Shrub sez…

There’s reportedly an old Chinese curse that your wish for your enemy is that he may live in interesting times.  Even if it’s not really an old Chinese curse, it is a nice bit of irony that’s finding a growing application today in President Bannon’s America.  One example: more people who were staunch opponents of President George W. Bush, and plenty who thought he was/is an imbecile, are finding themselves agreeing with ol’ Shrub as he grows into his post-Washington wisdom phase.  Especially the many folks who read and re-tweeted this short item from New York Magazine.

Effectively dissing Donnie…attaboy, Georgie.

Advertisements

Where do we go from here

It’s been an amazing couple of days.  Thanks to leaks of government documents and the hard work of some reporters, we’ve learned that the government has been collecting data on our telephone calls—three billion phone calls a day—and essentially watching from inside our computers while we work on the Internet.  Government officials say this is for our own protection, that it’s a good way for them to gather information that can prevent terrorist attacks.  The programs began while George W. Bush was president, and have continued under Barack Obama.

I’ve tried to get my head wrapped around the rapid-fire revelations of the government’s massive system of spying on its citizens; not a rogue operation, but a system pursued by the administration and authorized by Congress and the special Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Courts.  I see that the stories are falling off of the front pages, but we need to fight becoming complacent about this Patriot-(Act)-ic intrusion into our privacy.

On Wednesday news broke of a secret order to Verizon forcing it to turn over metadata of all of its customers calls…we think this includes business, residential and cellular, and we think there are probably similar orders for other telephone providers, but the orders themselves are so secret that the companies can’t acknowledge if it exists.  On Thursday we learned that the government has been tapping directly into the central servers of the major Internet companies to access emails, pictures and videos, etc.  Late Thursday night government officials confirmed the program but insisted it is targeted only at people outside of the United States.  They even claimed that the programs have succeeded in stopping terrorist attacks, although that claim seems dubious.

By Friday the president himself tried to assure American citizens that these programs were for their own good and that we have nothing to fear.  He said, “It’s important to recognize that you can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience. We’re going to have to make some choices as a society. And what I can say is that in evaluating these programs, they make a difference in our capacity to anticipate and prevent possible terrorist activity.”

Really? Well, that’s a load off of my mind; thanks for clearing that up for me, B.

I wrote earlier this week, “We cannot be such a craven and cowardly people that we’re willing to let our government spy on us constantly and record our activities and our associations in the name of protecting us from terrorist threats.  If that’s true, then not only have the terrorists already won but the American example of an open and free society is lost.  What the hell would the Founding Fathers think of us if they knew we were willing to abandon our liberty to a government that assured us it is only looking over our shoulders and listening to our phone calls for our own good?”

Only the ignorant or the naïve have ever expected total security in this world, or absolute liberty and privacy.  That’s not the world we live in.  There are crazy religious extremists who are killing innocent people out of a deluded belief that they are doing God’s will, and nothing more than common sense is needed to know that we have to take reasonable measures to protect ourselves from them.  (There are crazy religious extremists who trying to turn our country into a theocracy of their own denomination out of a deluded belief that that is God’s will, and we need to step up and stop that attack, too.)  I have no doubt that these programs have some positive effect when it comes to gathering valuable information against potential terrorists; what I object to is that these effective programs are targeted at all Americans. Jack Shafer put it well: it’s not that I object to the government pursuing terrorists and suspected terrorists…

What’s breathtaking about these two government surveillance programs that the Guardian and the Washington Post have revealed is that they’re vast collections of data about hundreds of millions of people suspected of no wrongdoing and not part of any civil action.

And, “Ultimately, it will be about the government’s pursuit of all the digital breadcrumbs we produce as necessary by-products of day-to-day life—and phone records and Web data are just a small part.

Bank records, credit history, travel records, credit card records, EZPass data, GPS phone data, license-plate reader databases, Social Security and Internal Revenue Service records, facial-recognition databases at the Department of Motor Vehicles and elsewhere, even 7-Eleven surveillance videos comprise information lodes that are of equal or greater value to the national security establishment than phone and Web files. It doesn’t sound paranoid to conclude that the government has reused, or will reuse, the interpretation of the Patriot Act that it presented to the secret FISA court in its phone record and Prism data requests to grab these other data troves.

Warning: slippery slope ahead…

UPDATE: A short time after I posted I ran across this: the NSA suggested to the Bush White House that the government needed to reconsider how it could effectively spy on people in the Digital Age, although it promised to (of course) obey the law and respect the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. Well, yeah…

There are also a couple of pertinent new tweets worth a look over there on the rail, too.

Why seizing journalists’ records is the last option, not the first

The latest revelations about the Obama Administration overstepping its moral authority, if not entirely its legal one, in dealing with enemies both real and perceived have left me melancholy.  At best.  While I am buoyed to see that the concept of using the IRS as a blunt instrument  to punish one’s political opponents seems to have won near-unanimous disapproval, the idea that the government shouldn’t be investigating reporters seems not to be getting quite so much support, at least not outside of journalism.

This government is out of bounds—and out of its mind—if it believes that treating journalists as suspected criminals is legally or morally the right way to go.  A government led by a former professor of constitutional law should know better, even if that government has prosecuted more alleged leakers than any previous one.  The things we’re learning about, or which have been alleged, in just a matter of a few days, are stupefying: not just secretly seizing reporters’ phone records and examining their emails, but treating the reporter as though he were a criminal suspect and investigating his associates—even looking at the reporter’s parents’ phone records!

(Look here for links to a number of good stories, editorials and op/eds on government overreach of authority, the attack on civil liberties, and uncomplimentary comparisons to the administrations of George W. Bush and Richard Nixon.  Look here for a first-hand account of the “Kafkaesque” experience of a reporter who had his phone records secretly seized by two government agencies more than 20 years ago.)

Government has a right to protect its secrets; and yes, I think there are circumstances in which government should properly keep information from general distribution.  But unless the information is (1) critical to preserving public safety and security and (2) cannot be obtained in any other way, the government should not be allowed to try to compel journalists to turn over unpublished research or provide testimony or rat out their associates, because that turns those reporters into de facto government investigators and will make people with stories to leak and asses to protect choose their asses over the story. Seizing journalists’ records or compelling testimony is the last option, not the first one, and it’s up a court to decide that, on a case by case basis.

I don’t think journalists have a legal “right” to protect sources; others disagree.  I think they must protect sources if they hope to be effective at their job, but I don’t think the law shields them from any and every effort by the government to uncover information.  (Unless there’s a shield law.)  And I think journalists should be prepared to pay the price under law when they choose to protect their sources, as a good journalist should, while simultaneously refusing to comply with a lawful court order, as a good citizen should.

Yes, Sarah Palin, it’s possible to be a good journalist and a good citizen.  All good citizens are not good journalists, but all good journalists are good citizens when they fulfill a critical role in the functioning of a free society: to tell citizens those things that people in power don’t want us to know; to inform us of what is being done in our name and on our behalf.

I’m not making a case for the purveyors of “news you can use”—things like consumer news, what’s trending on social media, breathless reports on developments on a TV network’s prime time entertainment program as if it was the explosion of the Hindenburg (yes, I’m talking to you, KTRK-TV in Houston); that’s the sissified bullshit kind of “news” we get from outlets that sold their souls when they bought the line of crap peddled by non-journalist consultants whose only real goal is increased profitability.  (I’m not opposed to profit, by the way—I’d like to have been better at it myself—but I am opposed to those organizations for which profit is the only or primary reason for being, and to the people who see journalism as just another product to sell like cook pans or bicycles or bird seed.)

I mean to make the case for the journalism that is there to confront those in power, one citizen to another, and to tell the rest of us what’s going on with the people we’ve authorized to spend our money and operate our governments, from Washington, D.C. to the state capitols and from counties and cities to utility districts and homeowner’s associations.  I mean the journalism that is envisioned in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution when it guarantees us the right to a free press right alongside the freedom of religion and freedom of speech and freedom of peaceable assembly and redress of grievances.

How well do American journalists do in living up to that standard?  Each according to his talents, like the rest of us.  The ones Don Henley sang about a generation ago are still around and (still) aren’t even trying, but the ones who are trying to do the job the right way for the right reasons deserve our respect and the respect of our government, regardless of who is president at the moment.

A rich vein of loopy

Even though the easy and obvious answer should be easy and obvious (duh), a disturbingly large percentage of our fellow Americans aren’t satisfied with taking the easy way.  Good for them, I say: it demonstrates their exceptional American characteristics of ingenuity and perseverance to come up with these unconventional answers, while generating easy laughs for us lazy slobs whose consciences take no offense when we just skate by, exercising nothing more mentally rigorous than logic and reason.

Public Policy Polling conducted a poll in late March that asked people about conspiracy theories, ones “well known to the public, others perhaps to just the darker corners of the internet.”  What did they find?  A rich vein of loopy:

  • 4% believe shape-shifting reptilian people take on human form and gain political power to manipulate society and control the world (probably thinking of Mitch McConnell on this one)
  • 5% believe Paul McCartney died in 1966 (the rest of us think he’s on another world tour)
  • 11% believe the U.S. government allowed the September 11 attacks to happen
  • 13% believe Barack Obama is the anti-Christ (huh?)
  • 14% believe the CIA was instrumental in creating the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s
  • 15% believe the medical and pharmaceutical industries create new diseases to make money off of treatments

(As for the 29% who think aliens exist—what’s wrong with the other 71% of you?)

Just so much harmless kookery, right?  Yes, but what about the 20% who believe the government is hiding a link between autism and childhood diseases, or the 37% percent who believe global warming is a hoax?  Those people act on their beliefs to the detriment of the futures of both their children and the planet they share with the rest of us.  What does it say about our society when, more than ten years after the fact, 44% still think that our then-president took the nation to war on a personal vendetta against Saddam Hussein, and another 12% aren’t sure?

What about the people who had elaborate explanations for the Boston Marathon bombing the day after it happened, before anyone but the bombers themselves could possibly have known the truth?

For starters, I suggest you check out the Bad Astronomy blog on Slate, where Phil Plait recently vented a little about the march of antireality in general and just today about the links between the anti-vaccine nuts and the measles outbreak in Wales.  He has a clear-headed approach and a clean writing style that I think you’ll appreciate.

After that? I don’t know for sure…perhaps we can all get some good advice from the 14% who believe in Bigfoot, or the 9%, like Gen. Jack Ripper, who are convinced that fluoridation of our water isn’t just about dental health.

Reflecting on September 11: a call to our better angels

In the entry hallway at our house we have a framed picture of the night skyline of Lower Manhattan as seen from New Jersey, the twinkling twin towers of the World Trade Center the focal point.  The caption under the photo reads, “We’ll never forget.”  Not forget what happened that day?  That’s the easy part.

That morning I was at my desk at work with the television tuned to CNN, trying to concentrate on the newspaper, when I became barely conscious of talk about a plane hitting one of the towers.  They got my attention when I saw the video of smoke coming from the north tower and heard the anchor talking to someone who said he saw a passenger jet hit the building.  That’s ridiculous, I thought: those planes would never accidentally hit a downtown building, and you could see on TV that the sky was a clear, brilliant blue…must have been a small private plane or something.  My office mate walked in and I brought him up to date on what they were saying, then we sat and watched…and saw a passenger plane come into the frame and slam into the other building!  My first thought: this is not an accident.  (Firm grasp of the obvious, eh?)

I didn’t move from the TV.  Another plane hit the Pentagon.  I watched the towers collapse, fascinated at how they seemed to accordion down on themselves, and not believing the size of the dust cloud they sent up.  Then we were all sent home from our government office in Houston because no one knew what might be the next target.  I sat in front of my television at home the rest of the day trying to get it all straight in my head—what do we know, as opposed to what we think we know—as I had done sitting at a microphone in a radio studio in Houston more than 15 years earlier, on the day space shuttle Challenger blew up.

In the next few weeks we learned that the hijackers who died along with almost 3,000 innocent victims on September 11 were connected to a global terrorist network called Al Qaeda, founded by Saudi-born Osama bin Laden, and which was implicated in prior attacks on American targets around the world.  Apparently, Al Qaeda was attacking those it saw as enemies of its fundamentalist interpretation of Islam.  Before the end of the year, President Bush sent American troops to Afghanistan to get bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders and their protectors within the Taliban.  We’ve been at war ever since.

Not just an impossible to quantify war on “terrorism,” which is really more a tactic than an enemy, but an actual boots-on-the-ground bullets-in-the-air war, and there’s still no end in sight.  One big reason, I believe, is that “we” aren’t at war.  Our armed forces are at war, and so are their loved ones, but when have the rest of us felt like we were at war?  There haven’t been any shortages of goods, damn few protests, and no tax increases to pay for a war.  Absent any kind of personal connection it’s not surprising that many Americans find it hard to remember that “we” have been fighting war constantly since late 2001—and for much of that time, two wars.  We have come to think of it, when we think of it at all, as a perfectly normal situation; for many of our soldiers, sailors and Marines, being in a shooting war is all they know professionally, and what their spouses and kids assume to be a normal life.

We went to war in Afghanistan to get the people who attacked us on September 11.  We finally killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan this year, but there’s no sign of an end to our presence in Afghanistan.  We went to war in Iraq to…go ahead, you fill in the blank, but we know it wasn’t to get Al Qaeda, since they weren’t there, or to stop Saddam Hussein from using his weapons of mass destruction, which also weren’t there.  Ironically, the war we chose to fight in Iraq only strengthened our enemy there, if it didn’t actually create an enemy where he didn’t previously exist.  Last month, some eight and a half years after that war began, was the first month that there were no American casualties in Iraq.

The attacks of September 11 were a shot to the solar plexus of the American people.  In the immediate aftermath we did what Americans do after a surprise attack, whether from a mortal enemy or from Mother Nature: everyday men and women responded heroically in the face of the crisis, then we all took care of those who needed to be taken care of.  We opened our hearts and our purses without complaint or even a second thought, and helped each other through until the shock wore off, then turned our attention to those who attacked us.

Unfortunately, we didn’t see the second surprise attack, the one launched by cynical politicians and government functionaries who took advantage of our fear and anxiety.  The news media, shamefully fearful of even being accused of being less than loyal patriots, stood by and let officials get away with murder, in the figurative if not the literal sense.  We let our fear overpower “the better angels of our nature” and spent parts of the next ten years squandering our time, our treasure and our good karma.

We crawled all over each other with demonstrations of the trappings of patriotism as if that was all that was required to be a patriot, as if claiming allegiance to America’s ideals was just as good as living up to those ideals when it really matters.

We let natural wariness in unusual circumstances turn into fear of The Other.  We treated Americans who are Muslim, and those who came here from the Middle East and southern Asia, as though they were in the cockpits of those planes in spirit that day.  People whose only sin was that they practice a particular religion—including those in the peaceful mainstream of that religion, not in the violent, radical extreme—or trace their heritage to a particular part of the world weren’t given the benefit of any doubt but that they were enemies of America.  How much time have we wasted on things like trying to ban shariah law, or trying to stop Muslims from building mosques where some loudmouth decided it’s not appropriate?

How is it that we really spent breath fighting with each other over whether it’s all right to torture prisoners, or just OK to secretly send them to friendly countries where they do the torturing for us?  Were we napping when the government enacted Patriot Acts at the expense of our own civil liberties?  Why did we devote our time and energy to a blue ribbon investigation into ways we could better protect ourselves in the future, and then not implement the recommendations?

How did we sit still for the manipulators who used this attack on our country to whip up sympathy for a war against a country (and its people) that had nothing to do with that attack, with the result that a larger number of Americans have died in that needless war—Americans who bravely, selflessly volunteered to protect the rest of us—than died in the original attack?  And that’s to say nothing of the cost in dollars, and the resulting impact that has had on our national economy and well being.

Back then, I thought that a few months after the attacks, when the shock subsided, we’d regain our perspective, but it seems that I was thinking about a different America, one which perhaps only ever existed in dreams: one where we followed the rules we set for ourselves, even when we were frightened; where people who hijack our airplanes and use them to kill thousands of our fellow Americans have the right to a fair and public trial; where, when crazy people who claim to adhere to the tenets of one of the world’s great religions but are in fact an extremist group led by a delusional maniac with a messiah complex attack our cities and our government institutions, we don’t ignore facts and logic to leap to the conclusion that every person in the world who practices that religion is part of a plot to get us.

Today we have the chance to do better, and I believe we can.  We can work to put aside our fear and get over the juvenile impulse to attack anyone different from ourselves.  Let’s choose to deal with people based on who they really are and what they really do, rather than relying on our fevered imaginations to do our thinking for us.  Let’s start, for example, by recognizing the difference between Al Qaeda and Al Jazeera, or the difference between a community center and a terrorist training camp.

Not forgetting the events of September 11, 2001—that’s the easy part.  If we don’t do the hard part, and act like the people we pride ourselves on being, then the terrorists have already won.

Towers 002