The Merits of Inaction

 Posted by  Foreign Policy, Israel and Palestine, Middle East, Obama Administration, Terrorism  Comments Off on The Merits of Inaction
Jun 182013

There is a certain arrogance with being the world’s only superpower.  The United States can project military power anywhere on the globe in a way that no other country can.  That power is both a blessing and a curse.  The blessing is that we are able to defend American interests (both economic and strategic) and stop human rights violations wherever and whenever we need to.  The curse is that we are constantly tempted to do so… and often the best thing we can do is nothing at all.

Syria is, I believe, one such case.  In particular, in Syria there are basically four options on the table: Continue reading »


There are three “scandals” supposedly “rocking” the White House this week.  Really, I think it just goes to show how silly we all are.

The first, and oldest, of these scandals is Benghazi.  Four Americans were killed, including the Ambassador to Libya, when an Al Qaeda affiliate attacked a diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya in September, 2012.  Since then, the conservative media has been pushing two separate lines of inquiry, seemingly in the hopes of embarrassing the president.  The first, and the legitimate one, is whether or not those lives could have been saved.  There have been numerous hearings on this, focusing on why various troops or planes were not called into Benghazi to assist that outpost during the attack; and while questions remain, it seems that the worst story that can be told is one of a lack of communication between the State Department, the CIA and the Pentagon.

The second line of inquiry regarding Benghazi, and this one is just plain silly, is about the evolution of a set of talking points that UN Ambassador Susan Rice and others used in the days after the attacks to describe what was happening in public interviews to the American people.  The first version of those talking points speculated that while there might have been some connection to the ongoing protests in Cairo and Yemen over an anti-Muslim YouTube video, that it was likely that the attack in Benghazi was carried out by an Al Qaeda affiliate.  By the 12th and final version, all mention of Al Qaeda had been dropped–but not the mention of the ongoing protests.  And of course, it eventually turned out that the Cairo protests had nothing to do with it, and that Al Qaeda had been planning the attack for months–which means that Susan Rice and others gave wrong information in those first few post-attack interviews.

Continue reading »

Buried Racism

 Posted by  Crime, Disasters and Tragedies, Immigration, Racism  Comments Off on Buried Racism
May 062013

I keep hoping that we’re better than this.

By “this”, I’m referring to the ‘controversy’ surrounding where to bury Tamerlan Tsarnev, the oldest of the two Boston Marathon bombers.  Tsarnev’s uncle came to Massachusetts to oversee the burial for the family.  A funeral home in Worcester, MA (a small city about 90 mins west of Boston) agreed to handle the arrangements–and have faced public criticism for doing so, including protesters outside the funeral home.  Finding a cemetery is proving a bit more problematic.  The Uncle is trying to find one in the Boston area, although the Cambridge City Manager (think “mayor”) has preemptively denied permission to bury him in any of the city-owned cemeteries, supposedly in the interests of “peace within the city”.

The man is dead, people.  Loved ones can’t get cooties from being buried next to a dead terrorist–any more than by being buried next to a dead black man or a dead Jew.

I don’t really care about Tamerlane.  But funerals, cemeteries, and other burial rites aren’t about the corpse.  They are about bringing closure to the families and friends of the deceased.  They are about trying to find solace and healing.  And right now, the Tsarnev family needs healing.  Not only did they lose a family member–a son, a father, a husband, a brother, and a nephew–they are also struggling to deal with how their boy could have done something so terrible.  This is a time of confusion, sadness, and guilty, for all of them.

And now protesters, the media, and local politicians are piling onto the family–trying to deny them the ability to bury their son and start the healing process?  That’s downright cruel.

Besides, let’s call a spade a spade.  I don’t recall any such controversies when we’ve buried serial killers and terrorists in the past.  Did people protest Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, being buried on American soil?  What about the DC sniper?  The Unibomber?  The Newtowne shooter, Adam Lanza?  All of those killed many more people than did Tamerlan Tsarnev.

The difference is that Tsarnev is a Muslim immigrant.  The attempts to deny burial rites for his family stems not from some greater feeling that terrorists shouldn’t be buried on American soil.  It’s a reflection of anti-Muslim hatred.   It’s racism, pure and simple.

Seriously, people, we’re better than that.  Or at least we ought to be.

Sympathy for the Dzhokhar

 Posted by  Book Related, Disasters and Tragedies, Terrorism  Comments Off on Sympathy for the Dzhokhar
Apr 232013

Apparently I have something in common with the nation’s latest terrorist; we both love going to the Midwest Grill, a Brazilian BBQ Restaurant in my (our?) neighborhood.  We were also both captains of our respective high school wrestling teams and members of the National Honor Society.  His friends from high school talked about him going out of his way to help out, giving rides home, and coming back to his high school to help out for wrestling practice after he had graduated–all things I can relate to.  For all those reasons–not to mention the fact that he only lived about a quarter mile from me–it’s really hard for me not to relate to him.

Which makes the events of the last week all that much more baffling for me.  How could this kid get so twisted that he placed two bombs in a crowd of people, shot a police officer in cold blood, and hijacked a car at gun-point?

I have nothing but sympathy for the friends and families of the victims.  The eight year old boy whose life was ended just as it was beginning.  The graduate student from China who loved living in Boston.  The  restaurant manager from the suburbs who never missed a marathon.  And the MIT officer who was the consummate policeman.

But it’s the bomber, suspect number two, the one who was just arraigned on federal charges from a hospital room yesterday… he’s the one whose story seems most familiar to me.  And yet he’s the one who maybe I will never understand.  Because for all the similarity, how could I understand what drove him to commit such an act of evil–an act that is so viscerally repellent to me I have trouble even watching the footage of it?

Understanding is especially difficult because human motives are never easily understood.  They are never so simple as we would like them to be.  It would be nice if there were a simple, clean, explanation for why he did it.  His evil brother made him do it.  His felt abandoned by his family.  He felt abandoned by his friends.  He fell in with a bad crowd.  He started listening to the wrong preachers.  He was depressed.  He was angry.  He was on drugs.  He was crazy.

But the truth is always more complicated.  The truth is some combination of some or all of those things–and more.  The truth is that human beings are extraordinarily intricate creatures who usually don’t fully know why we do what we do, and who rationalize our behavior after the fact to make ourselves feel better about what we’ve done.

The best we can do is to understand his actions and associations.  Did anyone help him or fund him or advise him?  What else were they planning on doing?  Did they commit any other crimes before the marathon?  Those are all important questions.

As for motive?  Why he did it?  As much as I would love to know… it’s a fool’s errand.

Finally, let me end by quoting Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of the Boston Archdiocese: “Forgiveness does not mean that we do not realize the heinousness of the crime.  But, in our hearts, when we are unable to forgive, we make ourselves a victim of our own hatred.”

Voter Control

 Posted by  Book Related, The Media, U.S. Politics  Comments Off on Voter Control
Apr 112013

In a blog post today, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen says that the problem with former Congressman Anthony Weiner is that he’s not more like Margaret Thatcher.  Actually, I would say he has that backwards; the problem with modern politics is that too many people want Margaret Thatcher, when they should want Anthony Weiner.

Weiner is the subject of a fascinating New York Times Magazine piece, along with his wife, Huma Abedin, who was Hillary Clinton’s right-hand woman during her time as Secretary of State.  The piece describes Weiner’s fall from grace two years ago, which largely happened because he sent out pictures of his penis (mostly, but not entirely, clothed) to some women he “met” on Twitter.  In the piece, Weiner is clearly looking for some kind of public forgiveness and political redemption.

And, according to Cohen, this is a mistake.  Cohen clearly believes that politicians should be more like Margaret Thatcher, who was famous for not really caring what people thought about her.

Now, that picture of Thatcher is a caricature–of course she cared what people thought about her.  First, because she’s human and humans are social animals, whether we like to admit it or not.  And second, because you don’t win elections without trying to convince people that you are doing the right thing.  If you truly didn’t care about the public’s opinion, you wouldn’t bother campaigning–and Thatcher most certainly campaigned.

Still, the image of the politician who does what they think is best, public-opinion-be-damned, is a powerful one in American politics.  Many reporters and pundits hold it up as the ideal.

And I want nothing to do with it.  The heart of democracy is elections.  We are democratic because we hold regular, meaningful elections for the highest offices in the land.  Our leaders must stand for election–which means that they must strive to be liked by the public.

Ultimately, that’s the public’s only leash on our leadership.  If our leaders stop care about being liked–if they truly stop care about whether the public will support them or not–then there is nothing to stop our leaders from enacting whatever outrageous policies they want to.  There is nothing to stop them from openly taking bribes or ordering their subordinates to have sex with them at every opportunity.

Democracy works in large part because our leaders want to be liked.  It’s that desire to be liked–to want to run in future elections, and win those elections–that keeps our politicians in line.  When politicians lose that fear–that’s when they get dangerous.

So if I have a choice between an Anothony Weiner-type, who cares what the people think, or a Margaret Thatcher-type, who doesn’t–well, give me the Anthony Weiner every time.  Because as a voter, I can control the Weiner-type politician.  The Thatcher-type politician may have “political courage”, but I have no control over them once they are in office.   And as a country, we’re all better off if the voters remain in control.

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