Reporting On Mass Murders
Make a list of all the ways anyone thinks we can reduce mass murders. It will run from less violence in entertainment to more mental health services, and cover the irreconcilable spectrum from “fewer guns in society” to “more guns.”
But the potential (if only partial) solution that’s getting more attention now with each successive mass murder— what a pathetic four words to have to write— is something that only the news media can implement: stop paying attention to the murderer. Don’t examine his background, don’t publicize his motives, don’t even mention his name.
This sentiment has grown so strong that the sheriff whose officers responded last week to the Oregon shooting said afterward, “Let me be very clear: I will not name the shooter.” He appealed to the media to act the same way, to avoid “any glorification and sensationalization of him.” As a related analysis in The Post put it this past Sunday, law enforcement officials hope that such a stance “will reduce the chance of (mass murderers’) notoriety and keep their actions from inspiring others.”
Maybe. With the Oregon mass murderer, evidence supports it. The New York Times cited “a string of online postings that showed he had become increasingly interested in other high-profile shootings,” and quotes a recent entry: “Seems the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight.”
But as the Post analysis also said, investigators sometimes use what they learn in news reports about these mass murders to better understand the signals that someone might have missed and, hopefully, better comprehend what it will take to prevent more massacres down the road.
I want to add another argument— at risk of supporting an increasingly unpopular policy— why the news media should not suppress anything it uncovers about the villains who perpetrate these massacres (while also reporting on the innocent victims of their violence).
The argument is simple: we already make countless subjective but unavoidable decisions about the news you get. They are decisions without which the pages of this newspaper would be empty. They run from what stories to cover to where to place them in the newspaper or broadcast; from who to interview to what questions to ask to which parts of each interview to use in the story; from what to say at the top of the piece to how to end it; from what to include amongst the facts to be reported, to what to leave out.
Do you really want us to also make decisions about what to report and what to ignore, based on our perceptions of your morality, your politics, or in this case, your security? If a journalist thinks abortions are a moral malignancy, would you really want him or her to curtail coverage of the controversial topic? If a political reporter concludes that Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy is a travesty, do you really think he or she ought to stop reporting on it?
Which brings us back to mass murders. Will you be satisfied if someone like me, or another journalist out in the field or back in the newsroom, makes a godlike decision that society will be safer if we don’t report on certain aspects of the crime? A letter writer to The Post over the weekend says yes, writing, “… maybe somewhere down the line someone won’t follow through on their evil plans because they don’t think it will bring them the notoriety they crave.”
Maybe, or maybe not. But it can become an awfully slippery slope.
Over the weekend, The Denver Post ran this question on the op-ed page: “Should the news media refrain from using the names of shooters when reporting on mass shootings such as Thursday’s attack in Roseburg, Ore.?” Although not a scientific survey, the sentiment was clear: nearly 70-percent said yes.
The citizen part of me agrees. The journalist part is still not so sure.
On Refugees – What’s Right
“What would Jesus do?” That’s the question many people ask when trying to figure out the right way to act. But for now, forget that. With the inundation of immigrants still putting Europe into panic, let’s make it more personal: “What would you do?”
But I’m not asking what you would do if you were a citizen of Europe, let alone a leader. No, what I’m asking is, what would you do if you were one of those poor souls from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, or any of the dozen other nations where war and terrorism have made life not just unbearable, but untenable? Would you flee with your family, or would you just wait where you are and take your punishment?
For many who’re running from the horrors that invaded their world (for which, by the way, we bear some blame either because of what we’ve done or, with Syria in particular, because of what we haven’t done), those are the only choices they have.
And yet one of my friends, responding to my last column about these refugees, wrote back, “Immigration without assimilation is invasion.” How very charitable. But I’m sure he speaks for many. My response is, these people had to make a choice: death at the hands of one invasion, or life as a part of another. Perhaps said more simply, they chose to let their children live, not die.
Put in their shoes, I’d do exactly the same thing: get away, get anywhere that gives my family and me a chance not just at a decent life, but a chance at life, period. We can quibble about how oppressive life would have to be before we’d abandon everything we know, and own, to strike out for a strange land that’s not likely to greet us with a smile. But that’s just a matter of degrees.
Of course it’s the scale of this migration that makes it all so difficult. If there was just a handful of families fleeing, they would be charitably absorbed and we’d never hear a peep about it. But the scale shouldn’t matter. Either helping people who have fled for their lives is the right thing to do, or it’s not.
People escaping death are the most desperate souls on earth. The only reason we’re not in their shoes is that we’re luckier than they are, not smarter, just luckier, by virtue of our birth.
So if you’re among those who are slamming these migrants for “invading” Europe, try to think about it that way and see if it changes anything.
If it doesn’t, then all I can say is, I hope this kind of thing never happens to you.
I just saw a sign on a door that said, “Refugees welcome.” It was last week when I was in Bosnia. Bosnia, in which an estimated hundred thousand people were killed, and from which several hundred thousand became refugees themselves, during the brutal Balkan wars in the first half of the 1990s.
Then I saw a huge poster along a highway that said “Refugee Humanitarian Concert.” This was the next day driving into Croatia, parts of which were bombarded with bullets and artillery during those recent years of conflict, leaving twenty thousand Croatian citizens dead, many murdered in a mad maelstrom of ethnic cleansing.
Bosnia, Croatia, two of the half dozen nations whose wounds from that round of religious and ethnic warfare still haven’t wholly healed. Yet today, they are in the middle of another mess, with Croatia the newest choke point in the flight of desperate people from the wide arc of warfare in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa.
These are two nations that understand what it means to be a refugee. What it means to escape with your children, your spouse, your parents, the clothes on your back and nothing more. They know what it means to run from hate and hunger and enemies whose only grudge against you is the ethnicity in your DNA, or the religion to which you were born. They are nations with a painfully recent firsthand perspective on what it means to escape with your life… if you are lucky. And now, they have a firsthand view of other human beings in the same frightening flight.
I don’t know what I would do if I were a leader in one of the many European nations like these, besieged by citizens from another world, suddenly surging like a raging river into mine. I’m glad to see the small signs I’ve seen that there is at least some level of human compassion that transcends the practical issues of how to actually handle this flood of people who have no home, no food, no job, not even the basic language skills to survive in my society. Would I make it my country’s policy to welcome all who cross my borders? Would I even post a small sign on my door that reads, “Refugees welcome?” Like I said, I just don’t know.
But what I do know is, my own good fortune of birth in the United States of America wasn’t thanks my superior intelligence or driving ambition or anything else. It was thanks to my grandparents, all four of them, who courageously came to America a hundred years ago in the boiling bellies of big boats because they were fleeing from religious pogroms in Russia and Poland. They were refugees.
And I’m far from the only American like that. With everyone from Irish-Americans to Vietnamese-Americans to Somali-Americans to Hispanic-Americans to Afro-Americans, chances are that your life in America has its roots in refugees. In fact today in our nation there are citizens who fled from almost every corner of the earth because they would starve, or be oppressed, or enslaved, or killed if they chose to stay. Even descendants of the Pilgrims are descendants of refugees.
Despite seemingly impossible odds— like the Third World refugees who are descending on Europe right now— our ancestors didn’t turn back. And thanks to the compassion of others who’d come before them or had the lucky break of being born in the USA, they found their footing and acquired some skills and learned the language and eventually became thoroughly American.
Today’s refugees in Europe, coming in such a torrent, are sure to change the very face of the societies in which they end up. It’s not what anyone would choose. But that was also said about your ancestors, and mine. In the end, our society changed for the better. We are the proof.
The Essential Role of the Journalist
Why do you think it is that you know anything at all about ISIS? Or Al Qaeda? Or the war in Syria, the war in Libya, the war in Yemen, the war in Gaza, the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, the war in Ukraine?
Journalists, that’s why.
Journalists of course aren’t the only ones whose lives are on the line in wars. There are professional soldiers and homegrown militias, aid workers and medical personnel, and just plain civilians caught in the line of fire. But the people day in and day out who are risking their lives to tell you what’s going on in the big bad world out there are the journalists.
I worked wars for a long time, dodging everything from artillery to bullets to machetes. In one particularly bad year, I was lucky and made it through but lost three different journalist friends to warfare: in Nicaragua, in Lebanon, in Iran, where a reporter from the Los Angeles Times was shot to death right next to me and the only reason the bullet didn’t hit me instead of him was just my own dumb luck. Last year was an awfully bad year for journalists in general: the Committee to Protect Journalists counts 61 of them killed in the line of duty. Most died in the middle of wars.
That’s what makes one small part of a very long report issued by the Pentagon earlier this summer, the “Department of Defense Law Of War Manual,” so dangerous. Most of the directives in the manual are necessary and constructive, calling for “self-control… under the stresses of combat,” and “prohibitions on torture and unnecessary destruction.” They are about a soldier’s duties and a soldier’s rights.
But then there’s the part about journalists. It uses language meant to describe the role journalists play and define the risks journalists face. But it ends up giving authoritarian leaders— which certainly includes any of our enemies today, whether sovereign governments or not— a ready-to-use set of charges against any journalist they don’t like. In many parts of the world, that means all of them.
One example from the manual: “In some cases, the relaying of information (such as providing information of immediate use in combat operations) could constitute taking a direct part in hostilities.” Another: “Civilian journalists who engage in hostilities against a State may be punished by that State after a fair trial.” And yet another, which to me is the worst: “Reporting on military operations can be very similar to collecting intelligence or even spying.” Imagine those phrases in the hands of our enemies when they have a journalist in their sights.
In many nations around the world, journalists actually work for their governments and are obliged to “collect intelligence,” some because if they don’t, they simply don’t work, some because that’s who actually signs their paychecks. What this leads to in those places is an automatic assumption that every journalist from around the world is really just working for his or her government, an automatic suspicion that Western journalists, like their own, are no more than spies themselves.
In my own experience, I’ve had to fight that perception. When American diplomats in different war zones approached journalists like me asking for information about what was happening “out on the streets,” they were putting us at risk of being suspected of, and charged with, espionage, even by the mere fact that we might be seen talking with them. That’s what makes the language in this new Defense Department manual so frightening.
With last year’s barbarous beheadings of journalists by ISIS, reliable news coverage from that part of the world already has been drastically diminished. If the Pentagon believes in the value of information it can’t collect itself, not to mention the right of all Americans to a free flow of information, it should erase what it wrote.
More On Iran Nuclear Negotiations
Given my belief that almost always there are two strong sides to every issue, I’ve waited a couple of weeks, hoping to hear convincing arguments against the Iran nuclear deal. But all I’ve heard is a drumbeat of half-truths.
Like, the deal itself. The simple truth— the full truth— is that major production limits, significant stockpile reductions, and increased international oversight— even if not everything we want— are better than none at all. My question to all who oppose the nuclear agreement is, have you ever made a deal for a business, or a car, or a house, or anything else? Did you get everything you wanted and leave the other side with nothing? Not likely, because that’s not how it works. I regret it if I appear to lend an ounce of credibility to his name, but even Donald Trump in his book The Art Of The Deal said, “I always go into a deal anticipating the worst.” That’s what the United States did. “The worst” meant a totally unshackled Iran, ready to build a bomb tomorrow. Now they can’t.
And, like the sanctions. Yes, sanctions took their toll on Iran and brought them to the table, and yes, they will be thrilled to be rid of them. But the truth is, their economy has been on life support; inflation soared to 40%. Iran needs those tens of billions of dollars that will fill its coffers to get healthy again, not just to add to its support of terrorists outside its borders. And anyway, according to the respected analyst Tony Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the groups that Iran supports are in no position to absorb, let alone spend, a lot more money than they’ve already been getting.
And, like the verification. The half-truth here is that the 24-day window for U.N. inspectors leaves the Iranians with plenty of opportunities to mask their movements. The greater truth is, traces of the materials they would be secretively working with don’t disappear in 24 days…or 24 months, or 24 years. They have a multi-million year half-life, which means if the Iranians try to cheat, then as Fred Kaplan wrote in Slate.com, “it’s very likely to be detected.”
And, like the politics. Begin with this alarming fact: virtually everyone who is against the deal was against it before they’d actually confirmed a single fact about it. Members of Congress were sending out denunciatory news releases before the first briefing on Capitol Hill; House Speaker John Boehner promised to “do everything possible to stop” it… before he’d heard the first word about it from Secretary of State Kerry. The best quote about all this came from Maine independent Senator Angus King: “If these people who announced (their opposition) an hour after the deal was announced were in a jury pool, they’d be disqualified.” They already were saying that they wanted to vote the deal down and maintain our sanctions. But the truth is, if Congress gets away with that— or a future Republican president just scraps the whole thing— then the United States, as Secretary Kerry warned last week, will be on its own, because the other western powers, for their own selfish reasons, want the sanctions to end, which would render American sanctions next to moot.
And, like the “options” to the deal. Well, we’re really only talking about one: war. On the face of it, that’s pretty unappealing these days, because in the wars we’ve fought the past decade-and-a-half, we’ve already spent a treasure in human lives and financial resources. And it’s especially unappealing if you face the truth that as smart and powerful as we are, we don’t always achieve all our aims when we go to war. Not to mention the inevitability that any such war would spread.
And that’s the truth.
On Iran Nuclear Negotiations
Here’s what the critics of the Iran nuclear deal that still might be worked out have right: it’s not the deal we wanted. In fact if you focus as the critics do only on what it wouldn’t achieve rather than on what it would– it’s a dud.
But here’s what they have wrong: for all its shortcomings, this deal would still be superior to no deal at all for the security of the United States and its allies (from Israel to Saudi Arabia). Pull out whatever clichés you like: the glass is half full rather than half empty; don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good; half a loaf is better than none.
What are the critics thinking? That by declining an imperfect deal, we’d be punishing the Iranians who would, in turn, buckle and backtrack and give us everything we want?
I’ve got news for the critics. They’re dreaming.
The people of Iran aren’t soft. From the citizens I watched decades ago as they threw themselves into the bullets of their government during the Iranian revolution, to the soldiers I saw in hand-to-hand combat during the primitive eight-year-long Iran-Iraq war, to the inmates I met who tolerated torture in their country’s brutal prisons, to the refugees I’ve known who trekked across deserts to escape persecution, these people can endure punishment.
Sure, Iran’s leaders would love it if we lifted all our sanctions against them and they’d be tens of billions of dollars richer. But money is not the root of all evil, at least not in Iran. Their policies also are rooted in ideology and Islam, historical rivalries and regional power, and nationalistic pride.
Of course some American critics believe the Iranians eventually would dial back their nuclear program not only because of stressful sanctions but because they know that ultimately we might resort to a military solution. The problem with that argument is, there is no military “solution.” There is only the military “option,” and there are a couple of reasons why that wouldn’t win us what we want.
First, because while the facilities we have here at home to produce nuclear weapons were built beginning back in the 1950s and are mainly above ground, Iran’s nuclear facilities were built in the modern era of bunker-buster bombs, and according to intelligence analysts, are believed to be buried beyond our ability to destroy them.
Second, because building the bomb from cradle to grave is a multi-step process: there’s design, enrichment, production, parts, testing, and storage, not to mention the entirely separate issue of manufacturing and maintaining delivery systems– missiles– that can tolerate the weight and heat of a nuclear device. In the U.S., we have done these things at a variety of locations, each playing a different part in the process, like Oak Ridge in Tennessee, Savannah River in South Carolina, and of course our own Rocky Flats plant northwest of Denver, where the weapons’ plutonium triggers were produced. The trouble is, in Iran, we know where some of these facilities are, but not all of them. So just how effective would a military assault actually be? That is open to argument but we must accept, our record of shock-and-awe isn’t perfect.
The other day, the headline on a piece in The Washington Post by conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer was, “The worst agreement in U.S. diplomatic history.” He wrote, “With every concession (to Iran), Obama and Kerry made clear they were desperate for a deal. And they will get it. Obama will get his ‘legacy.’ Kerry will get his Nobel. And Iran will get the bomb.”
And without a deal? Simple. Instead of buying us time, during which we could keep at least half an eye on Iran’s bomb-building abilities, we would have no eye at all, and the Islamic Republic of Iran could build the bomb that much sooner. Which almost inevitably would lead to nuclear arms in the hands of its Islamic rivals in almost every direction.
And this would make us safer?
The Speed of Change
Times change. But it hasn’t always been so obvious.
For millennia, no one on earth saw much change at all in a single lifetime. Not until the start of the 19th Century when, thanks to the invention of the train, man for the first time could move faster than the speed of a galloping horse. Think about that: man had never gone that fast before.
Today, times are still changing, but at warp speed.
Look at how long it took even in many of our lifetimes for certain changes to rock the world. As recently as the mid-1990s, same sex marriage was banned in almost every state in the union; President Clinton even signed a law in 1996 forbidding the federal government to recognize it. (A local milestone: in 1975, Boulder’s County Clerk issued the nation’s first same sex marriage license. But the District Attorney quickly revoked it.)
Yet even before the Supreme Court spoke late last week, same sex marriage already was legal in more than two-thirds of the states and now, it’s legal everywhere. As social issues go, that’s warp speed.
Look at how long it took before Confederate flags were acknowledged for what they really are. Yet now, in Alabama, the governor ordered four of them removed from a Confederate memorial at the capitol. This is Alabama, where in 1963 Governor George Wallace infamously declared at his inauguration, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
In Mississippi, where Freedom Riders were murdered just for campaigning for civil rights and Governor Ross Barnett declared that “The Good Lord was the original segregationist,” everyone today from the state’s Speaker of the State to both United States Senators has called for the confederate symbol to be struck from the state flag. In Mississippi, for God’s sake!
And of course there’s South Carolina, whose legislature voted unanimously after the election of Abraham Lincoln to become the first state to secede from the union; historical and cultural pride there runs deep. But now, after the racist murder of nine black citizens in Charleston, elected leaders came together, liberals and conservatives, and the state House voted overwhelmingly to talk about finally removing the confederate flag from the grounds of the statehouse.
South Carolina’s senior senator, Lindsey Graham, said, “This is a circumstance where the people led the politicians.” What a concept. (Maybe the politicians should take their lead from the likes of Target and Sears, Amazon and Walmart, which almost instantly removed all Confederate merchandise from their stores.)
Do all the people want that kind of sea change? No; the 103-10 vote in South Carolina’s House proved that. Likewise, do all the people want to sanction same sex marriage? Again, the answer is no— the Supreme Court’s 5-4 opinion proved that. But clearly, public opinion has shifted on both.
This is hardly the first era in which there have been cataclysmic shifts like this. Think about just the second half of the last century— Vietnam, Civil Rights. But on those issues and others, it took years, even decades of massive demonstrations and violent confrontations, tear gas and sometimes bullets, before the public moved the politicians to… well, to move.
What’s changed? It’s impossible to wrap it all up in a single reason, but today’s users of social media have replaced yesterday’s marchers on the Mall. That’s what turned the Arab Spring into a firestorm, albeit ultimately a disappointing one. Issues move at the speed of communication. Today, communication is instantaneous, and it has transformed our nation and our world.
This doesn’t mean that tomorrow, cultural homophobia and institutional racism will disappear from our lives. After all, the killer in Charleston didn’t shoot up the church because the confederate flag flew in front of the statehouse. But if he even felt some kind of subconscious support because society seemed to sanction such a symbol of hate, maybe now, we’re a little closer.
On Energy Independence
I’ve long thought longingly about “energy independence.” You know, putting the U.S. in the position of not having to depend on anyone else for anything. Not having to owe anyone anything either. Goodbye to Saudi Arabia. Venezuela. Iraq.
You’ve probably wanted the same thing too. And no wonder. Every American President clear back to Richard Nixon has set “energy independence” as a goal. Of course beginning with Nixon, they’ve also all set “peace in the Middle East” as a goal. So much for goals!
But there’s a difference between the stated objectives of “energy independence” and “Middle East peace.” Peace is desirable— good for our federal budget, for our military burnout, for our national security. The trouble is, it’s next to unachievable.
Energy independence, on the other hand, is achievable; depending on how you measure it, the United States today is either the biggest or second biggest energy producer on earth (we are neck-and-neck with the Saudis). Colorado’s contributions from the newly expanded fracking industry, while controversial, have played a role in getting us there. So energy independence is achievable, but the trouble is, it’s not desirable. It’s a deceptive dream.
I’ve come to that conclusion after five straight years moderating a conference called “Energy Moving Forward,” put on again last week by the Global Energy Management program of the Business School at the University of Colorado Denver. In doing my homework each year about energy— what we have, what we use, what we’re working on— I’ve learned more and more about the consequences of true “energy independence.”
In its purest form, being energy independent would mean nothing in, nothing out. We would consume whatever energy we produce— oil, gas, coal, renewables, and everything else— but export none of it. Likewise, we wouldn’t import an ounce of energy from outside our borders. But here’s the catch: energy is the single biggest sector of the American economy; we either buy it from or sell it, including Colorado’s, to literally dozens of other countries. Can you imagine what the purest form of energy independence would do to America’s financial system? Not to mention unemployment.
What about the political ramifications? Sure, it sounds plenty appealing to break the bonds that bind us to governments with which we wouldn’t otherwise deal but for the commerce of oil and gas. But can the United States of America really afford to disengage from regions like the Middle East because we no longer have the oil-based motives that got us there in the first place? Yes, that would have its upside, but besides the manifest motive of national security, the other reason why the U.S. is politically— and often, militarily— involved in the Middle East is that if we aren’t, someone else will be. Would we be better off if Russia replaced us as the go-to nation trying to play an influential role in every event? Or China? The world they’d shape would be worse than it is now.
It hurts to admit that we are better off with the status quo. For years I covered OPEC, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. The representatives from the major producers strutted around like they owned the world. Which, in a way, they did. When OPEC’s Arab members imposed an embargo on us in 1973, the price of oil almost quadrupled, and the world’s economy took a huge hit. It hurt.
But today’s status quo is better than it was. We have reduced our petroleum purchases to the point where, if they cut us off, we’d hardly notice. We import more oil these days from our friends Canada and Mexico than we do from the combined members of OPEC. As one panelist said at last week’s conference, we now have options we didn’t have before. And as renewables grow, especially solar, we’ll have even more. That is all the independence we need.
How would you like it if ISIS took control of Colorado Springs? Or Silverthorne? Or the northern edge of Fort Collins? They’re all about as far from the heart of Denver as the desert city of Ramadi is from Baghdad. Suddenly, seventy miles doesn’t sound so safe.
Yet now that ISIS has overrun Ramadi, seventy more miles is all those barbarians would have to cover to clobber Iraq’s capital, Baghdad. Suddenly, ISIS can confidently covet the country’s crown jewel.
And thanks to the feckless Iraqi Army, they are in a plausible position to take it. Not only because they now hold sway over an even bigger piece of Iraq, but because when Iraqi soldiers ran from Ramadi as fast as their legs could carry them, they surrendered more military equipment to the Islamic State— tanks and trucks, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. Mostly supplied, by the way, by us.
It’s part of a petrifying pattern. A few months ago, in a column about the futility of ending the nightmare that is ISIS, I wrote,“The Iraqi military plans to recapture from ISIS the key supply-line city of Mosul.” But then I asked, cynically, “How’s that going?” The answer was, and still is, nowhere. Back in January, both Iraq’s leaders and America’s were talking tough, saying that by now the good guys would be back in charge of that city, which had first been stormed by ISIS when Iraq’s soldiers, and this will sound familiar, fell back in a frenetic retreat.
Well guess what: they still don’t get it. Right after the rout in Ramadi, White House press secretary Josh Earnest cavalierly asked, “Are we going to light our hair on fire every time that there is a setback in the campaign against ISIL?” The answer ought to be, “If we don’t, they might.”
To be magnanimous, maybe the myopic optimists who expect Iraq’s forces to put up a fight just don’t understand this: the soldiers don’t capitulate because they’re poorly trained, poorly armed, or poorly led; they capitulate because they’re poorly motivated.
Back during the first Gulf War, I was with a platoon of American GIs in Saudi Arabia moving toward Kuwait. But our transport broke down, and we were stuck on the desert until the next day when we could be rescued. It wasn’t so bad; some of the soldiers did target practice with their bayonets every time a desert tarantula surfaced from a hole. We slept (although hardly soundly) on the sand, and saw more stars than I thought the sky could hold.
But the best part was, it gave me a chance to talk with these soldiers about what motivated them to join the Army. This was before 9/11, so it wasn’t to go after people who had attacked us. It was to learn motor pool skills on Uncle Sam’s dime, or kitchen skills, or maybe qualify for the GI Bill. When they’d volunteered for service, we weren’t even fighting a war.
But when I asked each soldier whether he’d be willing to rush a bunker if Saddam Hussein was inside, to the last man the answer was yes. When I asked why, everyone responded as if it was obvious: they were patriots, they would do whatever America needed done.
Having spent many years in the Middle East, I’m telling you, you won’t find much of that in the Iraqi Army, or frankly, any other army in the region. In that part of the world, people are loyal to their families, their tribes, their religions. But their governments, their nations? Not so much. The army’s just a paycheck. When a madman with a Koran strapped to his chest starts chasing you, you don’t stand and fight; you run.
That’s why ISIS might take those next seventy miles to Baghdad. And then, if they establish an Eden for extremism, our own security becomes shakier than ever.
Genetics and Politics
The very first words from the very first caller during my very first talk show on KOA Radio were, “You are such a jerk.”
It was a rude awakening. But it also was an instructive education. You see, I had watched other talk radio hosts to see how they approached each show and what I learned was, first say hello, then say what you think about the hot-topic-of-the-day, then open the phones and let listeners chime in on what they think about what you think.
This was almost 25 years ago and I don’t even remember what my very first topic was—probably some liberal rant— but what I do remember is, I figured that once I’d done my carefully crafted, unassailably logical, inarguably intelligent 15-minute monologue on it, no one on earth could possibly find fault with my reasoning and all would proclaim in unison that I was God’s gift to civilization… or to talk radio, at least. Until the first guy I put on the air called me a jerk.
And that got me to wondering, why do so many of us, who otherwise probably share a lot of the same values, see the world so differently? I wonder about it to this day when I argue issues with personal friends, whose backgrounds, and educations, and family lives, and IQs, and places in the middle class, are all pretty much like mine. Whether it’s the sanity of stockpiling guns in our homes, the soundness of universal health care, or the security of a nuclear deal with Iran, somehow we see the issue with very different points of view.
I used to think it was as simple as nature versus nurture, with nurture playing a paramount role. But today I think, not so much. My own parents, who my siblings and I loved and respected, by and large politically were on the right side of the center-line, yet each of their kids ended up on the left side. Yet I know plenty of families where the kids turned out as their parents’ political clones. And yet others where some of the offspring ended up conservative and some not.
Which leaves nature. That doesn’t mean our politics are hereditary; experience proves they’re not. But are they genetic? Could there be a gene that somehow shapes our view of the world?
A growing body of university researchers thinks so. Either a gene, or a psychological characteristic, or a personality trait.
For example, at the University of Nebraska, they studied the responses of conservatives and liberals to different kinds of images— one example given is of a very large spider on somebody’s face— and found that conservatives spent more time anxiously studying the images and felt more threatened than liberals.
Meanwhile, at University College London, researchers studied the part of the brain that lights up when we’re anxious or scared, and found that it is larger in conservatives than it is in liberals. This would help explain conservative fears when it comes to issues like guns, health care, and Iran.
I don’t mean to make conservatives out to be more contrary or panicky than liberals; clearly there is more grey matter in these equations than absolutes, and clearly there are innumerable exceptions to the rule (like climate change, where it’s the left that fears the sky is falling). So maybe a better word for conservatives than “anxious,” or “scared,” is “prudent.” Maybe some people are born with more inherent prudence than others. Which by contrast makes liberals less prudent and bigger risk-takers. Which, some would argue, might not be a good thing when it comes to guns, health care, or Iran.
The upshot of all this is, maybe we are blessed at birth with our political proclivities. Maybe the disturbing divide in America between liberals and conservatives cannot easily be overcome. Maybe I am both God’s gift to civilization, and a jerk. Maybe it depends on who you ask.
This isn’t the dream of South Africa
I gave away a pretty nice pair of jeans the other day.
I gave them to a man in South Africa, a real good guy who was a lot of help while I was there. He is quite smart, he works very hard, and he always has a smile on his face. But he lives in a place where people grow up without quite enough food in their tummies and thus my waist is a good three inches thicker than his. Yet he wanted the jeans anyway, because he’s black.
What that means is, he is achingly poor. He lives in a tin shanty town on the edge of Cape Town, one of more than a million black citizens squeezed into the same sad settlement. You’ll see similar shanties on the outskirts of virtually every town you pass, large or small. In my friend’s, they only recently got their own electricity. Some have a cold-water tap inside their shacks, but most people still haul heavy buckets from communal water wells. Last time I was there, a few years ago while shooting a documentary, almost everyone had to use public cinderblock outhouses; the ratio was 129 people per privy. It’s not a whole lot better today.
This isn’t the way it was supposed to be. This isn’t the dream of South Africa.
Until only two decades ago, apartheid callously codified racial superiority for the nation’s white minority, subsistence and subservience for everyone else. As the novel called Tandia so succinctly says, apartheid was the rule of law, but it made a mockery of justice. When I covered South Africa on and off in the 1970s and 80s, everyone expected that black majority rule eventually would come, followed by a richer life for people long oppressed. But only through a bloody civil war.
Thanks mainly to the inclusive instincts of Nelson Mandela, that didn’t happen. Mandela argued (against the impulses of most of his comrades) that the equality they had long envisioned meant equality for all citizens, not just black citizens; that it could be violently counterproductive to punish their oppressors; and that through no fault of their own, the nation’s blacks didn’t have the training or schooling needed to actually run the country’s institutions, which meant educated and experienced whites must be kept on. Which is why, although war had seemed inevitable, apartheid came to a surprisingly peaceful end, stimulating a dream in the minds of the majority not just of a nation where all men were free but where, relative to how poorly blacks had long lived, now they would prosper.
Despite black majority rule, it’s still just a dream. For the documentary, I asked Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu why, in everything from housing to politics to education to economics, why is there still such a gap between rich and poor? He self-consciously laughed and said, “You know, original sin has in fact also infected us.” In other words, incompetence and corruption are colorblind.
Racial injustice is no longer legal in South Africa, but that’s just the letter of the law. In spirit, I learned last week, life still seems to be framed for most people— of every race— in terms of black and white.
My friend kept saying, with patience I’d never be able to muster, that it’s only been 20 years. But there’s no denying, the dream has faded. Some in the majority have grabbed the brass ring, For the most part though, it’s still South Africa’s blacks who are opening the white man’s doors and mopping his floors.
My friend now dreams of a better life for his daughter. And she might yet get it. But as he told me, his mother had dreamed of a better life for him. Yet he still wants blue jeans from a visiting American. Even though he’s too skinny to fill them.
On Cairo Today
(CAIRO) I’m only here in Egypt for a few hours, changing planes in Cairo’s airport to fly farther south across this African continent. But my mind is flooded with memories, not just of what I experienced over the years in dozen of trips to this exotic if chaotic and troubled region, but of what I saw and felt the very first time I landed in this ancient empire, and not even in the city of Cairo itself, but right here in its airport. It played no small role in shaping my view of how the world works.
It was 1977, just as Egypt and Israel, after three decades in a state of war, were about to shake hands, which would lead to an historic if troubled peace (which was then opposed for many years by almost every other Muslim nation on earth).
ABC News sent me over from the U.S. to help cover it. So after transiting somewhere in Europe, I landed here in Cairo. In those days, you walked from the plane down portable stairs to the tarmac; the “gates” were outside and with the airport’s proximity to the desert, you were sweating from the sun and sandblasted from the Sahara before you even got halfway to Passport Control.
But I didn’t pass right through; as a journalist, I had to get a special visa and ended up in a holding area near the gate for about four hours. And that’s when I began to notice the men— all men, apparently all Egyptians— dressed in dusty desert robes, carrying in one hand all their possessions, wrapped in a sort of towel-like package; picture an American hobo during the Depression. It was the time of the Haj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims are supposed to make before they die. For these guys, it was their turn. Most of them looked like they didn’t have two nickels to rub together but a lot of them had their package of possessions in one hand….and a boom box in the other.
And that’s where my view of how the world works began to take shape. Because the boom boxes weren’t playing music; they were carrying booming and, to my ear, angry-sounding voices in Arabic. Mind you, I didn’t really know that they were angry; Arabic is not, let’s just say, the gentlest smoothest sounding of languages. Kind of like German, where the soft word we use for the colorful creature that emerges from a cocoon is “butterfly,” while the French use the musical word “pappillion,” but in German it’s the harshly, guttural, almost metallic sounding “schmetterling.”
But I digress. The voices blasting from these boom boxes, rattling along at a mile a minute, sounded angry, or harsh at the very least, but you know what? To me it didn’t really matter what they were saying or how they were saying it. What mattered was, everyone could hear it; whatever the message was, it was going (as we now say) viral. And how big was that? It meant that people who never before even knew how anyone in the next village lived suddenly could find out how people in the rest of the world lived.
The transistor radio wasn’t brand new, of course; I had one as a kid and in Sunday School in the late 1950s, once the Giants moved from New York to my home town of San Francisco, I carved the interior pages out of a textbook so I could conceal my radio between the book’s covers and run an earphone wire up the long sleeves of my shirt and hide the other end in my ear and listen to baseball games (although God help me if I cracked the book open when the teacher was pacing around the classroom).
But the luxury of the transistor and the availability (for people who didn’t even have electricity) of affordable batteries took another generation to make it to the Middle East, so the whole idea of opening a window to the world for people who had never before been ten miles from home and had no idea what anyone’s lives looked like beyond that perimeter was pretty darned new. (Parenthetically, I once did a story about a woman from a small Jewish tribe in one of three isolated Jewish villages in the middle of Ethiopia, and her people had no idea that the other two villages even existed; they thought they were the last people practicing their religion on earth.)
So this novel new accessible form of communication was life-changing for the people who used it. Because, as I kept learning more and more as I made trip after trip to the Middle East, what they saw through that window was how much we had and how little they had. Whether wealth or community or liberty, we in the West were the haves; they were the have-nots.
Now, of course, the world has changed. Most of the animosity and aggression we are fighting today have their roots in a variety of causes, from religion to politics to power to territory to nationalism to greed. But when you think about it, it still often comes down to the haves and the have-nots. Someone has land that someone else wants. Or resources that someone else wants. Or riches, or weapons, or power, or a subservient population, or a history of dominance…. or, of course, an ideology or a culture or a set of religious beliefs that someone wants to bury.
Mass communication has evolved in ways no one could possibly predict only two generations ago when I was having my epiphany in Cairo. I have seen television satellite dishes in desert outposts in the MIddle East, in jungle settlements in shanty towns in black Africa, in roadside villages high in the South American Andes, in backward towns in Russia, in rural communes in Vietnam.
And it can be hard to assert that this is a bad thing. You can extrapolate all kinds of arguably good things from it; think about the Arab Spring, albeit sadly short-lived. But for better or worse, change has come, and will keep coming in this world, more with the speed of a kilobyte than a caravan. Which probably means, revolutions won’t necessarily live or die any more on the strength of their leaders. Because of modern communications, which these days means social media as much as or even more than anything else, revolutions will quickly become the property of the people. Or as they say, “The Street.” Which, I repeat, might be for better and might be for worse.
I think what I saw that first day of my first trip here to the airport in Cairo was the seed of something we still don’t fully understand. But that’s not the scariest part of it. The scariest part is, it was the seed of something that is now completely out of our control. Those boom boxes might have been easy to see, but they have been replaced by something we can no longer see coming.
“The Muslim world won’t let it happen,” a friend told me the other day, referring to the stated goal of ISIS to dominate all Muslims. His reasoning was, most Muslims don’t want to live under the cruel control of a Caliphate.
I couldn’t agree more. From many years covering the Middle East, I feel certain that most Muslims don’t want to live in the Dark Ages. The trouble is, up against the merciless militias of ISIS, that doesn’t necessarily make much difference. As history sometimes shows, even if the preponderance of a population loathes its leadership, nothing changes, at least not for generations.
Exhibit A: The Soviet Union. I never worked there without meeting citizens who wanted out from under the repression. And from the drab, deprived, fretful lives they lived, I could only guess that they were the majority. But in a police state like that, what could they do? They had neither open elections nor the liberty to call for their own liberation. If flagrant dissidents got too brazen, they might find themselves slogging through the gulag with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
Exhibit B: South Africa. During the era of apartheid, I didn’t even need to ask anyone in the black majority there how they felt about minority white rule. All I had to do was look at the unconcealed contrast between lives lived in luxury in all-white suburbs and lives lived without electricity or running water in all-black townships. If blacks got too rebellious, they might find themselves working a limestone quarry with Nelson Mandela.
Iraqi Shiites under Saddam Hussein, Chinese civilians under Mao Tse-Tung, probably the bulk of North Koreans under Kim Jung-un, maybe even most ordinary German citizens under Adolf Hitler, they all might fall into the class of the silent majority. They have no army, no political power, no voice.
Which brings us back to the question, who’s going to rise up against ISIS? The John McCains of the world assert that if the United States puts more muscle into this war, we can kill the cancer. I don’t want to be a doomsayer, but I’m not a dreamer either. Look at the facts on the ground. We fire a hundred-thousand-dollar missile, they lose a ten-thousand-dollar truck. We kill ten zealots, they recruit twenty.
Sure, we have allies: the United Arab Emirates have resumed their off-again-on-again air campaign against ISIS in Syria; Egypt took out some ISIS assets in Libya; now Jordan’s talking tough; the Iraqi military plans to recapture from ISIS the key supply-line city of Mosul. But how’s that going? Tens of thousands of weapons the United States says it already has sent to the Iraqis (with more on the way) are missing, and their parliamentary defense committee chairman is quoted saying that without those weapons, “any operation would be fruitless.” Some of our Arab allies look at us and complain that we’re not pulling out all the stops. But are they? Would they ever? And if they did, would they win? Qatar’s emir said last week that Arab leaders must commit “to the values… in the Arab Spring.” Dream on.
Or maybe it’s more like a nightmare, because ISIS isn’t even a single entity any more, operating only in Syria and Iraq. In a case of “déjà vu all over again,” remember how in Afghanistan, we chased out al-Qaeda only to see lookalikes turn up in a dozen different countries? Well today, intelligence identifies ISIS-like units, whether official affiliates or aspiring wannabes, in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, as deep into Africa as Nigeria, and yes, Afghanistan. ISIS has even tweeted, “We will conquer Rome,” (meaning, the West).
If we have learned nothing else since Vietnam, we have learned that even though we are mightier and hopefully more moral than our enemies, we don’t always win. There are too many variables in war. And too many enemies we just don’t understand.
On Public Use of Cameras
We were in an open-air light rail station in Miami, a TV crew and me. A guy who lived nearby and led us there took several small cameras into the station to make a point about his rights. He made it with a bang. As soon as he lifted one of his cameras to take pictures of a security guard, the guard and her partner went after him.
They told him to stop taking their picture. He didn’t. They told him to leave. He wouldn’t. They told him to surrender his cameras. He refused. They took a swipe at the cameras, knocking one to the ground, then another swipe at him. He fought back.
Was this guy a pain in the neck? Yes. Was he rude, intrusive, provocative, even offensive? Absolutely. But here’s the key question: Was he breaking the law? The answer is no. This matters because a bill being drafted in the Colorado legislature would “clarify” when and where you can and can’t use a camera. It shouldn’t require clarification but maybe it does, because cameras nowadays are a ubiquitous and sometimes unavoidable part of our daily lives. And it’s hard for some people to believe that you and I have the right to all but stick a camera in their face.
But we do. You see, unless we’re talking about a handful of explicable exceptions, like interfering with a crime scene, or prejudicing a trial, or a breach of our national security (but trust me, there was none at this light rail station), this guy in Miami had every right to take the guard’s picture. She could have turned away, she could have put up her hand to block the view, but what she couldn’t do, not legally, was order the guy to stop.
Why not? Because the light rail station is a public place. Just like any park, any sidewalk, the airport, even city hall. These are public places where, as courts have put it, you and I have “no reasonable expectation of privacy.” And this applies to the police as much as anyone else.
Think of the implications if it were otherwise. If a policeman could claim that cameras are intrusive as he performs his job and thus prohibit their use, so could a politician, so could any public official. Then, anyone who regrets having his appalling behavior captured by a camera could try in court to prohibit its public release.
Now let’s carry it a step further. Think about people who meet in sidewalk restaurants or on park benches to discuss pending divorces, or contracts, or anything else that seems sensitive. They probably would argue that they have the right to a private conversation. But they don’t, not there. If they want to ensure their privacy, they should remove themselves from the public place.
Does this apply indiscriminately? No. A grocery store, a restaurant, a department store, these are different. Absent blatant bias, private property owners have the right to set the rules about who can take pictures on their property and when. And rest assured, no one has the right to take pictures of you while inside your home. But even there, there’s a caveat: if you’re standing in your window in your underwear, beware the camera held by a citizen out on the street because you are fair game.
Of course the proposed legislation isn’t just meant to clarify the use of cameras for those being recorded; until all of us with those cameras understand how far we can go, and, where we have to stop, it’s clarification for us, too.
But the burden must be on the police, the politicians, and others to justify keeping something out of the public view. For the rest of us, short of never going out, the best way to preserve our privacy is just to tell someone with a camera to quit being so nosy and leave us alone.
It might surprise you, but after a week’s worth of sympathetic stories in the media last week, all related to the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp Auschwitz, there’s still more to say. The anniversary has passed, the world has moved on… but still, because the import of Auschwitz and all it symbolizes shouldn’t be revived only on a ten-year anniversary, there’s more to say.
There are two little words, in fact, that speak volumes about why we should keep talking about Auschwitz, and Nazi Germany, and the Holocaust. Two words, immortalized by the aging author and archivist of the Holocaust, Eli Wiesel, in his own firsthand Auschwitz account called “Night.” The two weighty words are, “Never forget.”
I wasn’t even born when the dark dust of Europe’s Jews rained from the sky, yet I’ll never forget the cold chill I’ve felt walking through Auschwitz, which I’ve done three times as a reporter, once with Wiesel himself. Not just because I knew what had happened there— more than a million hapless humans gassed until they were gone; thousands subjected to sadistic and unscientific tests by the merciless Dr. Mengele; tens of thousands starving and suffering as slaves for the Nazi war machine.
No, the chill that ran through me on each visit was borne from my effort to even slightly imagine what it actually felt like to be there which, for all of us who weren’t, is impossible. But I tried anyway. I tried to imagine being imprisoned there. And waging a struggle not to die. Arguably, death was the less frightening fate; the supreme struggle was to survive. A struggle not to starve. Not to collapse. Not to freeze. Not to surrender.
And simple though it sounds, not to lose your shoes.
Shoes, I’ve been told, were an inmate’s salvation. The margin between death and life was so thin, it was defined in the precarious existence of every inmate by his shoes. If he could keep his shoes, he might tolerate the bitter, bleak, dark, dismal climate of the camp. If his shoes were worn through, or lost, or stolen, it was a death sentence as sure as the ultimate abuse bestowed on those who went straight from their train to their execution.
Never forget. The words are easy to utter, more difficult to uphold. Just look around the world since World War II and see how forgetful mankind has been. In conflicts I’ve covered from Zimbabwe to Afghanistan, from the Sahara to Northern Ireland, man kept forgetting the meaning of humanity. In a way, the incitements aren’t even important: power, greed, territory, nationalism, and maybe more than ever before, racism and religion. For whatever reason, man forgot.
A piece of me pretends that today, with global dependencies between nations and instantaneous links between peoples, we would no longer let these things motivate us to subjugate and brutalize our fellow man. But then the other piece kicks in. I think of Ukraine, where indiscriminate shells rain down and innocent citizens’ lives are shattered. Or Syria, where whole neighborhoods have crumbled, turning whole populations into wretched refugees. Or Nigeria, where fanatics have forgotten that life has any value at all. Or even Paris, where both Muslims and Jews reportedly now live in fear for their safety, and their families’.
In last week’s anniversary observance at Auschwitz, one survivor said, “We do not want our past to be our children’s future.” But somehow it could be, if “never forget” continues to be forgotten.
That’s why there’s more to say. And why we should keep saying it.
Yemen’s In Trouble
Yemen’s in trouble. So we’re in trouble too.
If rebels were able to wrest control of one of the most backyard nations on earth from its U.S.-friendly government, then the sky’s the limit in that part of the world for anarchy and animosity against the West.
But it’s only Yemen, right? Why worry about a country which has few paved roads in, let alone outside, its two main cities? A place so remote, its desert borders are missing from many maps because nobody really knows where they are. A nation so backward that citizens who can afford it travel over those undefined borders to Saudi Arabia to shop!
Maybe most revealing, men in Yemen aren’t even clear-headed for much of the day because at midday, they chew on a narcotic-like stimulant, a local leaf called “khat.” You can always tell when it’s lunchtime because almost every man has fluid as green as the forest primeval, dripping from his lips. Could it just be coincidence that “khat” rhymes with “pot?”
Once, when covering a story there, not long after a trip to Afghanistan, I wrote that Yemen was the only society I’d ever seen that makes Afghanistan look modern. Which brings us back to asking, why the big deal? The answer is complex but the headline might be, shoppers aren’t the only Yemenis who have their sights set on our political partner— however odious the partnership— Saudi Arabia.
American intelligence says that terrorists from the Yemeni group widely considered the most dangerously anti-Western of all the al-Qaeda spinoffs, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, have snuck into Saudi Arabia to position themselves to attack the kingdom. And although our alliance with the Saudis is based only on mutual interests, which realistically means mutual enemies, an attack on Saudi Arabia is as good as an attack on us, because with so much oil so easy to get at, Saudi leaders influence the global price of oil and thus the economy— and therefore the stability— of the planet. Unless they are thrown off their feet and someone far more hostile stands in their shoes.
And now, al-Qaeda might not be the only force with its eyes on that prize. The Iranian-backed sect in Yemen, the Houthi Militia (all Shiites), has moved to the front. Which means al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (mainly Sunnis) no longer has the whole place to itself. Adding to the mayhem, ISIS reportedly is elbowing its own way into the chaos. Is it plausible that the self-proclaimed “caliph” of ISIS— by his lights, the leader of all Muslims— has designs on the holiest domain in his faith?
All told, this can’t be good. Between religious, tribal, and territorial objectives, each of these groups probably will fight fiercely with one another for a piece of the spoils. Viewed in a vacuum, nothing would make America happier. But warfare among terror groups in a place like Yemen has its downside, not only because it’s likely to ravage the nation, but because in a case like this (unlike Syria, where the beleaguered government has muscle that the Yemeni government never had), someone’s likely to win. Then that victor would stand taller, and stronger, and probably meaner than ever.
Which makes the upheaval in Yemen an even more potent potential threat not just toward the sands of Saudi Arabia, but toward the American homeland. Because the Yemeni intelligence that helped us fight terrorism on the Arabian Peninsula now might end up in the hands of the terrorists themselves, which forces us to suspend that fight. Which means three factions hostile to our interests have fairly free reign. Sure, they don’t like each other, but when anti-government demonstrators in Yemen last week chanted “Death to America,” they voiced a common passion. That makes them a collective threat. Another impermeable terrorist refuge might just have been born.
Which is why we’re in trouble.
On the Massacre in Paris
When the chief of the United Nations said of the sickening Paris massacre last week, “It should never be seen as a war of religion, for religion, or on religion,” it sounded like a predictable platitude. Kind of like the Pope on Christmas calling for peace in the Middle East. I mean, of course that’s what they’d say!
The fact is, any of us who believe we accurately understand what motivates Muslim madmen to murder innocents ought to cover our keyboards, mute our microphones, and zip our lips. As I wrote in a column on these same pages only last month, “There are so many behaviors in the Middle East today that we just can’t explain, no matter who we are.”
But this time, the U.N.’s Ban Ki-Moon might have gotten it right. Because from my experience, many of the acts allegedly executed in the name of religion— indeed, some of the wars fought between members of different faiths or different sects of the same faith— do not in fact have much if anything to do with religion at all. Radicalism, yes. But that’s not religion.
Probably the best example is what we’ve witnessed for more than a decade now in Iraq. When the U.S. invaded, we lifted the lid off a long-repressed rivalry between Sunnis and Shiites. While we fought a war against terrorism, they fought a war against one another. But were their nasty battles really based on the ancient debate about which of Mohammed’s descendants were entitled to lead Islamic society, which has had the two sects at each other’s throats for more than 1,300 years?
I’m afraid not. They were based on the haves and the have-nots. Under Saddam Hussein, who was Sunni, almost all positions of power (which also made them positions of wealth) were in the hands of his Sunni brethren; call it his tribe. Shiites could hardly even get a private’s position in the Iraqi army, let alone the stripes of an officer. In almost every way, Shiites in Iraq were second-class citizens. So when Hussein was upended, so was his tribe… and then the Shiites did to the Sunnis what the Sunnis had done to them. It was about ranking, not religion.
Likewise, the revolution in Iran. I spent the better part of two years covering that chaos, and when asking people why they wanted to oust the Shah, the word “religion” never came up. A brutal secret police force, corruption with the profits from oil, and distaste for the Western culture the Shah was introducing to his people, these were the root causes of their revolt.
And when it comes to hatred cloaked in the cloth of religion, we can look well beyond the Middle East. In the 1970s and ‘80s, I covered “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland. Catholics and Protestants ambushed one another and blew up each other’s pubs. 3,000 people died.
But just a couple of years ago, when I was back in Belfast and wrote a column referring to “religious warfare” there decades ago, a local friend who I asked to fact-check something said to me, “It was never ‘religious warfare.’ Most of the terrorists on both sides never darkened the door of a church.”
His point was, it was a clash between Catholics and Protestants, but only because the majority there, the Protestants, had long oppressed the minority, the Catholics, who couldn’t get a well-paying job anyplace important, from the shipyards to the police force. Sure, religion was in the background there, as it has been in Iran and Iraq and Syria and Israel and so many other troubled nations, but religious inequality breeds resentment, which breeds terrorism. Which can have nothing to do with religion.
I don’t know what mad notions led the murderers in France to their rampage. We may never know. But if we automatically pin it primarily on religion rather than radicalism, we might miss signs of more madness in the future.
Optimism and Pessimism going into the New Year
At heart, especially at the start of a brand new year, I am an optimist. Life is good. But when I saw the headline of a commentary in The Post the Sunday before Christmas asking, “Is peace on Earth even possible?”, my answer was a pessimistic “No.”
That’s why, whether addressing a contemporary challenge like defeating ISIS or the age-old challenge of finding a path to peace for Israelis and Palestinians, I wouldn’t bet a dime on our success. Not that we shouldn’t try; if we don’t have our hand in the game, some other power will replace us and the world it shapes will likely be even worse. But I have precious little hope. Which you might call pessimism personified.
However, after I said all that to an audience at DU last month during a talk about American options in the Middle East, I heard optimism personified. One man stood and asked, What about globalization as a solution to these struggles? His point was, people who’ve long lived pathetic lives in the Middle East, thanks to their own glimpses of globalization, now can see what the world offers people like us and seize similar opportunities for themselves.
Then another man stood and asked, Why did I address everything from brutal combat to religious creed in my pessimistic analysis but never mentioned the power of economics? His point was, if we took the money we spend to wage war and put it instead into economic development, we would elevate people to the point where they would see little benefit in continuing to fight.
From experience, I’m convinced there are pragmatic reasons why economics and globalization aren’t going to bring the monsters of ISIS to heel— nor adversaries in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, rivals in Syria’s civil war, Iranians bent on building nuclear weapons, or Sunnis and Shiites battling for influence in Iraq. But thank goodness, especially now when we want so much to hope for something better, there are people out there who do.
Remember Luke Somers, the hostage of Islamic terrorists, who died during an attempt to rescue him last month in Yemen? A friend of his told the Associated Press that Somers “would have wanted issues of extremism and terrorism to be addressed by stepping up the dialogue instead of resorting to conflict between nations.”
The pessimist in me says, nations can do dialogue until the well runs dry; it’s not going to make violent clashes vanish. I came to this cynical view years ago while covering the United Nations, where dialogue is just about the only thing they do. The U.N.’s member nations couldn’t even agree most days on whether to change the toilet paper in their public restrooms from one-ply to two, let alone on how to make the world a peaceful place.
But the optimist in me takes comfort in one land where I covered deadly warfare for many years and never believed that hostility and hate could be overcome… but I was wrong. For 30 years (and that’s just in modern times), Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland were at each others’ throats; each side felt browbeaten by the other. As a reporter, I’ve seen nothing that pits people against one another more feverishly than religion.
Yet both sides tired of their bloody battles, and looked for a way out, and through a power-sharing arrangement that has lasted now for a decade-and-a-half, they found it. Sure, there are still bitter feelings in some parts— only two years ago I saw fresh murals on the walls of Belfast buildings, glorifying armed militants— but overall, amity has overcome acrimony.
Is there anything to learn from Northern Ireland that could apply to the world at large? Maybe not. But it does show that no matter how pessimistic some of us are about Peace on Earth, there is always hope. How sad… how hopeless… if that were to disappear.
On Russia under Putin
Sure, Russia’s in trouble. But predicting President Putin’s playbook is a fool’s errand. Between Western sanctions over Ukraine, the plunging price of oil on which his economy heavily depends, and the pervasive and proliferating perversion of the nation’s economy, the value of Russia’s ruble and thus the value of every Russian’s bank account has dropped. But Americans who predict that this will moderate Putin’s behavior, on Ukraine or anything else, might be the fools.
The first thing to remember is, Russia isn’t the U.S.A. What that means is, the kinds of public protest that lead to policy changes in our nation don’t— make that, can’t— go far enough to force a revolution in Russia. By tightening up on the freedoms that Russian citizens briefly possessed after the fall of the Soviet Union— like disqualifying political parties he didn’t like and putting dissenting media out of business— Putin has crafted a political system that pretty much ensures his power for as long as he wants to wield it.
The second thing is, by all accounts, Putin’s popularity is still at sky-high levels that American politicians can only dream about. That’s because of something Russians have told me every time I’ve been there: he has given them pride again, pride that they lost almost a quarter-century ago when their status as a superpower vanished. By reminding his citizens that in the good old days, the world trembled when their leaders spoke (or in the case of Nikita Khrushchev in 1960 at the United Nations, pounded the table with a shoe), he never stops sending the message that Russia deserves a place again on the world stage. This strategy is called nationalism, and Putin plays the card constantly. It helps to explain why his foreign policy is basically built on flipping the bird to the United States.
The third thing to remember is that in Russia, when the going gets tough, the tough don’t get going; they just sit back and take it. This is a society where suffering is almost a part of their DNA. As George Friedman, author of The Next 100 Years puts it, “They can endure things that would break other nations.”
My favorite metaphor for that is snow. In many parts of the United States, including the City of Denver, homeowners are required (once the snow stops falling) to clear the sidewalks in front of their homes. And even if it weren’t the law, many would do it anyway; that’s just who we are. In Russia? A few years ago I spent some December days at the Yuri Gagarin Spaceflight Center outside of Moscow. This place is the heart of that nation’s proudest high-tech achievements: the first satellite in space, then the first human being in space. And it’s still on a roll; since the demise of the American space shuttle, every one of our astronauts heading for the International Space Station spends several months there training to launch in the Russian Soyuz capsule.
So what happens there when it snows? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Which means, when you’re driving on the network of narrow roads coursing through the complex, your wheels slide into ruts half-a-foot deep. When you’re walking, the steps leading into every building are treacherous with clumps of ice. Unlike us, they don’t try to mitigate the inconvenience and discomfort of their weather; they simply adapt to it. It’s as if something as simple as snow actually defines the culture of the country.
Who knows? Maybe with the ruble tumbling into the toilet and people’s buying power plummeting with it, Putin will finally pay the price. Surely, Russia’s citizens have grown to like a higher level of prosperity and economic choice and won’t like what’s happening today. But half the population has lived with less and, like our own “Greatest Generation” that endured the Depression, they could do it again. And Putin might just let them.
What do these positive proclamations have in common?
“We are stopping Ebola in its tracks.” (Centers for Disease Control director Dr. Tom Frieden)
“Don’t underestimate the Iraqi troops; they are well-trained and ready to protect their nation.” (Paraphrased from a recent Denver presentation by retired four-star General David Petraeus)
“In the unlikely event that someone with Ebola does reach our shores… we’re prepared here at home.” (President Barack Obama)
There is no sign that ISIS is “actively plotting against the homeland.” (General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff)
“Mission accomplished.” (Former President George W. Bush)
The answer’s easy. What they all have in common is that each one was flat-out wrong. Whether said with naïve confidence, unsupported self-assurance, or deliberate inflation of the facts, each was meant to assure the American public that everything’s going to be alright. But it isn’t. Coming from leaders with the highest levels of medical, military, and political know-how, what they actually ended up assuring us was, we really don’t know who to believe any more.
And they assured us of something else too: just because people are smart enough to rise to the top in their chosen fields, they aren’t necessarily a whole lot smarter than the rest of us. Or sometimes, any smarter at all.
You could chalk it up to a couple of modern phenomena in this 21st-Century media-driven, short attention span, quick-fix world: better to paint a pretty picture first, then see if you can back it up. And better to give an answer even if it’s wrong, rather than no answer at all.
That might be fine in a different era— when there’s time to repaint the picture, or rephrase the answer— but these days, what we need to know is not that everything’s going to be alright (when it’s not), but rather, what’s wrong in our world and are we really able to fend it off? Since life is not a fairy tale, sometimes the answer is no.
But if we feel like this phenomenon of leaders painting misleadingly positive pictures is something new, rest assured that it’s not.
Records— and actual recordings— have been released from the days of Lyndon Johnson in the White House. And they are shocking. While publicly building our troop strength in Vietnam to more than half-a-million (many of whom came home in coffins), LBJ privately told insiders, “I don’t think it’s worth fighting for.” While publicly predicting an ultimate American victory over the peasant armies battling against us, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara privately and despondently told the President in a phone call that we keep throwing everything we’ve got at “these half-starved beggars” but they keep coming back for more.
If I want to feel good about my world, I’ll do the easy crossword puzzle on Mondays. If I want to feel informed about my world, I need to trust the people who feed us the information. These days, that trust runs thin.
When you’re in the Middle East and you are talking about political alliances, which today are at the core of the American campaign to create a coalition to decimate ISIS, there is an adage that you will hear as much as any: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Note that I use the word “alliances,” not “friendships,” because there really aren’t many genuine friendships between neighbors in that part of the world. To wit, back in the day when I roamed the region, the stories I covered included Iran’s eight-year war with its neighbor Iraq, potshots across the border between Egypt and its neighbor Libya, Lebanon’s entrapment in the clutches of its powerful neighbor Syria, and of course Saddam Hussein’s army rolling across the frontier to occupy its neighbor Kuwait. And the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia? Thanks to a long history of religious, cultural, financial, and petroleum rivalries, the Saudis are more frightened of nuclear weapons in Iran’s hands than in Israel’s. But here’s why a scorecard won’t help you: back during the Gulf War, Iraq threatened to invade Saudi Arabia, which is at loggerheads with Iran, which fought that long war with Iraq. Who’s on first?!?
The point is, as the United States gears up yet again for war in the Middle East, no matter how necessary for our national security, we can only hope that the Obama administration understands the bitter relationships between nations, and leaders, who would be our allies. It would have been helpful if someone in the administration had been with me once when I reported on an Arab summit in Morocco where, from my vantage point overlooking a “welcome reception” in the garden of one of the King’s palaces, most of the region’s leaders stayed stone-faced in just one corner or another, never crossing to different corners to greet their Arab brothers.
It would also be helpful if someone in the administration could just take a look at the facade of the magnificent Burj Al Arab on a man-made island in the tiny but tenacious Emirate of Dubai; it might be the single best metaphor for the hostility that is almost palpable between Middle East neighbors. This thousand-foot-high hotel (the Royal Suite, approximately $19,000 per night) can be seen across the Persian Gulf on the shores of Iran, and Iran doesn’t like what it sees: megawatt lights within the facade in the shape of a 50-story high Christian cross, not officially acknowledged by that description but unofficially said to be western-oriented Dubai’s way of flipping the bird at its Islamist neighbor… every night.
So yes, if the adage is true and the enemy of our enemy is our friend, we have a lot of friends today in that unfriendly part of the world. But last week I went to hear a presentation by General David Petraeus, sponsored by the Denver-based Counterterrorism Education Learning Lab (CELL), and this man who has commanded our armies in Iraq and Afghanistan and knows the Middle East as well as anyone in Washington made me think about things in a whole new way, and he did that by turning the adage on its head: remember, he warned, that in that part of the world, the enemy of my enemy is also still my enemy.
That’s what makes our campaign against ISIS so complicated. We certainly aren’t cozy with Iran, yet we’re on the same side in this newest war (and to complicate matters, our friend France, which is part of our coalition, wants to invite Iran to join it too, which we don’t). We surely don’t have an alliance with Hamas, yet when it comes to the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, we find ourselves on the same side: we both want him out. Carrying these complexities to the extreme, Assad’s Syria is more threatened by ISIS than we are, but we’re sure not joining hands with a dictator who’s close to some of our adversaries just because we have this one enemy in common.
It doesn’t take a genius to know that from Vietnam to Afghanistan to Iraq, American foreign policy has often failed to understand the nuances of different religions, different cultures, different alliances. If ISIS truly does threaten to be a haven for terrorists the likes of which the world has never seen, then our national security depends on us understanding all those differences, better than we ever have before.
Art in a Nutshe….um….Tortoise Shell
Since I was in Aspen anyway, I thought, Well, might as well go see the tortoises. I’ve been in Colorado’s richest boom town many times but, to be sure, this was the first time that the words “tortoises” and “Aspen” have popped up in the same moment in my mind.
The tortoises I’m talking about, of course, are the three African tortoises on display at the new and newly controversial Aspen Art Museum. Note that I say the tortoises are “on display” rather than “in an art exhibit.” That’s because, as hard as I tried, I just couldn’t fit them into any established definition of art.
Let’s start with the title of the display: Moving Ghost Town. That’s because the exhibit consists of these three tortoises moving around their enclosure— of course you have to stand there quite a while to actually see them move but that’s a different issue— with two iPads balanced like sandwich boards atop small wooden platforms on each tortoise’s back. Each iPad apparently displays video images of Colorado’s ghost town heritage.
Note, once again, that I say that each iPad “apparently” displays these pictures. That’s because the enclosure is up on the rooftop level of the museum, and since the tortoises were out in the glaring sun, I couldn’t see a thing on the screens of the iPads. I have an iPad myself, and have long known that in bright sunlight, you can’t see anything on the screen, save perhaps the reflection of the sun. Having raised roughly $70-million to build this new museum, couldn’t someone have popped for an experimental iPad before commissioning the exhibit to see if it would even work?
Then there’s the small paper plaque describing the exhibit itself. Usually in a museum if materials are described, it’ll say something like “Oils,” “Charcoal,” “Acrylics,” “Watercolors,” “Paper Maché,” something to give us some background we might not otherwise recognize. But for MovingGhost Town, the words are, and I kid you not, “Tortoises, iPads, and Grass.” Sorry, but that was something I already could see for myself… even if I couldn’t actually see the video I was supposed to see on the iPads (which according to the alleged artist, was taken by the tortoises themselves, which might explain why I wasn’t all that disappointed to miss it).
Note, one more time, my choice of words: “alleged artist.” That’s because I haven’t yet figured out how Tortoises, iPads, and Grass fit into any definition of art. I was in the area because I’d just moderated a symposium at the Anderson Ranch art center in Snowmass entitled“Making the Change They Want To See.” It was about artists as activists, artists using their art to effect change in society. In my book that’s a good use of any artistic medium, as opposed to producing art strictly for profit, or for a creative outlet, or personal satisfaction, or simply for impact. Someone at the symposium described art as “anything that makes us see the world in a whole new way.” Fair enough. But I’m not sure the Aspen exhibit even does that.
The last piece of controversy about the tortoises is thanks to the radical group PETA: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Frankly, when I see them inveigh about an issue with animals, and I don’t have to tell you that they consider anything that puts iPads on the backs of tortoises totally inhumane— or should theword actually be “intortane?”— I rush to join the other side. Look, my family and I once toured a turtle farm in the Caribbean, and I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that two of them were mating in a pool as we walked in and when we walked out 90 minutes later, they were still… um… going at it. Although I never did find out which one’s on top, I’m convinced that these guys can take the weight of two iPads.
I’m also convinced, if Aspen could raise $70-million for its new museum, it could dobetter things with the money than Tortoises, iPads, and Grass.
On Israel and Hamas
It can be exasperating to see more than one side to a story, especially a story like the war between Israel and Hamas. But that’s what journalists have to do to do our jobs right: whether on a battlefield or at a ballot box, our job is to report on what each side in a conflict endures and what each side thinks. It doesn’t mean we don’t have ivory-tower opinions about who should win and who should lose. It just means, our opinions aren’t the story; the facts on the ground are.
That’s why I’m tired of pro-Israeli Americans (which sometimes equates to anti-Palestinian, but not always) who have complained about disproportionate coverage of Israel’s conflict with Hamas… disproportionate, in their view, because there has been so much more news about suffering Palestinians than about suffering Israelis.
Sure, that’s true, but here’s why: there are more Palestinians suffering today than Israelis. Although much smaller than Israel in both population and geography, Gaza’s casualty counts from the war— the dead, the injured, the homes smashed, the childhoods shattered— dwarf the numbers in Israel. If you appreciate as I do from years of reporting in that part of the world that many Palestinians whose lives have turned tragically upside down are not sympathizers of the “anti-Zionist” zealots of Hamas, you understand that human misery, no matter where, is mournful. And part of the story.
But I’m equally tired of pro-Palestinian Americans (which sometimes equates to anti-Israeli, even anti-Semitic, but not always) who have complained about disproportionate destruction on the Palestinian side of the border. Sure, it’s been disproportionate, but here’s why: Israel is stronger. That’s the nature of war. It’s not Israel’s fault that the rockets Hamas has haphazardly hurled into Israel are far less precise than the missiles Israel targeted on Gaza (although still often imperfect). Putting aside issues of injustice during the settlement of the American West, just because the Indians’ traditional ammunition was the arrow, the white man wasn’t obliged to set aside his bullets and pick up a bow. The white man had rifles, he was stronger, and he won.
Another complaint by pro-Israeli Americans is that the news media doesn’t report on what pushed Israel into this war in the first place. Trouble is, that just isn’t true. It has been and continues to be widely reported. If you don’t know that Hamas dug dozens of tunnels for terrorists to infiltrate Israel (I’ve been in them and reported on them; they were years in the making) and amassed thousands of rockets to fire into Israel and, by the way, that Hamas calls in its charter for a holy war against Israel, you just aren’t paying attention.
But another complaint by pro-Palestinian Americans isn’t true either, the complaint that Israel’s oppressive policies pushed Palestinians toward terrorism. Yes, Palestinians rightfully feel oppressed— I’ve reported on frustrating hours spent at roadblocks myself, simply trying to cross the border (and I’m not even Palestinian). But Israel’s motives must be acknowledged: with a history of attacks against them, they are like the TSA, treating every human being as a possible terrorist, to stop the one who is. The trouble is, like other terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and al Qaeda and now ISIS, Hamas is driven by two things that have little to do with Israel: religious intolerance and anti-Western hatred. From my own reporting, they’ve been passed down from generation to generation. And are still being taught.
Pro-Palestinian Americans rightfully complain, though, that a weighty ratio of the Palestinian death toll is non-combatants, women and children. But pro-Israeli Americans rightfully complain that by placing its warriors and weapons amongst them, Hamas callously keeps them in harm’s way.
What it comes down to is, there is anger on both sides. And pain. And fear. And the belief that combatants on the other side disregard the safety of non-combatants on your side and thus are terrorists. That is the story. It is all reported.
This could get me in trouble. Big trouble. Because it’s going to sound like I long for the days of dictators. Dictators like Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad, Hosni Mubarak, Marshall Tito, the Shah.
I don’t. But I do wonder, from the standpoint of national security, were we somehow better off when they were still around? In some cases, were even their own citizens better off too? Hard to say, but also hard to dismiss.
So, as Americans for whom freedom is a precious principle but security is a prime priority, it’s a question worth asking. If our geopolitical strategy amounts to choosing the lesser of two evils, and it often does, then arguably, the world was a better place… for us, anyway… when there were dictators who controlled their people because however malicious their means, terrorists couldn’t operate within their borders and thus, couldn’t threaten us. We have plenty of counterterrorism tools at our command, both military and civil, but none works better than containing the threat at its source.
Iraq is the poster boy for this kind of thinking. Believe me, Saddam was a bad guy; I was among a handful of journalists who got to one of the Kurdish villages he gassed, leaving hundreds of grotesque corpses as a warning to others who harbored dreams of rebellion. So if nothing else, morality prevents me fromcalling Saddam’s ruthless reign the good ol’ days.
But here’s the other side of the coin: notwithstanding the flimsy grounds for the U.S. invasion in 2003, was Iraq then a breeding ground for terrorism as it is today? The fact is, we invaded Iraq to drive out terrorists who were not actually there until we went in to drive them out. Think ISIS, which is trying to establish and expand what would amount to an anti-Western terrorists’ haven. That is Iraq, post-Saddam.
To carry the argument further, neither are most Iraqis plainly better off. I made a few trips there when Saddam was in charge, and while Iraqis didn’t live lives we’d envy, they were able to go about their business pretty much without interference as long as they didn’t get on Saddam’s bad side. Today? There is no good side to be on. If you’re Sunni, the government is shutting you out of civil life in Iraq. If you’re Shiite, ISIS is shutting you down. Citizens can’t go to the market, kids can’t go to school, mourners can’t go to a funeral, without the threat of a car bomb that might kill them all.
Hindsight is a wonderful tool. And it’s only with hindsight that I raise these questions. In fact, if another dictator was brutally mistreating his people today, I’d probably be agitating to go in and get him. But not before asking, who’s likely to replace him? Would a new regime be worse for our security than what we have now? Likewise, would it be worse for its own people than what they have now? Then the final question: morally, can I support him because he’s still not as bad as whatever or whoever might replace him?
Life doesn’t always offer a happy ending. What we need to figure out is, which ending is the least unhappy, when it comes to who we fight and who we back.
On US Space
Now it’s getting serious! Because of Ukraine, the last visible vestige of cooperation between the United States and Russia, which has endured through thick and thin, is in play: space.
Until now, we’ve really held the Ukraine upheaval at arm’s length, partly because everything Russia’s President Putin wanted (and grabbed) there is more important to him than it is to us. Sure, he’s a bully and we’ve protested and rightly so, and we’re turning up whatever heat we can. But our own nation’s well-being? No different than when the Crimea crisis crystalized two months ago.
Until this week. That’s when, after we tightened sanctions against Russia and its high-tech industries, a deputy prime minister in Moscow indignantly declared in response, “If they want to make an economic blow to the Russian rocket building industry, then they should consider using a trampoline to deliver their astronauts to the International Space Station.” That might sound funny if it weren’t so serious. Because in the case of space, we need them more than they need us.
At $60-Million per seat, Russia loves what we pay to put our people in their Soyuz capsules for a ride to the space station— it is an important piece of their space program’s budget— but without it, they’ll survive. However, as American astronaut Al Drew told me during an interview a few years ago at the Yuri Gagarin Spaceflight Center outside Moscow while he was part of a joint training exercise, “If things go sour between the U.S. and Russia, I can guess our (manned) space program can be one of the first casualties.” In other words, it will die. Which raises the uncomfortable question, what about our astronauts who are up in space right now?
The only answer we have, as another astronaut, Michael Barratt, told me, is, “We’re at the whim of our countries.” What that means is, our astronauts and their counterpart cosmonauts have always gotten along. They don’t just work and eat and laugh and live with one another; they depend on each other, because they face life and death together. But the crisis in Ukraine might be bigger than those personal bonds in space.
In a rational world, where this extraterrestrial teamwork is a win for both countries, space would never be introduced as a weapon in the clash between us. But sometimes, geopolitics aren’t rational. We signed on to fly with the Russians because once the Shuttle shut down, they were the only game in town. We hoped we could count on them because we had to. Michael Griffin, NASA’s boss at the time, told me in Washington, “Embarking upon a planned period of dependence upon Russia… obviously is at some risk.” He called the arrangement “unseemly.” And yet, he assured me that there had never been so much as a hiccup between Russia’s space agency Roskosmos, and NASA.
Then, I interviewed Russia’s director of manned space flight, and he told me the same, adding: “I believe in the future that the politics will not interfere.” But perhaps prophetically, he went on, “However, space will be very close to politics any time.” When I asked him what he meant by that, he said, “It’s very subject to politics. Because space will be a policy instrument.”
Sitting there in the Moscow headquarters of the Russian space agency, then spending a couple of days watching Americans training with Russians at the Gagarin Center, it was a little hard to believe that not so long before, we had faced off in the Cold War. But it’s not hard any more. What people at NASA always said under their breath about the Russian partnership was, “Their spacecraft is reliable, but are they?” Now we have our answer: if they choose to hold us hostage, it is no.
Mystery Despite Technology
Once Lewis and Clark and their crew of 29 explorers pushed north on the Mississippi out of what was then a thousand-person colony called St. Louis, nobody back in what was considered civilization knew where they were. Or how they were. Or even if they were still alive.
Not for the two-and-a-half years they were gone. You might call that the good old days.
Because in the time of President Thomas Jefferson, who sent them to search for a passage to the Pacific, nobody expected to know. It was 1804. No cell phones, no email, no TV or radio or texting or GPS or, I declare with a trace of envy, Facebook. To put the age into perspective, not only was there no such thing as high-tech electronics, but no one to that point in history had ever even traveled faster than the speed of a galloping horse.
Now, fast forward (a phrase reflecting technology they hadn’t yet invented in the age of Lewis & Clark) to 2014, an age when we expect to be able to know (whether we need to or not) where everyone is, every second, every day. Not just because many people bend over backwards to tell us where they are on Facebook and Twitter and other social media (another phrase of which 19th-Century citizens were blissfully bereft), but because if they don’t tell us, there are other apps we can use to find out. Not to mention the involuntary traces that can be put on us thanks to our smartphones, which pinpoint our whereabouts from their unceasing emission of signals. And I won’t even bring up the NSA.
So isn’t it amazing that we’ve found out from two major news stories in the past month how much we still don’t know?! An army moves into someone else’s territory and takes it for its own… and no one saw it coming. A 200-ton airplane disappears from everyone’s radar… and no one saw it go.
Sure, maybe you can chalk some of it up to human error; in simple terms, maybe someone in each case was asleep at the switch. But I prefer to chalk it up to something more basic: that while we have the means to know more about our world than we ever knew before— and from the standpoint of understanding our global environs, that’s a good thing— there is still some mystery in life, and hopefully there always will be.
What we know for sure is, while computers now can beat even the highest-ranked Grandmasters in a game of chess, there are some things they still don’t do. Like infer the intent of Russian soldiers crossing into Ukraine, or track an airplane on an overnight flight to Beijing… let alone find it once it has disappeared.
I’m not anti-tech, but I am pro-human. And if the characteristics that set us apart from computers mean that from time to time we are still left in the dark, that’s just fine with me. With nothing more than their own good instincts and the sage support of a young Indian woman named Sacagawea, Lewis and Clark not only found the Pacific; they also found their way back.
Bigotry In America
Well, last week we made The New York Times… but not in a good way.
“In New Mexico, a photographer declined to take pictures of a lesbian couple’s commitment ceremony. In Washington State, a florist would not provide flowers for a same-sex wedding. And in Colorado, a baker refused to make a cake for a party celebrating the wedding of two men.”
This was how The Times led a story about the latest and biggest show of bigotry in America: legislation passed by Arizona’s lawmakers that would allow business owners, if the governor weren’t to veto it, to pick and choose their customers based on religious beliefs. In other words, to use religion to rationalize discrimination. And thanks to that Colorado baker, we’re part of the parade.
Such a law— in Arizona, Colorado, or anywhere else— would give new meaning to signs we sometimes see on the doors of stores— or restaurants, theaters, malls, most any business that caters to the public— that say, “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.” The hitch is, they don’t. (Although I’ve got to love the owner of a pizzeria in Tucson who posted on Facebook, “We reserve the right to refuse service to Arizona legislators.”)
Sure, if someone walks into a business smelly, or shirtless or shoeless, or shouting and swearing and spitting, whoever’s running the place can boot him out and they’re well within their rights to do so. He’s a nuisance, and there’s little in the law to protect him. Nor should there be.
But if they want to shoo him back to the sidewalk because there’s something else about him that they find offensive— like his race, his religion, his age, the nation of his birth, the color of his skin, the condition of his body— they can’t. Federal law, and much of state law, prevents it.
Sexual orientation, though, isn’t so well protected. That’s why, in the Colorado case, the owner of Lakewood’s Masterpiece Cakeshop was sued. When two men came in to order a wedding cake— their wedding cake— the owner, a Christian with a capital “C,” said no; he believes baking a cake to celebrate a same-sex marriage would amount to endorsing it (the men were married in Massachusetts, where it’s legal), which runs counter to his Christian beliefs and, legally, his First Amendment right to express his opposition to it.
And he’ll prevail, if the idea of legalizing this kind of bigotry spreads, and courts uphold it.
Take things to the next level: should the state also allow a white businessman to refuse service to a black man who walks into his store? Or validate an anti-Semite who refuses a Jew? Not that long ago, not that far away, people did such things because they could. Today, society condemns such intolerance and I think most of us consider that to be positive progress, not to mention, as The Denver Post said in a Wednesday editorial about the economic impact of any law like this, “bad business.” That, in fact, was the governor’s rationale to veto the bill in Arizona.
The question comes down to legal rights: a gay person’s right to be served (based on equality) versus the owner’s right to refuse (based on religion). But the bigger question isn’t about revenues, or legalities; it’s about moralities.
The majority of Arizona’s legislators seem to think social developments like gay marriage are immoral. If they were to ask me for guidance, the solution I’d offer is, “Okay, if you find it immoral, then take my advice and don’t marry someone of your own sex.”
Sure, that’s a bit flippant. But it’s relevant for issues from gay marriage to abortion: if you don’t believe in it, don’t do it. Personally, I voted against legalizing marijuana in Colorado. My side lost. But I still don’t think more marijuana’s a move in the right direction, so while today I could easily go out and buy some weed (and smoke it or bake it or chew it or do whatever else users do with it), I won’t. But neither will I (excuse the pun) chew out those who do.
So here’s where you can draw the line on rights: if it’s legal, it’s okay. Or at least, if it’s not illegal it’s okay. Which means, since homosexual behavior is no longer on the books as a crime, it’s no longer moral to refuse service to gays. For that matter, maybe it never was. Not in Arizona, not in Colorado, not anywhere.
The Future of Syria
Even three years into the brutal war in Syria, nobody can say yet how long it will take for the outcome to be clear. However, even before round two of the so-called Syrian peace talks wraps up in Geneva, one thing is very clear: with even a simple ceasefire disregarded in the besieged city of Homs, don’t expect a truce tomorrow, let alone a treaty for peace. What is equally clear is that whatever ultimately brings this war to an end, it will finish in one of three ways and sad to say, the probabilities are the reverse of what they could, and from the standpoint of our security, should have been. Why? Because President Obama has dithered.
The most likely outcome, partly because of what the U.S. hasn’t done, is that the despotic president Bashar al-Assad will remain in charge… in charge of a nation increasingly in ruins, to be sure, but if those are the spoils of his struggle to survive, then for Assad, it still beats the alternative. Implications for us? He continues to cozy up to, and collaborate with, some of America’s most obstinate adversaries from Iran to Hezbollah, not to mention geo-political rivals like Russia and China.
The second most likely outcome is that Assad goes down in defeat at the hands of rebels with their hearts set on an Islamic state, because those are the forces right now who have taken control of the revolution. No one has to tell you what that would mean to the security of the United State and our allies, adding a nation like Syria to the assortment of roughly a dozen countries that harbor the types of terrorists we went to war in Afghanistan to destroy.
The least likely outcome, now, is a new Syria ruled by secular forces. They are the moderates in this battle; that’s a relative term, “moderate,” but compared to the likes of either Assad or the Islamists, it is apt. In the early stages of the war, moderates ran the offense against the dictator. But while President Obama wavered in his support for Syria’s moderates, al Queda and other terror groups rushed into the fight with both money and arms from their sponsors (like Hamas, for instance) and hijacked the higher-minded motives of the mutiny. Granted, President Obama and the American public feel so burned by our long and arguably counter-productive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that there was no will to give these moderates anything more than financial support. And what good did that do them? Simply look at where they stand today in the pecking order of the fight.
This doesn’t even address our failure to use America’s superior air power to turn Assad’s inferior assets— his aircraft, his missiles, his runways,basically the tools of his terror— into rubble. We still could strike tomorrow if we wanted to, and we could do it from a safe distance, but even though it wouldn’t require “boots on the ground,” we don’t have the will, so we won’t. Of course at this late stage, maybe it’s mostly moot; it wouldn’t bring back the war’s 100,000-plus fatalities, nor necessarily reinstate the millions of refugees now living across the borders in tents, nor restore the sizeable sections of cities that have been leveled.
True, we Americans are chastened by hard and haunting lessons over these past dozen-plus years about the cost of going to war. But in the absence of significant American assistance to turn the tide in Syria, the death and displacement and destruction there, and the growing threat to security here, show the cost of failing to join the fight.
Putin and the Olympics
Do you think Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is having any second thoughts, if only for a moment or two, about hosting next month’s Olympics in Sochi? Look at what it’s brought him so far: a threat of domestic terrorists on Olympic soil, a showcase release of political prisoners he’d probably rather keep locked up, a show of tolerance for gays he’d probably rather bash, a series of insulting snubs by world leaders (including President Obama), and a rash of overruns vaulting to Olympian heights (Total cost? An estimated $50-Billion). Well, Vlad, it comes with the territory.
But for Putin, it also comes with silver lining. The Olympics are his statement to the world: if you thought we had sunk to the depths of a second-class power, think again. We are big. We are back!
I’ve covered news in Russia, both when it was the hammerhead of the Soviet Empire and since it became independent. Which allowed me to see the kind of culture that shaped Russia’s president. One that says, bigger is better. Like, in physical terms, the capital’s broad boulevards, built in the day when so few citizens owned a car, those boulevards were bare and I could have done pushups right out in front of the Kremlin. And Moscow’s massive “Seven Sisters,” an assemblage of mid-20th-Century skyscrapers that long dominated the city’s skyline and projected an intimidating and impenetrable image of Stalinesque strength. Then there’s the Mriya, the world’s biggest military aircraft. I was at the Paris Air Show when it landed in its Western debut, and jaws dropped. The U.S. already had built the C-5 Galaxy, and the Soviets almost carbon-copied it… but 28 feet longer.
So, say what you will about Putin, he is not an enigma. His culture is clear and his motivesobvious: build an Olympic city the likes of which the world has never seen.Bigger is better. Russia is better. We are strong. We are superior. And if the world is going to focus for a few weeks on what we do and how we do it, well, we’ll just put lipstick on the pig.
Not that you can read any of that from Putin’s face. In fact the title of a recently published book about the Russian president is, Man Without A Face. Which says something else about the culture that spawned him. It was a culture in which people didn’t— couldn’t— wear their feelings on their sleeve… let alone their face. Putin is a child of the Soviet Union, and if that doesn’t speak volumes enough, he’s also a former officer of the brutal Soviet security service, the KGB.
If you’re old enough, you might remember when British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher met Mikhail Gorbachev, who was about to become the leader of the Soviet Union, and said, “We can do business together.” He exuded something the Iron Lady trusted; her sense of the man was visceral.
Putin exudes nothing. No inspiration, no emotion… no face. But that’s precisely why he’s not an enigma. What we see— what we feel viscerally— is what we get. Which brings me back to what he wants.
Back in the day, when the Soviets spoke, the world trembled. And its citizens liked that. They called it respect. What President Putin and his populace want today, even crave, is a place again on the world stage. Respect. Don’t forget, they still have a nuclear arsenal, and alliances with American adversaries. They want to be taken seriously once again. They are nationalists; they believe they deserve it.
The Olympics are a showcase for that nationalism. Which is the foundation of Putin’s popularity. A brief flirtation with freedom, a brutal battle with terrorists, a few billion bucks? It’ll end up worth the price, in Putin’s world, if it means he sits on top of it.
On the Middle East Conflict
President Obama is trying again. Put aside Syria and Iraq, Egypt and Libya and Lebanon and others; there is only one dispute that for the better part of a century has been the true “Middle East Conflict,” and that is the enduring and seemingly eternal quarrel between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Every single president dating back to Richard Nixon has struggled not just to bring them to the table to talk peace, but to give them something durable to take away. Some have come closer than others but ultimately, every effort failed.
In a debate asking, whose fault is that, no one wins. While you might rightly assign more responsibility to one side’s behavior, or politics, or just plain hatred, both the Israelis and the Palestinians (sometimes abetted by their Arab allies) have visited violence on one another. Whether it’s been justifiable or not, that’s a legacy that’s hard to shake. President Obama’s Secretary of State, John Kerry, had better understand that legacy, because he is staking his standing and his soul on the peace talks he restarted not even a year ago.
And here’s that legacy, personified: back while shuttling around the Middle East with President Jimmy Carter as he persuaded Israel and Egypt to make peace, I did a piece about the Israeli-Palestinian issue for ABC’s Nightline in which I asked people just one simple question: to Israelis who said they hated Palestinians, I asked, why? And then the same to Palestinians who said they hated Jews.
The answers were almost uniform. Palestinians told me (to paraphrase), “In 1948, when Israel was created, the Jews chased