all work with your answer.

It is very current to talk about societal divides– the digital divide, the economic divide, racial divides, education divides. I think they’re all about to be superseded.  We face a knowledge divide, a mathematical divide that can really only be described in the language of mathematics that itself forms the divide, thus becoming an intractable problem for the majority of the planet. While we all enjoy the fruits of mathematics– your Wii, your car, your bank account or the box you’re reading this on– we can’t describe its workings and have reached a point where it is both too complicated to do so for the majority of the planet… but also not necessary to do so either.

There are those in the world who can still show all work. Are they ascending to a different societal plane, a new priesthood that directly communes with the divine technology? The Maya priests were the leaders of their society because they understood the comings and goings of the sun and concocted a societal construct around that knowledge. Are we not doing the same with our technology?

Posted in American History, Autobiographical, Cultural Phenomena, education, History, Mathematics | Tagged: , , , , , | 5 Comments »

He Said, He Said

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 25, 2009

p1joetorreIt’s difficult to sell yourself as anything other than an intellectual fraud when you go to press with a story about how some people are primadonnas when in the act of doing so you reveal yourself to be one, as well.

This is the situation which may be confronting ex-New York icon Joe Torre, now manager of the Left Coast Dodgers. In a book set to be released on February 3rd, written by Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci with cooperation from Torre, the former Yankee manager allegedly has more than a few unkind things to say about the team that took him from the scrap heap and made him a Hall of Fame shoo-in.

He apparently relates that Alex Rodriguez is obsessed with Derek Jeter. Not exactly a revelation, but still an unneeded unkindness. He also is said to repeat that ARod is less than popular with his teammates, who at times have referred to him as A-Fraud. No news there, but again…why? He calls some of his former players “primadonnas”. Wow, ballplayers who are full of themselves, who feel unduly privileged and expect to be deferred to? Ground breaking stuff, that.

All of these things may speak to a petty vendetta on the part of Torre, they may speak to a publicist trying to generate hype for a book by taking things out of context, they may speak to Tom Verducci needing a hit as a guy with a bit of a rep for being a jerk and a  few turkeys on his rap sheet. The jury is out at least until the book is too, on February 3rd. These stories, all kind of “uh-huh, yeah, we know” things, may be told in exactly that  vein– they could well be integral to the telling of the story because they are simply part of the background against which it plays out. It makes sense that way, and it is in keeping with Torre’s personality, reputation and temperament. If that’s it, there’s no problem.

What is disturbing is that he is attacking Brian Cashman, who had his back for so long and kept Steinbrenner off of him so many times. The allegation that Cashman somehow stabbed him in the back by not backing his play for a multiyear deal at the conclusion of the 2007 season flies in the face of everything that Torre said in public, that Cashman wanted him to be with the team, that Cashman had defended him and promoted his interests, that Cashman was trying to build the team that Torre wanted despite the pressures exerted by the Steinbrenners.

That is the segment that I hope has been taken out of context, that has been exploited by a publicist or a schmuck of a co-author. If it isn’t that will be a direct character statement on a guy who has become an icon to so many of us, a man who represented the proverbial “steady hand at the tiller amidst the storm”. If this is who Torre is– a guy who is willing to lie either in his book or to his public’s face, then it is he who is the unexpected prima donna.

And that would sadden me.

Posted in Baseball, Jerks, Just Annoying | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Silver Nomads in the Purple Tunnel of Doom

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 22, 2009

I understand security needs. I understand logistics. I even understand that when an event is as large as the Inauguration of Barack Obama, there are going to be problems.

What I don’t understand is how Terry Gainer, the Sergeant-at-Arms of the Senate, is being allowed to blatantly lie about the way yesterday’s Inaugural was carried out in the streets surrounding the Capitol.

Terry Gainer is the bad penny of security here in the Capital; he was the number two at the Washington Metropolitan Police, roundly acknowledged as one of the worst major metropolitan police forces in the nation. Later, he became the Cheif of the Capitol Police, the force that polices the Capitol campus and its environs. The reviews for him there were, and I’m being nice, less than stellar. Now, at the Senate in what should be a fairly ceremonial post as the Sergeant at Arms, he’s still flapping his gums authoritatively about things he knows little about and has no control over.

The golden tickets in Washington this week actually came in many colors; amongst them Orange or Blue got you a seat on the Capitol pediment, Purple got you into the standing area closest to the Capitol, Silver got you into standing areas clustered right in front of the Capitol. The purple tickets were handed out to senior staff of the various Obama state organizations and to the guests of Congressmen; silver were the tickets of the folks who had good connections and those who were insanely lucky enough to get a ticket from their local Representative.

For some those tickets of purple and silver were as good as gold; for perhaps as many as 20,000, however, the alchemy of the Secret Service turned them not just to lead but nearly to arsenic. According to Sergeant-at-Arms Gainer, however, there were a few thousand people “inconvenienced”, for reasons that he’s given at various times as “overcrowding”, “counterfeit tickets”, “everybody unexpectedly showing up”, and a few other whoppers.

My party of six all had silver tickets and, in theory, did everything right. We set a 4am alarm here in Alexandria, about 25 minutes from the Capitol by rail. We were on the street in DC by 6.20, better than five hours in advance of the ceremony. We grabbed a cup of coffee at Union Station and set out for what we anticipated to be a semi-chaotic but ultimately rewarding process.

For a while things made sense– there were immense banners and signs color coded to the tickets, clearly illustrating where to go from Union Station. For some reason they petered out at the Purple Gate, leaving the Silver group, by far the largest of the officially ticketed hordes, to wander in search of bafflingly sparse officials to guide them.

The Purples had problems, too. At the corner of First Street and Louisiana Avenue the mob was forming. Unpublicized amongst the official calls to arrive at the Capitol insanely early, the Secret Service had decided to not open any gates until nine o’clock. What needs to be understood is that in addition to preventing access, they also prevented outflow. Streets all over the area were closed by the Secret Service to prevent people from moving freely in the secure zone– they had basically created a very small, steel mesh bag and kept pouring more and more people into it without regard for safety.

That bag’s largest node on the north side of the National Mall was First Street NW between Louisiana Avenue & D Street, a span of roughly a block and a half. By 7am, that area was literally a wall of humanity. As the Purple ticket holders arrived to find the gates still locked, they quickly overmassed the designated holding area and someone– whether it was the Secret Service, the Army, the Metropolitan Police, the DEA, or one of the many other police authorities and agencies out there– decided to have line up on First Street. They filled it in no time flat. The problem was that according not only to the instructions on the back of the tickets and some of the officials on the street, the Silver people were supposed to head up First to D and make a left to reach their access point to the Mall at Third & D.

As we attempted to do as we were instructed with several thousand of our closest friends in tow, we ran into the wall. It appeared to be an impossibility– First Street was literally packed from curb-to-curb and from Louisiana to D with people who couldn’t lift their arms due to overcrowding. We found a uniformed Secret Service agent and asked him what to do– his advice was to head up First as it was our only option. We trusted the positive mood of the day and the good humor of the people and, with a chanted mantra of “Excuse me”, waded into the fray. After nearly 20 minutes that saw us progress about a half block into the one and a half block corridor a river of people were pushing their way back towards Louisiana with the incredible news that D Street was closed by the Secret Service and that people were being told to go back to Louisiana Avenue. After a few moments of disbelief and then finding a low wall to climb and confirm that D was indeed closed, we retreated.

After a twenty minute slog back through the still condensing crowd, we made it back to Louisiana. We could see another line hard against the walls of the Department of Labor at Second Street and, having nowhere else to go we tried again to wade through an increasingly hostile crowd of Purple People to get to it. This time, to cross a span of about 100 feet took fifteeen minutes. Things were getting much worse, and we were becoming the Silver Nomads upon the Purple Sea.

Finally reaching the other side of the Purple line, we headed for the Department of Labor only to find that line was also composed of Purples and that there was no access to Silver portals there, either. A police officer walking 20 feet overhead on the walls of the Department of Labor advised us to head for the tunnel that runs under Labor and out to D Street. We got to its mouth and saw what looked an awful lot like hell. The tunnel stretched off in a straight line far into the distance, with an intersecting tunnel to the left, through which the line stretched in a solid, unmoving wall of people at least a half mile long and ten abreast. Seeing that there was no way we could ever negotiate it, we again retreated. That tunnel, in which thousands of, again, Purple ticket holders were trapped until after the ceremony, has come to be known as the Purple Tunnel of Doom across the blogosphere.

We came back to the area aroudn the labor department and were told by a Secret Service agent to, incredibly, head back up First Street but to stay by the left-hand walls. We debated if he was insane or not and found a police officer who opined that he was… but told us to go back to the tunnel. A Military Police sergeant dressed head to toe in camos told us to do something completely different and impossible– it had become clear that none of the authorities were talking to each other. We headed back into the First Street blender, sticking to the left wall.

Suffice it to say that over the next hour and a half, as we inched forward towards D Street literally through the bushes, shrubs, railings and grates that abutted the walls of the buildings to the left side, our arms pinned to our sides and with no ability to turn our bodies at most times to the left or right no real progress was made. The sheer weight of those behind us caused forward motion not because D Street was open, but because the mass of people was being further and further, almost impossibly, compressed.

At 9.40, the Secret Service succumbed to that inexorable pressure and opened D Street to a single file line of people coming up our left wall. We had seen people injured, we had seen brave medics and doctors– not in an official capacity, mind you, but just members of the mob– fight their way backwards to help them. Finally, after nearly two hours in the blender, we emerged onto D Street and a wide open street. The Army told us to move to Third and D, the marked Silver portal, and head in. It wasn’t to be.

Reaching Third Street, we were confronted with a security cordon manned by the DC Metropolitan Police. An officer helpfully told us to ball up our silver tickets and throw them away– the Secret Service had set up Silver gates in places that they weren’t supposed to causing more chaos, with two of those gates– according to the cop– “exploding”. All Silver portals were closed and we were told to head down Third to reach the general public viewing areas back on the Mall. That advice lasted for all of 100 feet– the Army had put up steel fences across Third Street and declared that only Parade ticket holders could cross there, despite the fact that the parade wasn’t going to happen for five hours and the huge mass who had broken free of First Street was filling the space. We headed back the way we had come only to find the Secret Service telling us to go back again tot he steel fences. The Army told us to go back to the Secret Service and tell them to stop sending them people. Chaos, again, reigned.

We fell back on the DC police strongpoint and they gave us the one decent bit of information we had all day– they were opening the Third Street Tunnel, which runs under the mall, to pedestrians to get to the other side of the city. Heading underground into the massive freeway tunnel that runs beneath the Capitol precincts, we walked about a mile and came out to reassuring signs once again directing us to the Silver portals on that side of town. It was 10.15am, the ceremony started at 11.30, and we were finally going to get in. The energy and laughter of the early morning had returned.

We then turned the corner and saw the Silver line. We walked on, trying to find its end. It changed direction every block, stretching around buildings, up streets, across open spaces. As a longtime DC area resident who has been through his portion of Presidential event security screenings, this line was at least– at least– three hours long. We were finally, inexorably defeated. We grabbed a vantage point at 6th & Maryland along a Jersey wall with a blocked view of the Capitol six blocks away and no chance of hearing anything and sent out a scouting party to figure out how to get onto the Mall in the general area. That was impossible as well– at seventh street the police told us that 14th was the next access, but it was closing as we spoke– 23rd street, on the other side of the Washington monument and with no view of the Capitol over a mile away, was the new access and it would likely last only a few minutes.

Our party splintered shortly thereafter. My wife and I headed for the plaza in front of the Native American museum, which had no speakers but had some view of the Capitol. We waited to see Obama walk out onto the Capitol Platform, took some great pictures of people in trees trying to see, and headed for the subway knowing that if we stayed we’d hear nothing and face equal chaos on the way out of town.

We were frustrated, yes, but we were also exhilarated– we had shared the moments of history in a crowd that was, for the most part, buoyed by the day and that had maintained decorum in what easily could have been a stampede and trampling situation. The people we felt bad for were those who had paid more than the $1.85 we had paid to reach the ceremony– we felt bad for our random Irishman who was denied entry by the poor planning and lack of communication amongst the authorities, whom we were told by a Metropolitan police sergeant were not in radio contact– the Secret Service had denied access to their radio net to the other agencies, even though Secret Service had overall control of the streets. We felt bad for the little old ladies who had waited a lifetime for this, who had made the trek from the Deep South at great cost to see history– and were denied. We felt bad for the disabled people who we were told, again by Metro PD, were literally upended and thrown from their wheelchairs at the Disabled entrance when the crowd broke free and charged the gate. We felt bad for the women hit by a train when she was forced from the platform at Gallery Place by the crowds.

So, Terry Gainer, Sergeant-at-Arms to the Senate, today I call you a liar in addition to being incompetent. To the Secret Service, a group I’ve always admired, I hand the shame and despair of those who wandered through the crowds, who got stuck in the tunnels, who came to experience history, not your ludicrous lack of planning and cooperation.

History was made on Tuesday. Only the good humor of the mob kept tragedy, rather than annoyance, from sharing that stage.

Posted in American History, American Politics, Autobiographical, Events, Jerks, Just Annoying | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Silver Tickets, a Random Irishman, and the Madness of Crowds

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 21, 2009

It has been a long week.

We’ve had Texans in the beds, Jersey girls in the family room and an Irish journalist on the floor. We had no intention of going to the Inauguration, then we had tickets to the Inauguration, then we were left standing on the street after five hours in the cold, amongst the mob.

Did I mention that it has been a long week?

An acquaintance and sometimes drinking buddy asked several weeks ago if we might have room for him for the Inauguration. Of course we said yes and, after he asked if we could take a few of his staffers from Texans for Obama we said “yes” again. In the intervening weeks we prepared for something between two guests and half the population of Austin and even had friends volunteering their houses if we had so many Texans that we wouldn’t be able to walk the floors without stepping on them.

Last Sunday the original guest, we’ll call him the Index Texan, arrived at 10.30 in the morning on the train from New York, only to inform us that he was it. The women whom he expected to join us had crapped out because one of them hadn’t been able to reach him the day before and so had never left Texas, the couple who was staying out in the exburbs had never called him back about the offered geographic upgrade, various others hadn’t played out. It was anticlimactic but fine– one Texan was still fun and we wouldn’t have to worry about hot water for showers.

The phone rang about twenty minutes after I went to bed. The Index Texan was talking to my wife in the kitchen for a few minutes before I heard them coming down the hall. “There’s news,” said Beth– “We’re heading out to Dulles, Ken’s friend from Ireland is landing at 12.30am”. Apparently the Index Texan had made the acquaintance of an Irish freelance journalist who came to Texas to be part of the Obama experience during the campaign and wound up moving into his house; the Irishman had now jumped on a plane with the expectation that he’d stay at the house of someone whom he had met on a previous plane… which didn’t quite work out.

Next came the Jersey girls and their brother, via Houston, South Jersey, Philly, far northern Maryland and all points in between. The friend of the woman who wasn’t coming was coming and bringing friends. They showed up roughly five hours before we had to wake up to go to the Inaugural.

Did I mention we were going to the Inaugural?

My wife had decided to volunteer on the Mall during the Inaugural and she was determined to have the experience of the day; I was content to watch it from the warmth of my family room on the big screen TV– I was actually quite adamant about it when people asked the week before. The Index Texan said that he might be able to score what had been billed as an impossible-to-get extra ticket and asked if I wanted it– off went the kids to a friend’s house and I was making plans for the several layers of clothing I would wear the next day. Beth was getting ready for bed and a 3am wake-up call when we got a text from the Index Texan, now resplendent in a tux and boots at the Texas Society Inaugural Ball. Did she want a ticket too? After an agonizing four seconds of soul searching, she said yes. We were all going to the show. I’ll tell that story in the next post.

Here we are, then, on Wednesday night– the Jersey girls have departed, we think the Random Irishman leaves in the morning, the Index Texan is with us until Friday. We’ve had an interview with the Irish equivalent of the Today Show conducted at 3.30 AM from our family room and another Irish media interview conducted from the crush that was 3rd Street mid-morning, we stopped for a chat with the cast of Morning Joe and were harassed by a belligerent homeless man in Union Station, we had some great political and ethical conversations over pizza and beer in the dining room, we’ve made some new friends and had a few laughs. We also had new people with us who busted their butts to get Barack Obama elected in one of the most Republican states in the nation, and that made our Inaugural experience so much the richer. So, to the Random Irishman, the Index Texan, the Jersey Girls and their brother, thanks, it made this surreal moment, the impossible Inauguration of a black man with a strange name as President of not only New York and California but also Alabama and Utah, that much more surreal. We need our house back, now. Let’s do this again some day… say, perhaps, in four years.

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Coming Back Up

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 21, 2009

Running Local was, well, running local the last few days– making stops along the Inaugural Trail here in DC, complete with a house full of guests– most of whom I’ve never met before– and a random Irish journalist who wound up on an air mattress in the guest room amidst the sprawl. There were moments of pride with my children and friends, there were moments of frustration with the idiocy of the Secret Service doing their best to ruin the experience for many not for reasons of security but for lack of interagency communication, there were even moments of danger as we were packed into streets where you literally couldn’t turn around due to the way the Secret Service created bottlenecks leading to several near-trampling events.

I’ll be writing it all up over the next day or two as the train pulls back into this station and the madness of the crowds subside.

Posted in American Politics, Autobiographical | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

MLK Day of Service

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 16, 2009

I wonder if the word on this initiative is really getting out? Monday, January 19th– Martin Luther King, Jr. Day– is being cast as a National Day of Service, in which we celebrate the holiday not just as a day off and a chance to sleep in or shop but as a day to emulate the ideals of Dr. King by performing volunteer activities in the service of others. I personally love the idea– how better to teach my children about Dr. King’s ethos of bringing people together to effect change– and will be out with my wife and kids participating in volunteer projects that morning. If you’d like to find projects to participate in near your home, please stop by this page for a searchable list of service projects in your neighborhood, broken down by zip code and proximity.

Go help a neighbor in memory of a time when society was literally recast by others doing the same.

Posted in Cultural Phenomena, Events, Social Justice | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

The Tortured Compass

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 14, 2009

This morning the Washington Post is carrying a story largely dealing with the case of Mohammed al-Qahtani, a man who sought entry to the United States in August of 2001 with the intention of participating in the September 11th hijackings. al-Qahtani was subsequently captured in early in the Afghanistan War and shipped to Guantanamo Bay in January of 2002 for interrogation.

That al-Qahtani was treated at Guantanamo in a way that nobody reading this blog would ever wish to be treated goes without saying. Findings of an investigation by Susan Crawford, who is in charge of the military investigations into Gitmo, show that al-Qahtani was deprived of sleep, clothing, and heat, was forced to appear naked and was strip searched by female interrogators, was ordered to perform “dog” tricks while on a leash, was menaced by a military working dog and was interrogated for between eighteen and twenty hours a day for forty-eight of fifty-four days. According to Ms. Crawford, this meets the legal definition of torture, despite the fact that no single grave application of pain or injury was performed.

I do not believe that torture should be used as an interrogation technique in almost any circumstance. I believe that most of my fellow Americans would agree with that, but only because of the qualification at the end of the sentence– “…in almost any circumstance”.  Like most moral-legal issues in the United States, I believe that there are ten percent of Americans at one pole– “No torture, ever, under any circumstance”– and ten at the other– “Heh, did you see what Jack Bauer did to that guy?”. That vast middle is gradated, surely, but it is also where most of us reside; persuadable by a good argument, but also clinging to both emotional response and what we see as clear pragmatism.

Taken so soon after September 11th and what we thought might be the related anthrax attacks, al-Qahtani was without question a valuable intelligence asset and one worthy of thorough interrogation. There was the possibility that he was privy to other planned operations or to the network infrastructure that disseminated the 9-11 plans down to the field operatives who carried it out. He may have had contact with command nodes, he may have had contact with logistics support people, he may have had contact with unknown planning and ops cells active in Europe and the United States– clearly we needed to know what he did (and didn’t) know so that we could gain a better insight into the enemy’s organization and perhaps head off further attacks. Again, given the temporal proximity to the attacks and the fact that the clock might be ticking towards the next attack, it is understandable that the CIA, DOD, and whatever other acronyms took a shot at him wanted to get his information quickly, while it was still fresh and before alQaeda could adapt to his capture.

But torture?

Here’s where we run into the sticking points. Interrogation, done in the correct way, is a lengthy, carefully conducted process of plucking just the right strings often enough that the subject confuses his loyalties, loses hope, or sees benefit to giving up what he knows. That is obviously in contravention to what those controlling his interrogators felt that they needed– quick, accurate information to head off what might be impending plots that could kill thousands of Americans. Faced with that set of circumstances and a “forgiving” command authority in the Bush-Cheney White House, it is understandable– though not palatable, from my perspective– that they might turn to more aggressive   interrogation with the correct prisoners designed to provide quick and dirty answers that could be refined later. I believe that those who made the decision to greenlight aggressive interrogation techniques had no illusions about the overall accuracy of their take– torture produces lousy info– but they needed something, quickly, that would give them an indicator into the mind and planning of an enemy we didn’t understand at a time when he could be moving again.

In the case of al-Qahtani, I do not believe that they acted in the way that I as an American would want to see my government’s organs operate. We understood that a guy like al-Qahtani was muscle, not brains; he was only told enough to carry out the operation he was assigned to and nothing more. That’s nothing new– you can go back to the Narodnaya Volya of the 19th Century and see this kind of cellular terror organization– and we knew that he likely didn’t know a damned thing.

Let’s change up for a moment though and exchange al-Qahtani for someone like al-Zawahiri, the #2 in al Qaeda and the alleged brains of the operation, or someone like Khalid Sheik Muhammed, who planned and ran the 9-11 operation. If we had taken one of them in the first weeks after the attacks, what then? They would have the data in their heads to destroy any current attack planning and potentially to roll up the entire alQaeda network if we acted quickly enough to get that information. Is this where that phrase, “…in almost any circumstances…” meets its application?

I’m guessing that the middle would agree that “enhanced interrogation techniques” like waterboarding, sleep deprivation, etc would be called for in the interest of stopping an attack. I bet those on the further reaches of the middle spectrum would also be OK with blowtorches, electric generators and anything else someone in a Romanian CIA detention center could think of. I also bet that those same people are kind to their neighbors, adopt shelter dogs and cats and give to charity.

This great American middle, this body of people that the world thinks it has figured out, are a fickle bunch that defy easy description. They’re (we’re) a topic I plan to touch on quite frequently in this blog as I don’t think there’s a cultural phenomenon at work in this world right now more interesting or with a greater capacity for joy or pain. Principled, yes, but too pragmatic to rely solely on principles; too emotional to rely solely on pragmatism, too. Are they just uncommitted, weak willed and willing to blow in the wind, or are they something else, a force that moves towards reality when confronted with the ethereal? We torture ourselves over torturing those who wish to hurt us, but we still do torture them despite outrage and pity that I think many feel in their hearts when looking at the aftermath.

North is always in the same place, but we can only find north by looking at the shifting arrow of the compass.Is the case of al-Qahtani a point that the compass moves toward, or is it the center that it pivots around?

Posted in Cultural Phenomena, Foreign Affairs, Human Rights, Intelligence (and lack thereof) | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Hunting Big Game With Senator Sanders

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 14, 2009

As the Bush Administration comes to its closing days, some in our nation look back with anger, some look back with nostalgia for the days before 9-11, some look back with regret that the Conservative Era seems to be coming to a close.

Some look back, however, only long enough to line up a massive kick to the balls.

Bernie Sanders, Senator from Vermont, just put on his size 14 Timberlands and delivered such a blow to the groin of Mr. Bush. Upon getting word that the National Portrait Gallery was preparing to hang the official portrait of the outgoing President, Sanders became interested in just how the documentary caption would read. Suffice it to say he was dismayed with the part that included the phrase, “…the attacks on September 11, 2001, that led to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq . . .”.

Senator Sanders, as Senator Sanders is known to do, schitzed out.

Putting aside the work piled on his Senatorial Plate by a couple of wars, a crushing financial crisis, huge unemployment in Vermont– where even iconic businesses like Ben & Jerry’s and Cabot Cheese are laying off workers– Senator Sanders took pen in hand and set out to rewrite “history”.

In a scathing letter to the Director of the National Gallery, Sanders made it clear that he held a differing opinion and from what I’m told (h/t to a friend on the Hill for this one!) made it equally clear in conversation that if his edits weren’t reflected in the caption then the National Portrait Gallery, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution, would have an awfully hard time getting what it needed out of the Federal Budget in years to come.

So, thanks to Academician Sanders, we now have perfect clarity of thought in the Bush portrait caption, which is sure to be pored over by what, seven or eight people over the coming 50 years? The caption will now read, “Bush found his two terms in office instead marked by a series of cataclysmic events: the attacks on September 11, 2001; the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina; and a financial crisis during his last months in office.”. I admit that it is more accurate… but was it worth it?

Congratulations, Senator– you can now mount President Bush’s nuts over your fireplace. Seems like a small prize to have used your big guns on.

Posted in American Politics, Bush, CongressCritters, History, Jerks | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

This Model is Cherry… Do I Have An Opening Bid?

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 14, 2009

natalie-dylan-5I was watching a bit of the Barrett-Jackson Classic Cars auction last night on cable and wondering to myself how the economic downturn might lead to some incredible bargains on auctioned goods. Clearly we’ve seen foreclosed houses going at bargain prices on the block, so you have to figure everything else will follow.

Well, not everything.

Enter Natalie Dylan, a prospective grad student with a streak of entrepreneurism. Ms. Dylan, who recently received a degree in Women’s Studies and is seeking to finance a Masters in Family and Marriage counseling, has found a rare commodity that seemingly is holding its value at auction.That commodity is her virginity. The current high bid? Three million, seven hundred thousand dollars. She’s no slouch on legalities, either– she’s contracted to, uhm, satisfy the terms of the sale by working for one day at the Moonlight Bunny Ranch in Nevada, making her a legal prostitute.

I have two thoughts on this… first, the rareness of a commodity should be directly reflected in its value, and the scarcity of  hot 22 year old students in San Diego still in possession of their virginity argues that $3.7 million  may be  the bargain of the century.

Second, don’t most high-ticket auctions offer an inspection day? Yikes.

Posted in Cultural Phenomena, Sex | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

 
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